In Search of Balance, as seen through the lens of fiction and nonfiction

Unfinished Business by Anne-Marie Slaughter and A Window Opens by Elisabeth Egan

These books were very helpful to me at a time in my life when I was feeling very overwhelmed by the demands of work and family and while I highly recommend them to working parents, I’m sure that both books will appeal to a wide audience.

In my November review in the Post and Courier I wrote:

Anne-Marie Slaughter’s 2012 article “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All” was the most downloaded article in the history of The Atlantic magazine. It was published the same year Facebook CEO Sheryl Sandburg released her book “Lean-In,” which encourages young women to stay in the working world once they become mothers.

Slaughter has followed up her article with the groundbreaking book Unfinished Business, which offers an in-depth look at the status of equality in the workforce and an action plan for change.

  a window opens

In her debut novel A Window Opens, Elisabeth Egan illustrates these issues through the character of Alice Pearce, a happily married mother of three whose life is transformed when her husband loses his job and she is forced to find full-time work. Alice’s struggle is an inspiring, painful, funny and familiar account of a contemporary woman trying to maintain a work/family balance.

Unfinished Business by Anne-Marie Slaughter -- cover-vertical

Unfinished Business is broken down into three parts: “Moving Beyond our Mantras,” “Changing Lenses” and “Getting to Equal.” In the first section, Slaughter says the tipping point for many working parents is when unforeseen circumstances (a second or third child, an ailing parent, a spouse who receives a promotion requiring travel, etc.), disrupt the work/family balance. She insists this is not a “women problem” but a “work problem.”

A 2013 Pew Research study on modern parenting states 50 percent of fathers and 56 percent of mothers with children under 18 at home said they find it “difficult to balance the responsibilities of (their) job with the responsibilities of (their) family.”

After her husband is forced out of his job as a corporate lawyer in A Window Opens, Alice is offered a dream job for the start-up company Scroll, “the Starbucks of bookstores.” She’s been working part-time while raising their three children and jumps at the opportunity to have a high-powered job with benefits that will support their young family. At first, Alice is thrilled about this new stage of her life and feels like she is “floating on air, seeing everything in the crispest detail.” She quickly realizes however, that there isn’t enough time to do all the things she needs to do.

“You can sleep less, plan more, double-book, set the alarm for a 5:30 a.m. spin class, order winter coats for your kids while you’re on a conference call, check work email while your family is eating breakfast, but ultimately there are only so many hours in one day, and you have to spend some of them in bed.”

Slaughter says a majority of ambitious career women, like the fictional Alice Pearce, face a far harder choice than their husbands because the numbers of men who agree to stay home and be the “lead-parent” while their wives work are marginal. Therefore, women are faced with feeling like they are sacrificing their loved one’s well-being when pursuing their own aspirations.

Egan’s writing is conversational and includes text messages, phone calls and notes from her children. Reading these two books in succession offers a wide perspective of a critical contemporary issue. Alice Pearce’s story will be relatable for women (and men) whether they are parents or not. It is a story of managing a marriage and a household, and the gradual decline of a parent that’s told through clever observations.

The Scroll environment is described with laugh-out-loud jabs at the corporate world where hardbacks are referred to as “carbon-based books” and employees spend all their time interpreting data and reviewing metrics. As she is pulled in all directions, Alice’s marriage falters, her children suffer and when her father’s lung cancer returns, it all becomes too much. Readers know that Alice can’t keep up the pace, but Egan drags out her awakening so that when it finally arrives, we cheer with enthusiasm and relief.

Unfinished Business is a well-researched book and approachable because this accomplished author writes from her personal experience. Slaughter includes anecdotes about her struggle to find balance, which reminds us that she is not only a professor of politics at Princeton, but a wife, mother, daughter and friend.

In the final section, she includes realistic suggestions on ways we can initiate change, including altering the way we talk. “When you meet someone, try not to ask ‘What do you do?’ within the first five minutes. This will show that you value more than what that person earns.”

She suggests using the term “lead parent” rather than “stay-at-home mom or dad.”

She also encourages readers to look at their careers as “tours of duty” where there will be intervals of varying intensity in one’s career span, times when you are leaning in and leaning out, but never leaving the workforce completely.

Fifty years ago the women’s movement liberated women to join the workforce, but no one filled the void of the caretaker. Egan’s book is a compelling example of the void that is created when both parents work out of the home.

Slaughter’s answers to this problem are innovative and achievable. She argues that we must redefine caregiving as a meaningful and important human endeavor. Bite your tongue pessimists, because this has to happen. It’s long overdue.

Stay tuned for a Q&A with author Elisabeth Egan!

Related Reading on this topic:

Stressed, Tired, Rushed: A Portrait of the Modern Family (New York Times)

The Case for Taking Parental Leave When your Kids are Teenagers (New York Magazine)

Overwhelmed, Work, Love, and Play When No one has the Time, by Brigid Schulte

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