An article posted to Facebook this week, titled “Relationships are More Important than Ambition,” caught my attention. “Well, duh,” I thought at first glance. Then I read a little further and was reminded that there are lots of speakers and writers today who are generating heated debate on this topic, summarized by the author, Emily Esfahani Smith, as, “Ambition drives people forward; relationships and community, by imposing limits, hold us back.” As an example, Smith cites Facebook’s Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg‘s best-selling book, “Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead.” Sandberg’s philosophy is that women need to push harder and be more assertive and self confident to get ahead. The author also points to Anne Marie Slaughter’s much-discussed article, published last year, “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All,” in which she talks about the difficulty she had trying to balance her duties at the State Department with her responsibilities as the mother of two boys. Apparently, Ms. Slaughter, rather than adopting the “lean in” philosophy, is of the opinion that the male-dominated system needs to change to accommodate women who choose to work and raise children. Throughout her article, Smith profiles Rod Dreher, a journalist who, as a boy, left his family and home in rural Louisiana to attend boarding school and never looked back. After watching his hometown community rally around his terminally ill sister and her family for 19 months before her death, he realized that while he’d achieved everything he wanted career-wise, he and his friends were alone in the world. Eventually, Dreher moved his family back to his old hometown, where he claims they are all happier than ever, stating, “Community is more important than a job.”
Reading the article, I began to realize that this is nothing new; it’s the same debate we women have been having with ourselves since we were liberated. Perhaps the newsworthy part of the piece is that a MAN began to have that internal debate and rejected his East Coast lifestyle for a slower-paced one in southern Louisiana. He felt the need to connect with his family and friends, something he’d found lacking while working and traveling the world. He’s expressing a common conflict experienced by most women that I know. Based upon my experience as an attorney, I find myself siding with Ms. Slaughter’s premise that there are reasons why “women still can’t have it all,” and, in my humble opinion, the #1 reason is the fact that we have wombs in which we bear children. When I was working, I knew of no mother who, after giving birth to a precious bundle they’d carried for 9 months, was excited to leave their newborn with a stranger and go back to work. All whom I’ve known have tearfully looked for acceptable caregivers, while feeling that they are somehow abandoning their children. I’ve never known a working mom who didn’t want to be home to have dinner with her husband and children, and I’ve never seen a mother who wouldn’t rather be at her child’s school performance than in a conference room taking a deposition. I do have a friend or two whose husband has been lucky enough to be able to stay home with the kids. But, I think if you asked them, the moms would say they’d have preferred to be the one to stay home.
When I was working, I was in a constant state of conflict. I enjoyed my work, but I enjoyed being at home with my husband and children more. When I had to travel or work late, I was consumed with guilt.I still flinch when I come across an old videotape of my firstborn at age 3 or 4, dancing around the house, hamming it up, then stopping suddenly to look directly up at the camera, and ask, “Mommy, when are you going to stay home from work and play with us? Tomorrow, maybe?” Even at my last job, when I had only one child left at home and she was 16, I felt remorse if I wasn’t home when she got home from school. And, although I’d negotiated a sweet part-time deal with a law firm, I still felt guilty about leaving at 3:30 everyday, and having to say to a colleague, “No, I won’t be in tomorrow to work on that brief,” because I worked every other day. Then, spending the next day at home, I’d feel bad about not being at my desk when I knew there was a case to get ready for trial. As a young attorney, it was difficult and demoralizing to watch my male counterparts receive invitations to partnership six months before I did. I wondered if it could be a coincidence that I’d given birth to two children and taken the firm’s full 3 months’ maternity leave with each. A couple of years ago, when the firm I was working for split up and left my part-time self in the dust, I was angry at first, but am now grateful. The conflict has ended and I’m enjoying sitting on my nearly-empty nest.
We’ve all known people who can be described as “ambitious,” but who will step over anyone in their paths to achieve their goal. I would describe them as “narcissistic, ladder-climbing, a–holes.” Then there are those ambitious people who work to help others or to feed their families and/or because they feel the obligation to use the gifts and talents the Good Lord gave them. I have quite a few female friends who went to law school with me who are still practicing law quite successfully, and have managed to raise wonderful children. And, they didn’t do it by climbing over people, neglecting their home life and failing to make connections with others in their community. So, I think the link between simple “ambition” and “relationships” in the article is misplaced. I believe that there is a place where ambition and good relationships can happily co-exist. We women just have to work extra-hard to make that world a reality for ourselves and for our children.
“Relationships are More Important than Ambition,” by Emily Esfahani Smith for The Atlantic, published on April 16, can be found at: www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2013/04/relationships-are-more-important-than-ambition/275025/.