Anne-Marie Slaughter, foreign policy expert, commentator and mom, on equality and crafting a moral compass

Posted May 9

When it comes to balancing the sometimes competing interests of a career and family, Anne-Marie Slaughter has some impressive credentials. She's a wife and mom, but she's also a high-profile foreign policy expert, lawyer, commentator and writer.

Did we mention she also leads a think tank called New America, based in Washington, D.C., and New York City?

People who track international law and foreign policy have long known Slaughter, 57, who was the first woman tapped to direct policy planning for the U.S. State Department, midway through a career that has also included teaching at first Harvard, then Princeton, where she was dean of the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs for several years.

After two years at the State Department, she returned to her teaching job at Princeton to maintain her tenure and for the sake of more time with her family. She's married to Princeton professor of politics Andrew Moravcsik and they have two sons; the youngest, 17, still lives at home.

Folks less enmeshed in foreign policy concerns are more apt to know her for the firestorm she ignited on work-life balance and man-woman equality when she wrote an essay for The Atlantic in 2012 called "Why Women Still Can't Have It All." Her New America bio notes the article "quickly became the most read in the history of the magazine and helped spawn a renewed national debate on the continued obstacles to genuine full male-female equality."

A prolific commentator and author — she's written or edited seven books as well as numerous columns, essays and articles for diverse publications — Slaughter is often on the road as a sought-after speaker. We caught up with her to discuss work-life balance, motherhood, equality and what matters most in family life. The conversation is edited for length and clarity.

When you address young adults at commencement ceremonies, you have great flexibility in selecting a topic. What do you think they most need to know?

I think the central message that I want them to know is that care is as important as career. You can frame that multiple ways — family is as important as work — but I choose "care" because it’s not just about family, and it’s certainly not just about parenting. The work we do investing in others — which could be raising children or caring for our own parents or teaching or volunteering, there are many different ways of investing in others — is just as important as the work we do investing in ourselves.

I think for college students that moment of commencement is about yourself. You stand on the threshold of your life, wondering what it will bring. At least the day of commencement, you are not thinking about family and children, you are thinking about, who will I be? Will I achieve my professional goals? …That's absolutely right and our work is a source of enormous satisfaction and strength and we contribute to the world through it, but we tend to think that’s about winning, it’s about getting as far as you can, about investing in your own talents, living up to your potential, all that stuff.

That’s only half of the game. You have to know who you are as human beings.

What about equality and work? Are the issues different for women and men?

This is where it’s very important to challenge conventional thinking because the first part of my message is valuing care — and real equality means valuing care and paid work equally. Part of that argument is that as we liberated women to do traditional men’s work – it was great – we have devalued traditional women’s work. And that’s not great. That work was just as important.

The work that dad did bringing in an income, mom then in a traditional marriage turned that income into the necessities of life. More than the necessities, into nurture and discipline and love and moral instruction, all the things we need. So part of the argument is yes, we must value traditional women’s work, but — and this is critical — we must value it equally and expect equally women and men to do it.

Otherwise, we’re putting women back into the kitchen. We’re saying traditional women’s work is really, really important and needs to be done and guess what, that means women should do it. No, just as the work of pursuing a profession — pursuing important work that society needs done and that individuals want done — is important, women and men should do that work, because we now expect those young women to be lawyers and doctors and engineers and politicians just as much as we expect it of the young men. This is what real equality means — we should be looking at all those young men and expecting them to be caring for their children and their parents and their spouses and their disabled siblings — whoever needs care in his life — just as much as we’re expecting it of the young women.

I think we often feel like we’re not doing either role well. What’s interesting is just exactly what my husband says about being the lead parent. He wrote this piece, “Why I Put My Wife’s Career First," and he said there that trying to juggle teenagers and a full-time job, he often felt like he wasn’t doing either well and all he had to do was talk to mothers and he realized that isn’t about being a woman, it is about trying to hold down two full-time jobs at the same time.

It’s genderless in that way?

Exactly, although we women often assume there’s something wrong with us. It’s like having someone run a race with a knapsack on your back against someone who doesn’t. Many of us as women feel that way and think we’re being saddled with two jobs and men only have one, but we’re part of the issue because most of us — I can speak for myself — don’t raise our sons expecting them to be equal caregivers. Most of us still look at our sons the way we looked at our fathers and we assume our sons will be providers and we want our daughters to be providers, too, but we definitely expect our daughters to be caregivers. We socialize them that way, but that’s not equality.

That is how this debate has been framed. My article in The Atlantic was exactly that. Why women still can’t have it all. It’s a women’s issue, it’s a mother’s issue. But it is a human issue. For fathers as much as for mothers, for sons as much as for daughters. Until we can see it that way, we won’t get human equality.

When it comes to work-life balance, where do you begin?

(She laughs.) I’m really easy on myself. There are any number of things that in some hypothetical world of great mothering I should do, that I don’t. My house is often a mess, and my husband sends out the Christmas cards because if it were up to me, it would never happen and we haven’t entertained for years and I just give myself a pass. I really do. I think to myself, I try to be the best mother I can be.

But I would say I think I’m a much better mother because I do work that I love, because I think that makes me happy and fulfilled. Even when it’s stressful, I also think I’ve learned lots of life lessons that I can pass onto my children because of the work I do.

And I care passionately about moral instruction, about being there when they have difficult choices to make — communicating expectations that they do the right thing — and being there when they need me, of course. And also making time for fun. But on lots of other things, I just sort of do the best I can. I am not a perfectionist and I refuse to make myself crazy by comparing myself with all the perfect parents.

What do you see as a big parenting challenge?

I think parenting challenges have changed. My husband and I debate this all the time. He is much more of an intensive cultivation parent and I am much more of an “If you don’t leave them to hang out and amuse themselves some of the time, they’ll never grow to have any creativity or self-reliance" parent. But I think it is fact our children face a far more competitive world, for schools and for jobs.

When we came out of school in the '70s there was stagflation, but globalization hadn’t happened. You were only competing with other Americans and for that matter it was mostly white, relatively privileged Americans in the sense of the tools to get into school. So obviously, education has become much more diverse. I deeply support that. But it means all of our children face a more competitive environment both nationally and globally.

I was a hyper kind of over-achieving-did-too-many-things kid, but it wasn’t anything like what it is now. So I do think parents face this constant "am I preparing my child to succeed?" In a way, when my mother was raising us, the dominant theory of parenting was benign neglect. And now, if you talk about benign neglect, you get yourself arrested.

I think the stakes are higher, but I guess what I come back to when I think about what my parents gave me … is a sense of wellbeing and security, a sense of being loved, it is a moral compass and understanding of what character and courage are. And I just think we are more challenged, it is harder; we compete more with each other, but in the end you just have to think about what the most essential and important things are with which your children need to be equipped.

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