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What You Think About Working Motherhood Is Wrong

When Anne-Marie Slaughter wrote about leaving her dream job to take care of her teenage son, everyone had an opinion.

Working mothers commented that Slaughter must have been doing something wrong. After all, they had managed to balance career and family.

Women who left careers, either permanently or (they hoped) temporarily, approved of her, maybe too much. Slaughter walked away from her position as the first female director of policy planning for the U.S. State Department. Her boss was then-U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Leaving was something she had never expected to do.

But her son, 14 at the time, was getting in to trouble. He was teetering on expulsion from school and had his first run-in with the police.

Slaughter's husband Andy, a professor at Princeton University, where the family lived while Slaughter worked 200 miles away in Washington, D.C., had always been the primary caregiver to both her sons. He could handle the boy. But it hit Slaughter that, actually, she wanted to be there for him too.

She wrote about her situation in the Atlantic article "Why Women Still Can't Have It All," and then a book, which comes out today. In "Unfinished Business: Women, Men, Work, Family," Slaughter argues that focusing on family should not equate to career death for women. There's too much workplace flexibility and ambition and old-fashioned love for one's kids that there's really no reason careers and motherhood can't be compatible.

She writes that, sure, things may have to look a little different than they do now.

"Working part-time, flexibly or even taking some time away will, of course, put you on a slower track for promotion, but why should it take you off the rails entirely?" she writes in an excerpt from her book. "It is assumed the fast track is the only option: it's up or out. So the scales are tilted in favor of those who see their careers as one-track races ... But if we view our working lives as periods of intense activity interspersed with times to slow down and draw breath, we could plan a way forward for mothers who want to have time off with their children."

She says career women who want to start a family should move into that phase with a plan. Scale back, if that's possible, and go for the long game. Slow is OK. There is no one single career trajectory.

"Planning your career as if you were going to peak in your mid-50s and retire by 65 is the equivalent of cramming a seven-course meal into three," she writes. "I would counsel women not to drop out of their careers entirely when they have children."

If career women want to take time off completely to focus on family, Slaughter suggests trying to stay in the game somehow. "Far too many mothers find it's much more difficult than they expected to return. So, if at all possible, stay in the game. If you're strategic about it, you can keep your networks fresh and your skills sharp even as you slow down for a while."

As for Slaughter, she's happy with her choices. Her son, now 18, got himself together. Whether that's because she left D.C. or because he would have gotten it together no matter what, she doesn't know. But at 57, she's approaching an age where her peers are starting to talk retirement. But Slaughter? She's entering phase 3, she says, and she's already planning for up.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Random House Penguin

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