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Working moms: Have it all or want what you have?

Friday - 6/29/2012, 12:14pm  ET

Associated Press

NEW YORK (AP) - Amy Schultz Pearson is 31, married and has two young daughters. She just began training in anesthesiology and will be working 50 to 80 hours a week.

Pearson has a message for Anne-Marie Slaughter, the former State Department policymaker who lamented in The Atlantic that her "have it all" approach to work and family didn't go so well: She's not surprised.

The difference? Pearson is happy. She knows that even if having it all is a myth, she can revert to a more flexible schedule after her training if the toll is too high on her family.

"I feel that while feminists of the previous generation may have told my generation that we could `have it all,' we have observed their `have it all' lives long enough to see through the well-meaning front," said Pearson, who chose to stay in her Midwest hometown for her medical training so relatives can help her and her husband, a teacher, with the kids.

"We're not surprised when someone like Dr. Slaughter reneges, but maybe they are, and they feel they have let us down. It's no one's fault," she said. "It's the nature of the beast when trying to combat hundreds of years of inequity in a matter of decades."

Slaughter, 53, returned to academia at Princeton after two years in Washington, away from her teen boys but with a husband at home and her tenure intact. Since her magazine story last week burst open the debate on the difficulties for working mothers, she has heard from hundreds of women, most of whom were grateful that such a high-flying career juggler has spoken up about the need for more flexibility on the job.

One was a policewoman. Another a social worker. There was a Nobel laureate, and women who were the first in their families to graduate from college.

"They're saying, `Thank you, I've been looking for honest counsel and haven't been able to find it,'" Slaughter told The Associated Press on Monday.

Consider Ana Homayoun, 33, in San Francisco, among the honest. She works as an education counselor and career trainer for high school and college girls. The toll on their lives gets lost in the have-it-all debate about career and family, she said.

"I talk to them about this issue all the time," Homayoun said. "It's this message that you can and should be able to have it all, all the time, and for a lot of them that seems to be polarizing and shame-inducing because they're really anxious about getting into the real world, and they can't figure out in their own head how they're supposed to make it all work."

For many, she said, waiting until they're Slaughter's age and at her elite level is too late.

"The planning what they want out of their lives needs to start in high school, college, to avoid reacting to a bad situation later," Homayoun said. "A lot of my friends in their 30s are leaving corporate high-powered tracks, not because they lack ambition or talent but because it doesn't seem feasible or workable for the entire arc of their lives."

Kathy Doyle Thomas, 55, is the executive vice president of a book store chain and chairman of the board of the Retail Advertising and Marketing Association. She's still on Plan A as the mother of three who has been juggling home and work for more than a decade.

"I still feel bad that 15 years ago I left my kindergarten son and his carpool in the rain," she said. "I think several of those moms we carpooled with are still upset with me."

The difference sometimes between working fathers and working mothers, Thomas said, is that women tend to worry about family and balance all the time.

"We compare ourselves to the moms on the block that always seem to volunteer for everything. The ones who are overly involved," said Thomas, whose youngest is now 17.

Is having it all in reasonable balance doable while more mothers in the U.S. wait out reforms that would make their lives better? Things like flexible hours, working from home or working part-time while raising kids and keeping careers on track? Is having it all worth having until then?

"If you are defining it as living to your fullest potential in your field while also being present, both physically and emotionally, for your family at any time, of course it's a fantasy," said Meredith Persily Lamel, a professor in the business school at American University in Washington, D.C.

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