Unfinished Business: the big picture critique


This is the final post about Anne Marie Slaughter’s book Unfinished Business. Earlier posts are here and here and here.

Y’all already know what I’m gonna say right? The big picture critique is gonna tap into a theme I’ve written about again and again and again and again. Basically, long hours are inimical to the good life and we gotta do something about it.

The book was disappointing because it seemed to really care about the problem, but didn’t prescribe a radical enough solution. Or any real solution. I was hoping for a detailed analysis of what policy changes we need to create the feminist socialist utopia, alas, it says this instead:

The specifics of policy proposals on each of these issues differ from state to state and often by party affiliation and political philosophy; a comprehensive catalogue is thus impossible.

What a cop out! Someone give me a fucking research grant.

Over and over again, it falls into the same rabbit hole of offering tips for younger people facing the work/family dilemma without exploring what needs to change in the bigger social context. I find those conversations so boring. Tip, you want some tips?! Be extremely well-educated and able to demand good working conditions. Hire a cleaner. Buy food out a lot. Find a great childcare centre. Have grandparents in the same city. Don’t get sick. Don’t have sick kids.

It’s all varying shades of privileged bullshit.

Wow I’m being super harsh and I didn’t really mean to be super harsh! I think I’d really like Slaughter in real life! It’s just… I have two kids under three and my husband works a 50 hour week. There are so many chores, the children have so many needs all day, time for myself is a distant dream, we never have any adult time at the moment because he logs back in from home as soon as the little dude is in bed, and y’know, what is life all for, right?

These entwined issues, working conditions and valuing care work, they’re super political and I don’t understand why the book tries to depoliticise them. I don’t understand why it brushes off the discussion about specific policies. There is huge value in having specific policies to argue for! What do we want? An improvement to the status quo but we don’t want to predetermine how! When do we want it ? Ah, no rush, as soon as we figure out the policy details. Pretty weak rallying cry!

At the very least, we need some criteria for evaluating policy proposals, and some outlines of the trade-offs, otherwise it’s vague platitudes all the way down.

Let’s be even blunter. The political alliance between libertarians and conservatives hinges on the shared view that children are the responsibility of their parents, not society at large. Each branch of right-wing political philosophy has an attitude opposed to providing more financial and social benefits to parents and children. Conservatives say they’re in favour of family and community providing for themselves, and if the state starts “paying people to have children”, it undermines the natural bonds of care. Libertarians hiss and roar at any redistribution of income: “don’t have kids if you can’t afford it”, etc. The economics of care works is completely, fundamentally a political issue.

In New Zealand our political centre is located somewhere further towards social democracy than the USA (relief!). But, when centre-right parties accept policies such as paid parental leave and childcare subsidies, this is a shift in the centre and a win for the view that families should be supported by the state; not a consensus alliance on an issue without underlying political divisions.

Granted, Slaughter is writing for a USA audience, and they have pretty much nothing, so any improvement would be good. But New Zealand has a lot of the sorts of policies Slaughter name-drops, longer paid parental leave, guaranteed sick leave, etc; and we can tell you it’s still not enough. We don’t have 50/50 gender representation in top positions, or even in middle-management positions, in either the public or private sector. We have a lot of single parents living in poverty – in part because the Working for Families programme is highly discriminatory towards single parents and parents without secure work. Even though we have employment equity legislation that has lead to a court victory for aged care workers, we still underpay the whole care sector.

Framing the problem

The gap between 30% representation and 50% representation of women isn’t about the two people in a group of ten, it’s about the billions of women worldwide whose diverse interests aren’t represented. There’s a common fallacy that we need more individual women at the top because they’ll bring their experience and it will make the world better for all women. It’s a dangerous oversimplification. I’ll be STOKED to have Hillary Clinton as President, it will be momentous to have a women in that role, and more women in power is good. But, the goal should be representation diverse enough that we don’t rely on one woman to represent the views of women generally. We each have only our own experiences and we should be cautious about how far we extrapolate based on common characteristics like gender. The lumping together of all women as having one set of interests is really problematic if you really care about diverse representation.

Raising kids together 

OK, so if Slaughter isn’t focused on the policy reforms needed, what is her focus? The central thesis, so far as there is one, is that women can succeed at work when men take the lead role at home.

If the vast majority of male CEOs with families have wives or partners who are either at home fulltime during the caregiving years or whose work flexibility allows them to be the lead parent, then women CEOs are going to need the same thing.

Deep sigh from me over here. It’s trotted out as the solution so much, but, oh, I’m so doubtful. I’m not knocking it as part of the picture, but, but, but, but. So many things. Here are some particularly big ones.

  • Time use surveys are very clear that women with at-home male partners do VASTLY more unpaid work than men with at-home female partners.
  • Survivorship bias – looking at the small group who succeed and trying to extrapolate out reasons for their success, instead of looking at the conditions that lead only a small group to succeed in the first place.
  • Even if this worked, it would replace the “woman gap” with a “caregiver gap”, which would still be a major problem of representation.
  • How many mothers want the work-all-hours lifestyle anyway?
  • How many men want a career-supporting role?

On the final point: many men want to be fully engaged dads. BUT. How many people of any gender want to be the 1950s housewife? No-one! It’s a raw fucking deal! Role differentiation premised on equality and mutual support is fine, but that’s not the arrangement which has enabled male CEOs to work 60 hour weeks. It’s just not. The false equivalence undermines so much of what feminists have fought for these past decades. It undermines the achievement of a relationship like the one Slaughter describes between her and her husband! It’s not so long ago that wives were literally their husband’s property, I mean, bloody hell! A lot of men STILL expect their wives to do way more than their fair share of unpaid grunt work and don’t see anything wrong about it.

In a gender equal society, no-one should be willing to exploit their partner’s unpaid labour.

Because it’s not only the joy of days at the park, it’s the slog of doing everything else, all the cooking, all the cleaning, all the invisible stuff like arranging the social life. That’s the arrangement that sits behind the men in the boardrooms doing long hours without burning out.

To achieve equality, we need to crash that system down. It is absolutely not about selective reversal. Importantly, to do things differently, we can’t tip-toe around the question of who benefits from unpaid labour in a capitalist economy. We need the system-wide view. It’s really obvious in my relationship, especially when I was in part-time paid work. If I do an hour of chores while he does an hour of paid work, my work is supporting his work, and his work is generating revenue for his bosses, and they’re getting rich, and boom: that’s a microcosm of the larger societal dependency on unpaid labour to generate wealth. There’s a lot of writing on this stuff out there, and Slaughter mentions it only glancingly.

Two careers is going to be our norm, so my bias is in favour of workplace arrangements that accommodate a family situation where both parents want to spend time with the kids. But here’s something people don’t often mention: long hours are horrible for an at-home parent. When I’m at work too, I don’t mind my husband’s long hours anywhere near as much. When I’m at home, it’s a major imposition. It feels like his work is such a huge presence in my life; and it is, it’s ridiculous, he’s trying to squeeze a 55 hour workload into 50 hours and then squeeze those 50 hours around the early bedtimes of two little kids. Some people tell me I’m lucky because most men with that sort of job don’t see their kids during the working week.

All dads, including the best dads, benefit from low social expectations of their parenting. Men are free to decide how much effort they want to put into the parent-child relationship without worrying about falling short of community standards. I envy that freedom, while being unable to imagine what it must be like.

Before I read Slaughter’s book, I read a piece by her husband Andrew Moravcsik,  “Why I put my wife’s career first”. This paragraph resonated with me:

Despite many days of weariness, I would never give up my years of being what the journalist Katrin Bennhold has called “The One”—the parent my child trusted to help master his first stage role, the parent who shared my child’s wonder at his first musical composition, the parent my boys called for when they needed comfort in the night. When my sons turn to me in this way, I feel a pride that is in many respects deeper than any pride I have experienced professionally.

When I first read it, I thought but I want that, I gestated these children, I deserve the payoff of parental love! 

Here’s Slaughter on this issue:

…being needed is a universal desire and the traditional coin in which mothers have been compensated. If we accept that trade-offs are necessary for women if they want to reach the top of their careers, even if they have money and choices, and if we’re prepared to let men be equal caregivers just as we insist on being equal competitors, then we have to be very honest about our deepest needs and desires.

Yeah, well, y’know, if the choice is cuddles or career, I chose cuddles. I want to be there for the big moments – to pick them up on their first days of school. I want to be there for the little moments too, the slices of life that I might forget and they might remember.


My husband wants the same.


The impossibility of this choice is why it is so essential for working arrangements to change.

We don’t fit into neat primary earner / primary caregiver slots. We’re not complementary in that way. What we have, more and more as we get into our grove with the kids, is a complementary approach to parenting. When we parent together, our different strengths and temperaments balance each other out. The whole is greater than the sum of the parts.

Insofar as Slaughter is saying that men should be more involved in caregiving, I wholeheartedly agree. I want the norm to be equal parenting. But I reject the idea that more men need to be the “lead parent” because I think the “lead parent” framework is part of the problem. When you frame the question as “which person is the primary caregiver / lead parent”, the opportunities for how to configure things are restricted. If you think in terms of “how do we manage our working lives so that we can share the caregiving” it’s a much more egalitarian conversation. It’s good to have two people (or more!) who want to be involved with the kids and bring different skills and different perspectives. It should be unexceptional for people to want to combine hands-on caregiving with other things in life.

On a personal level, we both want to be actively involved. When my husband is here, he’s fully here. Thursday night at 4am he was defrosting expressed breastmilk to sneakily mix with baby pamol after bub woke with a temperature. Wednesday, the little dude had a nightmare and my husband slept on the floor for the rest of the night, reassuring the little dude with his closeness, while I settled bub back so sleep. There is such relief in my heart knowing that I’m not the only one the little dude turns to. The hardest part of being a mother is when both kids want me and ONLY me. The more they’re willing to receive comfort from others, the more I can have a break without worrying.

The difficultly though, is that the little dude loves his dad and doesn’t understand why he has to go to work so much. Kids with two really engaged parents don’t think of them as transferable figures. This is the sinkhole in the logic of different roles. When I pick him up from creche, he always asks “where Daddy?” I remember when he was a baby, thinking, I love him so so much, how could anyone love anything this much; and only my husband knew because he felt it too, and we would look at our baby together and hold hands and share the same soppy expression. Now I look at my boy and think, he loves us so so much, how could anyone love me this much, how humbling to be needed and trusted to this degree, what an honour – and again, my husband feels it too.

The next circle is also close. I see the pride on my mother’s face when he runs up to her and says “Nana, Nana, Nana!” My brother’s smile at the painting the little dude made him, or the way he cuddles bub and grins at his adorable little laugh. On the trip up to Auckland the other week, the joy of seeing the little dude with my husband’s family, seeing that connection get stronger. Surrounding my boys with thick layers of love from their whole family is much more satisfying to me than being the one they love most.

Today Mr Daddy was holding bub on his lap while I played a game with the little dude, and I saw him smiling at us the way I smile at them sometimes. This love is more joyful for being witnessed. The encompassing love of family, that’s what we’re here on this earth to enjoy.

This is what we miss out on when work takes too much of our life.

A privileged conversation

Slaughter devotes a lot of space to the importance of having conversations with your partner about how relationship divisions are going to pan out. We had those conversations, and it’s going to plan so far. I’d find a family-friendly job, he’d earn enough that we could afford for me to take unpaid leave when our babies were tiny. Two problems: first, if all workplaces accommodated parenting responsibilities and paid parental leave was longer, we wouldn’t need to have those conversations. Second, having discussions with your spouse about this stuff and planning your career around kids – those are luxuries. There’s immense privilege in the premise, and this is not given anywhere near enough attention. Slaughter’s husband has a pretty solid career too by the way, he’s a professor at Princeton. It’s about as far removed from the average family as you can get.

She doesn’t ignore this all together – there’s discussion of the “what ifs” and how a “resilient system” can cope with the unexpected. OK, but the important thing about “what ifs” is that they’re really “whens”. A normal life is one with heaps of curveballs, heaps of unexpected events. The specific thing might be out of the ordinary, but something was bound to happen eventually. Especially if we look at things from a system-wide view: if you have ten employees, you should prepare for a few of them to be sick each winter. Even more so from a policy perspective: across the whole population, there unexpected events are actually pretty predictable. Some people will have kids when they’re not financially set up for it – that’s going to happen. What are we going to do about it?

Slaughter talks a lot too about “managing up”, or, as I like to think of it, pushing back against unreasonable expectations. I agree that this is hugely important, whether you’re in a workplace that needs big changes, or whether you’re in a workplace that is fairly good already. But it’s another area where privilege is key. When working part-time, I found I needed to manage my coworkers’ expectations of my output and availability, and being upfront and realistic was the best approach. It meant a few instances of warning people that I’d have to slip out of the meeting early to get to creche before it shut. I think being officially part time made this easier, because I wasn’t being paid to be there for the same hours or the same output. Managing up requires a lot prerequisites though. Being established as a capable employee in that role; being on good personal terms with your coworkers; having valuable knowledge or skills that make your retention important; having demonstrated commitment to the organisation. If you’re not in this position – for example because you’ve just started a new job or because your skill-set is easily replaceable – you don’t have the power.

Good for men?

The majority of American women have demanded over the last half century that society reject and revise traditional norms about what women want and what they can do. It is time to do the same for men.


…if we truly believe that care is just as valuable as competition, then we will realize that men who are only breadwinners are missing out on something deeply satisfying and self-improving.

Sure, this is true, I think things will be better for everyone if we had a society based on human connection rather than competition and acquisition. But only in the sense that the oppressors are destroying their ability to care about ore important things. Not in a direct material sense. There are big payoffs from status and power and money! Look at Donald Trump – he’s rich enough that he could spend the rest of his life doing whatever he wants, and he’s running for president because he wants to be the boss of things. (Hey Donald, have you considered maybe just playing with your grandkids instead? Just putting it out there. Y’know, maybe you’ll find it is really rewarding?)

We need a movement of people of every gender fighting against a culture that values work and status above simple enjoyment of life. Fighting for more financial support for families, so people don’t have to work such long hours. And workplace arrangements that give plenty of space for a life outside of work. Men absolutely need to be involved. But we shouldn’t be afraid to point out that the gender gap at the top is good for a lot of men. Overstating the “everybody wins!” thing is naive and counterproductive. Some people will lose. That is why they are resisting change! If men are two thirds of the legislature instead of half, they get double the influence of women. Some of them don’t want to give that up. Even my husband, who would really like to work shorter hours, benefits from the current arrangement in some ways: I do far more chores than he does, because when he’s around I want us to be able to hang out as a family.

Representation of caregivers

On an individual level, for the woman who wants to prioritise having a career, not having kids is the single biggest thing she can do to make that a reality. It’s the obvious solution. So it’s strange that it’s not considered in more detail. The declining birthrate among educated women is crucially relevant.

Women born in the 1980s and 1990s are the third generation of women with access to reliable contraception. Our great-grandmothers, in the 1930s, had no reliable way of limiting family size. Our grandmothers in the 1950s and 1960s had access to contraception, and family size reduced drastically. Our mothers, in the 1980s and 1990s, had even better access to contraception, and also to abortion, and also benefited from (and contributed to) the enormous change in attitudes to childbearing wrought by second-wave feminists. The idea that women might choose not to have children at all slowly became more accepted. The pioneers of childlessness by choice faced enormous stigma and many let people assume that not having children was a stroke of fate rather than the result of careful contraceptive use (Dame Sylvia Cartwright mentioned this in an interview here; it was also the case for one of my grandmother’s sisters).

By the time my mother had me in the mid-80s, her father’s response on finding out that she was pregnant was “oh, I always assumed my eldest daughter would be more of a career woman”. The battle she faced, and many of her friends, was trying to do both. Fast forward to my generation: we’ve had childless women role models, we’ve seen that they can have enviably fulfilling lives. In New Zealand, there is of course Helen Clark. In the USA, look no further than the Supreme Court: of the three women, only one has children. In Australia, the first woman Prime Minister was childless. Meanwhile, we’ve also seen women with children (including our mothers) making career compromises they would never have envisaged, and having almost no leisure time. Having a kid might seem appealing when the image is of a relaxed time together with your funny and adorable toddler, less so when the image is of unrelenting chaos  of competing demands and feeling like you can never take a minute to just pause and enjoy.

Slaughter says, and I agree:

In short, both women and men who experience the dual tug of care and career and as a result must make compromises at work pay a price. Redefining the women’s problem as a care problem thus broadens our lens and allows us to focus much more precisely on the real issue: the undervaluing of care, no matter who does it.

Except when it comes to solutions, following the logic of much of the discussion in this book, there is a risk of solving the problem of women’s representation through more women choosing career over family involvement. This would still leave a big problem: those with extensive caregiving experience (men or women) would remain marginalised within the corridors of power. Or, some mothers get there once their kids are grown, and that’s good, but it’s a different perspective to the parent still in the trenches.

I’ve come to think that although much of the work I do in foreign policy and nonprofit management is intellectually harder than being a mother, parenting is emotionally harder and often far more perplexing.

There is scope for women like Slaughter who have had success in masculine fields to change how care work is valued, simply by being honest about the comparison between the types of work. If people with caregiving experience are excluded from power, we never get the opportunity to have those conversations. Meanwhile, there is still a pervasive idea that if you’re a woman with kids who wants a career, you’re probably not good with kids, or don’t enjoy it. The idea that you might want to contribute to the wider world partly because of your experiences as a caregiver remains difficult for some people to comprehend.

When I left school, there was a slow-dawning realisation that in the real world, men in charge were often less capable than I expected them to be. Their abilities made a poor impression, their pomposity was absurd, and you had to either laugh or cry at their obliviousness. You meet these men and you quickly realise they don’t have the slightest inkling of how mediocre they are in comparison to the women working alongside them in less powerful roles while raising families.

(Of course, once you remember that women and men are equally capable, this is obviously going to happen, right? The over-representation of men crowds out capable woman, and less competent men get promoted above their ability).

Are long hours necessary?

Central to the problem of career progression for caregivers is the long hours problem. It’s THE BIG ISSUE. THE OVERWHELMING ISSUE. Slaughter doesn’t critique this anywhere near enough. She buys into it! Sometimes you’ll have to stay til midnight, that’s just professional, etc. That’s why you need a partner to be the lead carer. Ummmmm, welllllllll, yes, within the constraints of the system we’re in that might be true, but is it really necessary? If you’re an MP you need to stay until sitting hours end. Why don’t sitting hours end at a family friendly time?

Here’s a story that happened to a friend in their law clerk year in one of the big firms. My friend left at 7pm on a Friday to make it to a family function, intending to come back and work all weekend because there was a big project. The partner responsible berated this person for abandoning the project and said “your family has to learn that work sometimes comes first”.

Frankly, fuck that.

I think most often, long hours are caused by arbitrary urgency and unnecessarily narrow responsibility. Sometimes this is obvious: two people working 60 hours a week for two months to get something finished, argh, just hire another person or take another month! Sometimes it’s more subtle. Why are the junior doctors working such long hours when there’s no shortage of people wanting to study medicine?

One explanation is that long hours are core to capitalist logic. It makes it seem like those on super salaries deserve that money, it legitimises success and selfishness. If someone earns $150,000 working 30 hours a week, they would seem like one very lucky rich dude. The same person earning $300,000 working 60 hours a week can rationalise their salary – oh, the hours, never have time, work hard for the money, how dare it be taxed at a high rate!

If long hours and urgency led to good outcomes, this would all have some redeeming features. But it’s the opposite. It leads to blinkered decision-making, things get missed, the people in charge don’t question things enough because they’re operating under the tunnel vision of “get it done, get it done”. If you’re a brilliant scientist working on the cure for cancer, we don’t want you to burn out! If you’re a doctor in an emergency ward, we need you to have a good night’s sleep!

There’s a line of thought that the more committed and absorbed an employee is the better, but I’m very dubious about this. Effective delegation and teamwork requires letting go of the outcome somewhat and trusting others you work with. Being able to completely switch off when you walk out the door is good for a bit of perspective, which in turn helps the person in charge to accommodate other views, which leads to a better result.

This brings me to a broader point about collective politics. There are seven billion people in the world, the best possibilities for improvement in global welfare comes from the plurality of voices contributing, not the marginally amplified voice of one smart person who gets an extra few hours a week to work because they have a cleaner.

Head down working hard while life goes by

A few weeks ago, I picked the little dude up from creche one day and we went out to a local pizza place. We got there around 4.30pm, and live music started up at 5, and we had a lovely time. Even though it was a creche day, I felt like I’d had one of those nice bits of smooth companionship that bring us closer. Last week, I took them both to the beach one day. Bub practised getting onto his hands and knees, lying on a towel on the sand, and the little dude threw stones into the sea. A group of students cooed over bub, they were on study leave but had decided to take an afternoon off to blow away the cobwebs. I remember doing that too. Ah, the bliss of the early evening. It’s my favourite time of day, when the sun is still warm but not burning hot, when the air feels balmy but fresh.

Children go to bed early, the little dude can’t cope staying up much past 7.30pm now that he’s dropped his nap. There’s not much evening left if you’re coming home from a full-time job. One night last week my brother was going to visit but he got held up at work and couldn’t make it. I know as the kids get older, this will seem less of a big deal. Yet at this stage, the gap between the level of involvement my husband, parents, and brother (all in this city!) would like to have and the level they can reasonably have outside of work is huge. They’re missing out. This time is going fast and it will never come back.

Bub is seven months now, one of my favourite phases of babyhood. He is trying to crawl, getting up on his hands and knees and making little vocalisations of alternating pride and effort. He is fascinated by the little dude, watches him avidly. He’s a sunburst of a baby, a happy, rosy, delightful little chap, he smiles at everyone he sees. All these people who love him and want to see him during the week, it’s hard to fit it in, because they work at least 9 – 5.30, and by the time they get here, we’re almost winding down for bed. A shorter week for everyone would be so simple, and so amazingly life-enhancing for us all! The little dude would be DELIGHTED if someone else picked him up on his creche days, took him on a big kid outing. Bub would be the perfect cure to office drudgery blues for any of my family and friends who were able to pop by before or after work for an hour and tickle his neck for the squeals and giggles of delight. Whenever my brother sees the kids, he lights up. Last year when he first got back from overseas he had a patch of not working, and we would meet in the afternoons all the time. I didn’t notice then just how special that was. I’ll always think fondly of those golden afternoons, him and me and the little dude, hanging out, relaxed, just being. It was on one of those afternoons that he taught the little dude the game of throwing stones into the sea.

It’s heartbreaking. Time is the only thing we have that is truly ours, and it’s finite, we should be able to spend more of it in the company of those we love, and less of it slogging away in paid work.




One thought on “Unfinished Business: the big picture critique

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s