Former senior State Department official Anne-Marie Slaughter staggers her way toward reality, then turns away. Excerpts:

As the evening wore on, I ran into a colleague who held a senior position in the White House. She has two sons exactly my sons’ ages, but she had chosen to move them from California to D.C. when she got her job, which meant her husband commuted back to California regularly. I told her how difficult I was finding it to be away from my son when he clearly needed me. Then I said, “When this is over, I’m going to write an op-ed titled ‘Women Can’t Have It All.’”

She was horrified. “You can’t write that,” she said. “You, of all people.” What she meant was that such a statement, coming from a high-profile career woman—a role model—would be a terrible signal to younger generations of women. By the end of the evening, she had talked me out of it, but for the remainder of my stint in Washington, I was increasingly aware that the feminist beliefs on which I had built my entire career were shifting under my feet. I had always assumed that if I could get a foreign-policy job in the State Department or the White House while my party was in power, I would stay the course as long as I had the opportunity to do work I loved. But in January 2011, when my two-year public-service leave from Princeton University was up, I hurried home as fast as I could.

“You can’t write that” — love it. You can’t express an opinion that you believe to be true but that is hurtful to the cause.

So she quit her job and moved home to Princeton, and resumed her academic career, because it was easier to attend to the needs of her two teenage boys that way. Other women, she said, reacted with disappointment or condescension:

The first set of reactions, with the underlying assumption that my choice was somehow sad or unfortunate, was irksome enough. But it was the second set of reactions—those implying that my parenting and/or my commitment to my profession were somehow substandard—that triggered a blind fury. Suddenly, finally, the penny dropped. All my life, I’d been on the other side of this exchange. I’d been the woman smiling the faintly superior smile while another woman told me she had decided to take some time out or pursue a less competitive career track so that she could spend more time with her family. I’d been the woman congratulating herself on her unswerving commitment to the feminist cause, chatting smugly with her dwindling number of college or law-school friends who had reached and maintained their place on the highest rungs of their profession. I’d been the one telling young women at my lectures that you can have it all and do it all, regardless of what field you are in. Which means I’d been part, albeit unwittingly, of making millions of women feel that they are to blame if they cannot manage to rise up the ladder as fast as men and also have a family and an active home life (and be thin and beautiful to boot).

She later found herself talking to an audience of students at Oxford, who thanked her for not repeating the feminist-careerist party line:

The striking gap between the responses I heard from those young women (and others like them) and the responses I heard from my peers and associates prompted me to write this article. Women of my generation have clung to the feminist credo we were raised with, even as our ranks have been steadily thinned by unresolvable tensions between family and career, because we are determined not to drop the flag for the next generation. But when many members of the younger generation have stopped listening, on the grounds that glibly repeating “you can have it all” is simply airbrushing reality, it is time to talk.

Well, good. But then:

I still strongly believe that women can “have it all” (and that men can too). I believe that we can “have it all at the same time.” But not today, not with the way America’s economy and society are currently structured. My experiences over the past three years have forced me to confront a number of uncomfortable facts that need to be widely acknowledged—and quickly changed.

And so, in the end, she still clings to the “you can have it all” ideology, but believes that a few tweaks here and there can make it happen. She’s actually right that corporate culture could come up with some policy shifts that could make it easier on women (and men) to spend time with their families. But reading this essay, one gets the idea that Slaughter is desperate to believe that the dream is salvageable. She does not want to accept the reality of limits. For example:

Men are still socialized to believe that their primary family obligation is to be the breadwinner; women, to believe that their primary family obligation is to be the caregiver.

Notice the assumption here that these roles are socially determined, therefore malleable. There’s no sense that evolution prepared the natures of males and females in different ways for these discrete roles in the family. Of course it’s possible that the female of a couple can be the breadwinner, and the male could be the primary caregiver. But it’s not natural, and we should recognize that this arrangement goes against how men and women are programmed by biology to relate to our children and our mates. Rejiggering social policy is not going to refute tens of thousands of years of human evolution.

Besides which, I think it’s harmful to children, and harmful to society, for men and women both to believe that they can have no limits on their careers and still be exactly the parents that they want to be, and that their children need. It’s just not true, though I understand it’s the lie that educated, ambitious professionals need to tell themselves to justify, if only to themselves, what they do.

A couple of years ago, I was once in talks for a very senior position at a New York-based magazine. The job would have been fun, and a real challenge. But it was clear that it would have been the primary focus of my life. I would have been required to work very long hours, and in order to afford a house or apartment big enough for my three kids, we would have had to have lived in an exurb — making my commute at least one hour, one way, five days a week. The job was exciting, to be sure, but I knew that I couldn’t do it and be the kind of father I wanted to be to my children, and that I needed to be. I said thanks, but no thanks. My kids come first, not my career.

Mind you, I could say no to the prospect of working at that place because I had a job at the time. In this economy, I can think of several male friends with kids who are working in jobs that keep them away from their kids more than they would like to be, but who have no realistic choice, given their commitments to mortgage and other things. It would be inaccurate and unfair to tag them as more committed to their careers than their kids. I’m confident that the same is true with some women.

Some women. The truth is, all of us, male and female, are highly ambitious, and susceptible to narratives that justify our ambitions and their relentless pursuit. I remember before I had kids, interviewing the high-profile editor in chief of a top women’s magazine, who gave me this whole “I’m having it all” line. She said she arrived at home at night in time to tuck her kids into bed, but this was okay, she maintained, because she was having quality time with them. It was transparently self-justifying bullshit, but she honestly seemed to believe it. She needed to believe it.

At some point, we have to choose. When I was working at National Review back in 2002, I was having drinks with a friend and mentioned that we were thinking about moving somewhere else. My friend, also a journalist (but unmarried and childless), was surprised that I would walk away from this career track. I told him I loved my job, but that we couldn’t afford to keep living in New York and to have more kids — and that was the thing I wanted in life more than anything. He asked if I would miss going to lectures, events, dinners, and cocktail parties related to my job (this was the life he had at the time). I smiled and told him my life consisted of leaving the office at the end of the workday, taking the subway back home to Brooklyn, and spending the evening with my wife and kid. And that’s how I like it. 

Look, I’m not saying this to say, “Yay me!” I decided fairly early that family life was more important to me than my career, and that if something had to give in an irresolvable conflict, it should be my career. To be realistic, this can only go so far. I am the breadwinner in our family, and have to provide for the material needs of my wife and kids. My own father stuck with a civil service job he hated for 20 years, because it was the only way open to him at the time to provide for our family. Sometimes putting one’s family first requires one to stick with a job that is far from ideal. I have been there myself.

The point is, though, to recognize limits. Earlier this spring, I had a conversation on my front porch with Dr. Tim Lindsey, who was my late sister’s physician for the last 20 months of her life. Tim is a small-town doctor who decided early in his career — when he was in med school — that he would not sacrifice family life to be at the top of his class. He told me he had suffered as a teenager from a perfectionist drive, but discerned that this could ruin his life. He decided that balance was the thing to seek out. Now, he has five kids, and though he keeps a full schedule, he finds time to coach softball and be involved in their activities.

I asked Tim what broader lessons my late sister Ruthie’s life teaches.

“The American dream is a lie,” he said. “If you work hard enough, you can achieve anything — that’s very individualistic. Who’s that about? Who is that serving? Who is that for? It’s for me. The pursuit of happiness doesn’t create happiness.

“If you work hard enough, are you going to defeat cancer?” Tim continued, his voice rising. “If you work hard enough, are you going to be happy with your job? If you work hard enough, and build up a big bank account, does that create happiness? No!

“When you figure that out, that no, it’s not about pulling myself up by my bootstraps, and thinking that I can achieve anything if I work hard enough, that life is really about understanding what our true condition is, then you’ll be wise,” Tim says. “We’re broken. We need other people. We need a Savior. We can’t do it on our own. When we wake up and realize that we can only be fulfilled in serving others, not in serving ourselves, that’s when we find true happiness. That’s when we can serve our Lord.”

Tim, obviously, is a Christian, but you don’t have to be a believer to grasp the wisdom of what he’s saying here about the danger of putting work, achievement, and the accumulation of material wealth above cultivating loving relationships with others. I love the way Tim put it to me: “Think about it: you can’t hook a U-Haul up to a hearse.”

You know what I never wonder? What I’m missing out on in terms of my career by not living in Washington. Twenty years ago, I was completely the opposite. Marriage, kids, and religion changed me. About three weeks ago, sitting on the back porch of my mom and dad’s place after Sunday dinner, my dad and I had a conversation that was one of the most important, and probably the most important, talk we’ve ever had. It wasn’t planned; it just happened, and the things my father told me will stay with me forever. Life-changing stuff. I won’t say here what passed between us — it’s in my book — but as Julie pointed out afterward, “You know, if we didn’t live here, y’all wouldn’t have had that conversation.”

She’s right. I am good at compartmentalizing, and I would have been prepared to have had that conversation on one of our usual four-day visits down here, of the sort we had when we lived in Dallas and Philly. But my dad wouldn’t have. I have learned to be very good about compartmentalizing, about getting to the point. It would have been easy for me to have said, “OK, here is the thing we need to talk about, and I have this four-day window of opportunity to discuss deep family issues. Let’s get to it!” But that’s not how real life works, and it’s certainly not how a 77 year old man works. I didn’t see this conversation coming, but I can tell now that it was the kind of thing that naturally emerges from the practice of presence. The things my father told me in that conversation were things I’ve been waiting most of my life to hear. Here’s the thing: he didn’t frame it as a big deal, as The Conversation. It was just back-porch talking after Sunday dinner. When I think about how much this talk meant to me, and I reflect on the sure fact that my living here, and simply being around, brought this buried treasure to the surface, then it is clear to me what it would have cost me to have stayed away for the rest of my life — or, to be precise, for the rest of my father’s life.

There is no substitute for being there. “Quality time” is a lie. If we are going to put service to our careers over service to our families, then we should at least not lie to ourselves and others about what we are doing. It is unlikely that you, me, or anybody, can be a first-rank CEO, or top politician, or at the top of our profession, and a first-rank father, mother, son, or daughter. At some point, something’s got to give.

It really is as simple as this: Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.