Like other women who’ve tussled with how to combine work and motherhood, I read about this topic when I can. Consider others’ perspectives. The past few years have given us plenty to consider—“Lean In” (Sheryl Sandberg, 2013), “Maxed Out” (Katrina Alcorn, 2013), and “Overwhelmed” (Brigid Schulte, 2014).
And those are just the books I’ve read. There are lots more, including Arianna Huffington’s “Thrive” (2014) and Sophia Amoruso’s “#GIRLBOSS” (2015).
Now we have one more in the mix, “Unfinished Business” by Anne-Marie Slaughter. Some background: Slaughter was the first female director of policy planning at the U.S. State Department, her dream job that she accepted in 2009. Her boss was Hillary Clinton. Slaughter gained universal attention in 2012, however, when she wrote The Atlantic article “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All.”
Slaughter notes that her work/family piece became “one of the most-read articles in the 150-year history of The Atlantic, with an estimated 2.7 million views” (page xxi).
“Unfinished Business” expands upon that piece, at times in moving prose that I didn’t expect (a pleasant surprise!).
I really appreciated this book. Slaughter is successful both professionally and personally, and yet she writes with sensitivity and thoughtfulness on the importance of care in personal and family life. I found her writing from this vantage point to be a bit unexpected, and wholly refreshing. Because taking care of those you love is hard work, especially when they’re needy (young children, or older parents). Appreciate and value the economy of care—this is the central idea of “Unfinished Business.”
Meanwhile, here’s an example of Slaughter’s sensitivity: “As I have tried to put myself in others’ shoes, I have confronted again and again the obvious but too often overlooked point of just how much money matters…Money buys a safety net, relieving stress and providing resources and resilience against the buffets of fate. Yet millions of American [families’ choices]—whether and how much to work versus whether and how much to stay home to care for children or parents—are not really choices at all; they are driven by economic imperatives” (page 4).
Slaughter is right: Money does matter. Money also helps make life easier for high-achieving working mothers, such as Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg, who often use it to buy help around the house (and who often prefer not to acknowledge it). A 2013 Daily Beast article entitled “The True Cost of Leaning In” explores this topic more. To engage in both work and motherhood, a woman probably relies on a helping (hired) hand (or two, or maybe three) for babysitting, cooking and housecleaning. Historically, less privileged women of color have provided these services.
How refreshing for Slaughter to acknowledge this—to acknowledge that in an endeavor to have it all, it seems impossible to do it all.
To this point, Slaughter opens up a dialogue about the term “womanism,” which author Alice Walker coined “as a larger umbrella term that included feminism but focused more on the experiences of women of color and oppressed groups more generally” (page 88). Questions that I have for a book, and a movement, like “Lean In” are, “Are you speaking to all women (or just white, educated, upper-middle-class women)? And are you acknowledging the women unlike yourself who have helped you along the way?”
With “Unfinished Business,” Slaughter does reach out to all women. She acknowledges them. Again, how refreshing.
Another of Slaughter’s moving passages, in which I choked up, is this one: “Often caregiving is about reliability: simply being there when being there is important to your child, your parent, or your spouse. And it’s about support: focusing on someone else’s needs and figuring out how to meet them, whether finding a lost sock, book, or cellphone or offering a genuinely attentive ear” (page 103). This passage moved me because personally, I agree with it, in its poignancy and simplicity. And somehow, this passage resonates even more with me because a woman of Slaughter’s stature—an expert in foreign policy and mother of two boys—wrote it and believes in it, too.
I feel as though Slaughter might be able to relate to what I myself wrote in this recent blog post, “The Detours in Your Life”: “Sometimes, I feel as though I’ve been driving along a detour for four years now, since I became a mom. In that time, I’ve tried to combine two things I love: writing, and taking care of my children. It’s been tricky. I’ve worked on lots of freelance projects, cobbled together with various child-care arrangements. No situation thus far has been a seamless fit.”
A seamless fit. Slaughter devotes much of the second half of “Unfinished Business” to how families in the U.S. might be able to find a work/family fit that, while not seamless, at least isn’t “Maxed Out” or “Overwhelmed.” The second half of her book focuses on “Changing Lenses” (working toward valuing caregiving more) and “Getting to Equal” (which includes insights such as “Don’t drop out, defer,” “Focus on results,” and “Vote for more women”). In the final few pages, she reminds us of her solutions to America’s “Unfinished Business” with a section about “The Care Economy” (pages 240–244).
Overall, “Unfinished Business” by Anne-Marie Slaughter is a thoughtful read and refreshing addition to the literary realm of work/family reflections.
Like what you just read? Then check out Melissa Leddy’s e-books, available on Amazon.com. Writing at its most heartfelt.