Debating whether fathers can have it all
Guest columnist Harold Taw debates whether fathers can have it all after reading The Atlantic article "Why Women Still Can't Have It All."
Special to The Times
I'M fascinated and bemused by the furor surrounding The Atlantic story "Why Women Still Can't Have It All." Fascinated because, like the author, my vocational-familial "balance" as father of twin 3-year-olds resembles a bear juggling bowling pins atop a ball.
I'm bemused because its central thesis should be unassailable: Our society will benefit by accommodating women (and men) who value both meaningful, challenging work and meaningful, challenging relationships.
The article's author, Anne-Marie Slaughter, described how she gave up her dream job as policy director at the State Department when she realized she could not simultaneously do her job well and be there for her teenage sons. She also felt guilty for having told young women that they could have it all, so long as they wanted it badly enough.
My wife works full time at a private foundation. I work 28 hours a week as an attorney while I complete my second novel and collaborate on a musical. We manage it because our children are enrolled in a remarkable Montessori school and we live in an extended-family household. And still we collapse into bed at night.
Americans are in the midst of an upheaval in gender and sexual relations. Less than four years ago, the election of the first African-American president delayed the election of the first female one. Less than two months ago, the president came out in favor of same-sex marriage. Less than five days ago, my daughter asked if she could marry her female classmate. ("Yes, in Washington, so long as Referendum 74 is approved.")
And inevitably, as family roles become unmoored, the subconscious vestigial organs (Me: breadwinner, You: mama) have become inflamed. Exploration is not only exhilarating; it is painful.
My parents are Burmese immigrants who exemplify sacrificing for their children. Asked about personal fulfillment, they'll change the subject to why I gave away a perfectly good shirt from eighth grade that no longer fits. After their hard work led to a middle-class existence, my mother began selling purses at a department store. For me, becoming a latchkey kid brought an immense benefit: having a working mom who was proud of her financial contribution, instead of a full-time caregiver prone to crying jags.
Don't misunderstand: There is no gift more profound than a parent's calm, consistent and joyful presence. Paying caregivers their actual worth would make it impossible for work outside the home to exist. But I liken being a stay-at-home parent to being an astrophysicist: It requires rigor and patience to recognize the elegance of a new soul's formation.
My wife Katie and I would love to have a parent stay home full time with our kids but we aren't suited, temperamentally or financially. Katie brings policy papers to the beach and wants to invite guest speakers to breakfasts with her girlfriends. Before my first novel was picked up by a publisher, I considered chucking my literary ambitions because nearly every writer illustrated Virginia Woolf's "room of one's own" by staying childless, with cats.
We all need a room of our own, but need it be all alone or vacant of dreams of our own? My son loves bulldozers, nail polish and singing Cosette's songs from "Les Misérables." My daughter likes cuddling, pants and mocking student revolutionaries as Javert. Who knows if they'll marry women or men or no one, whether they'll be stay-at-home parents or public figures?
Perhaps as my wife and I muddle along, trying not to let our worries overwhelm our wonder, our children will find a way to be entirely themselves.Harold Taw is an attorney and the author of the novel "Adventures of the Karaoke King." He is working on his second novel and writing the libretto for a musical with the leaders of the Seattle band Poland.