Elon Musk's approach to work-life balance really is from Mars

Virginia Heffernan is the national correspondent for Yahoo! News, covering culture and politics from a digital perspective. She wrote extensively on Internet culture during her eight years as a staff writer for The New York Times, and she has also worked at Harper’s, the New Yorker and Slate. Her book, “Magic and Loss: The Pleasures of the Internet,” is forthcoming from Simon & Schuster.

By Virginia Heffernan

AUSTIN, Texas — Finally! A man with a fresh new approach to balancing childcare and hard work!

Spoiler: it involves PILES OF MONEY.

Family life was the unexpected subject of the sold-out discussion between Elon Musk, founder of PayPal, Tesla Motors and SpaceX, and Chris Anderson, the former editor-in-chief of Wired, at South by Southwest on Saturday.

The topic was meant to be Musk's zillion androgen-dense projects, many of which have to do with rockets and Mars. But after marveling at Musk's work ethic, Anderson pressed Musk—briefly but spectacularly—on the subject of his five children.

Musk's answer? "Children are awesome."

"Awesome" sounded good in Musk's lovely South African accent.

"But I don't see them much."

(A friend of mine told me conspiratorially during the talk that Musk was divorced from the mother of his brood, and had had one or two "cheapskate divorces"—which turns out to be well known in billionaire circles.

Musk went on: "I do email while I'm with my children. And I keep a nanny around—so they don't kill each other." Anderson's eyebrow lifted at the heresy; a predatory smile could be heard in his voice. Anderson confessed he found it difficult to do email with his own children. But Musk was not chastened. He did not back down and get Sandbergian or Obaman and talk about the joys of being at ballet recitals or reading "Harry Potter." Musk is a guy who wants to retire on Mars and he's not in the American guilt market around domestic life and who does or doesn't see their kids enough.

Work-life balance? I concluded from Musk's talk the solution is to have a ton of kids, make a lot of money to pay for them, and hire full-time nannies. The old-fashioned way.

Earlier in the day, we got the domestic guilt gang over at Anne-Marie Slaughter's talk with the novelist and journalist Jessica Coen. Last summer Slaughter made some waves with an alarmist article in the wonderfully femmalarmist Atlantic when she argued that she had looked down at other women who didn't work, but now she looks down at other women who don't see their kids enough.

Slaughter kept talking about all the conversations that needed to be had about work and childcare and men and Sheryl Sandberg and Marissa Mayer and making it to Little League games. I ended up concluding there is a form of tautological neofeminism that has declared it an inalienable right of women to both raise children and do panels about how it's their right to raise children and do panels.

I wish I could have sat Musk down with Slaughter and let him enlighten her. Just make a billion, pay nannies and, when stuck with your awesome kids, write email about panel discussions. He's on his way to Mars. And you don't see him complaining.

Correction: An early version of this story referred to the wrong Chris Anderson in the third paragraph.

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