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Family Meltdown: Why the Nuclear Family Is Not the Model for Women Leaders' Success

How can we make it easier and less lonely for working mothers?

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The cover story of the July/August 2012 edition of the  Atlantic magazine relates the struggles of Anne-Marie Slaughter, the former director of policy planning at the State Department in the Obama administration, who decided to leave her high-profile job after walking the tight-rope of balancing her work with raising two sons. Her story sparked a debate on the trials of working mothers across the country. 

What was the trap that ensnared Slaughter? Was her ambition thwarted by a combination of rugged individualism and liberal feminism? On her decision to scale back and leave the job, Slaughter writes:

"Women of my generation have clung to the feminist credo we were raised with, even as our ranks have been steadily thinned by unresolvable tensions between family and career, because we are determined not to drop the flag for the next generation. But when many members of the younger generation have stopped listening, on the grounds that glibly repeating 'you can have it all' is simply airbrushing reality, it is time to talk."

I thought of Slaughter and her spouse trying to juggle teenagers, career travel, a marriage, and personal time, and contrasted that with the demands of First Lady Michelle Obama’s position and her  reliance on First Grandma Mrs. Robinson, installed in the White House to continue her support of the Obamas and her granddaughters. This kind of reliance has been studied as what researchers call the " grandma-benefit." It reminds me of how many kinds of immigrant American families (similar to my own Chinese-American one) also mesh the needs and talents of every wide-ranging member of the family for mutual support and benefit.

So it was with great sympathy and interest that I read about Slaughter’s time in public service and all this brilliant woman had done to mentor and encourage other women in her field. But what struck me was her poignant exploration of what it meant to substantially pare back her commitments in order to “spend time with one’s family.” Far from the standard sop offered by men who’ve tumbled from power and needed a face-saving excuse, Slaughter really did need to spend time with a son who was saying he couldn’t function and needed her. And she wouldn’t apologize for wanting to be close to him in answering his call.

From reading Slaughter’s piece, I conclude that the nuclear family – the norm here in America among a certain white/middle and upper-middle-class echelon – provides a narrow pedestal that gets kicked out from under women just as they’re reaching their peak childbearing and career years. And it may be the very thing that hobbles high-achieving women just when they should be reaching career escape velocity.

Look at Professor Slaughter’s struggles in light of those of her boss, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. What must rankle is how women in America increasingly outpace male peers in education, achievement, and opportunities seized. And yet the presidency, the biggest prize of all, still proves elusive.

On the other hand, in developing countries typically viewed as more “backward” than ours, women have and will continue to rise to the top positions of governmental power. By one count, there are now 27 women who are heads of state, whether they inherited the position as royalty, or were elected as prime ministers, presidents or chancellors. The countries range from the U.K. to Germany, India, Argentina, Bangladesh, Ireland, and several Caribbean island and African nations. Fifteen women leaders appear to be visually identifiable as women of color. (See this slideshow from the Christian Science Monitor: Women Heads of State.)