No One Can Have It All

Left-wing feminists and right-wing traditionalists miss the mark on the tradeoffs of marriage, family, and work.

Dennis Prager’s latest syndicated column features a 50-year-old woman who called in to his radio show to express regret over having prioritized her career over finding a spouse. Here’s part of her warning to women in their 20s:

Do not follow the path that I followed. You are leading yourself to a life of loneliness. All of your friends will be getting married and having children, and you’re working to compete in the world, and what you’re doing is competing with men. Men don’t like competitors. Men want a partner. It took me until my late 40s to realize this.

This woman’s experience provokes sympathy, but her advice exemplifies a damaging right-wing overreaction to third-wave feminism’s rejection of marriage and family. Far from being pro-family, it presents a false dichotomy between happy marriages and fulfilling work.

Not every woman successful in the workplace will inevitably end up lonely simply because some women do. Not every woman who finds meaning in her career will avoid relationships and become a competitor with the men around her. Not every man is threatened by successful women who care about their work — and men worth marrying certainly won’t be.

Not only do Prager and his listener represent a certain stripe of traditionalist conservative, but they’re joined in this harmful worldview by a growing subset of “men’s rights activists” who supplement these right-wing arguments with open misogyny. Both groups expound the dogma that, for women, successful careers and flourishing families are mutually exclusive propositions. Women have to pick one, we’re told, and it’d better be the right one, so choose carefully at the risk of becoming an old maid.

But the fact that there are obvious tradeoffs between career and family does not mean that women (or men, for that matter) face a binary choice between the two.

What’s more, these arguments are nearly always directed solely at women. There is no accompanying genre from this branch of the Right encouraging young men to ease up on working 14-hour days and stockpiling savings for ten years after college so they can grasp at elusive “financial security” before even contemplating a serious relationship. Feminists, for all their faults, rightly chafe against this thinly veiled form of sexism.

But the Left’s response is wrong as well. Fed by radical-feminist ideology, much of mainstream society has bought into the notion that women having to balance family and careers in a way that men don’t is a form of fundamental oppression. Progressive feminists insist this is the fruit of systemic male privilege, furthered by the government’s failure to ameliorate the injustice.

The feminist solution, at least in recent years, has taken the form of Sheryl Sandberg’s “Lean In” model. These are progressive career women like Prager’s listener once was, women who postpone marriage and family and give themselves to their work, making their decision based on their belief in the sad reality that women still can’t “have it all.” They’re told they have to choose one, so they do; sometimes they regret their choice.

Both sides of this gaping chasm totally miss the mark. The reality is that no one can have it all — that’s just life, and that’s okay. Accepting this reality in no way means that women can’t have fulfilling work and a happy marriage and well-adjusted children. In fact, acknowledging that no one can have it all would foster a society that encourages each person to find the best available balance.

No amount of moralizing from either side, whether right-wing lectures directed at career-minded women or feminist diatribes against women who choose to stay home, will help young people assess the tradeoffs inherent in building a fulfilling life.

These arguments at the progressive and conservative extremes each stem from their own false premise. Many traditionalists (not to mention less savory characters like the pick-up artists and “incels” who populate the Internet’s darker corners) insist that women who don’t heed their warnings are ignoring human biology at their peril. Feminists, meanwhile, insist that biology is oppressive and should be transcended through the use of contraception and abortion; their solution to intrinsic gender disparities is to make women more like men.

Those who accept Prager’s view insist that we accept harsh reality, but their argument isn’t realistic at all. In the real world, blanket commands such as “Find someone in your 20s. That’s when you’re still very cute,” as Prager’s caller insists, have little bearing on daily life. Not everyone can find a spouse early, and not everyone who gets married later in life does so as the result of having been buried in a career.

Pro-marriage arguments are a necessary corrective to the progressive Left’s pervasive anti-family worldview, but this kind of overly broad advice is not the solution. Each person faces unique circumstances that limit choices and affect outcomes, and in many cases, there’s nothing lamentable about those disparities. There’s no “one-size-fits-all” model for juggling family and work; suggesting that you can have only one or the other is highly detrimental.

When it comes to finding the right balance, men and women face different tradeoffs, and this is where feminists are right to note the unique challenges of female biological reality. Choosing a high-power, time-consuming career instead of marriage, as Prager’s listener did, can understandably lead to regret. Her experience is a useful warning.

But it’s not an argument for viewing work and family life as a dichotomy. Many women have flourishing marriages, happy children, and meaningful careers — not without tradeoffs, but without forfeiting the unique fulfillment that comes from all three. For pro-family conservatives, that should be the goal.

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