Is “having it all” a possibility for 21st-century women (or men)?
Considering the possibility (and meaning) of having it all
A conversation about “having it all” emerged in one of the TPW mastermind groups recently. We were talking about making choices among the options we have–trying to balance or juggle multiple roles that most women deal with on a daily basis–and we discussed whether it’s possible to “have it all.”
One person expressed the opinion that it's not possible to “have it all”: a strong happy family, a successful career, physical and mental health, and friendships.
My initial reaction was, “Wait–that's not right, is it?”
I do think it’s possible to have all those things, but it requires thinking deeply about what each of those things means to us. This is something I’ve thought about over the years, both what I’ve heard people say about the idea of having it all, and the recent ideas about how “even now” women still can’t have it all.
This raises questions for me. What does it mean to have it all? What is the “all” we want to have? Is it reasonable to believe anyone can have everything they want with no tradeoffs of any kind?
There was lots of food for thought offered within the group as well as from my own research. An article that one of the women in the mastermind group shared was particularly thought-provoking. It is an article from The Atlantic titled Why Women Still Can’t Have It All by Anne-Marie Slaughter, a Princeton University professor who was the first woman director of policy planning for the U.S. State Department under President Obama. I recommend that you take the time to read this as well as many other articles listed at the bottom of this post.
What does it mean to have it all? Is it possible?
When you start researching what's been written on these question, you find broad differences of opinion. Some say we can (and should). Some say we can’t. Some say we can have it all, but none of it well.
Reporter Amy Westervelt, in a Huffington Post article about issues raised by her postpartum experiences, said:
“Stop telling women they can have everything without sacrificing anything. Here’s the truth: You want to have a career and kids? You totally can, but both will suffer. You will never feel like you are devoting enough time to either. You will never feel like you are good enough at either. You will never get time off (at least for the first several years). You will always be choosing between things that need your attention, and you will almost never choose yourself. You will be judged for nearly every move you make and you will never measure up to anyone else’s expectations.”
There is truth in what she says: You can have both but there will be trade-offs. I don’t agree that all those consequences she talks about are inevitable, though, mostly because I think much of this can be dealt with in our own minds.
- If you never feel like you’re good enough, maybe it’s your cue to spend time thinking about what “good enough” means (and why you think it means that). If you never measure up in your own mind, perhaps that thought is in your own mind.
- If you feel judged by everyone all the time, I think this is another area where we need to work on our own minds. By whom are you being judged? Do you care what they think? Honestly, I think we tend to judge ourselves more harshly than anyone else does. Most people are thinking more about their own issues than about judging you. We can learn to let people think what they want without owning their opinion or taking it to heart.
Do men have it any better?
Many of the articles I read while researching this topic say or imply that women are disadvantaged as compared to men because men can have it all. But can they?
Maybe the “all” that many men want is different from the “all” that many women want.
Maybe men don’t have it all any more than women do. They might be able to rise through the professional ranks faster because they don’t deal with pregnancy and childbirth-related career interruptions, but most men seldom get to spend as much time with their kids as moms do. So it could be said they succeed professionally at the cost of time with their kids. I think this is a topic that deserves more discussion.
Slaughter’s article brings up a lot of good points to think about regarding this.
- She quotes Bonnie Ware’s 2011 book, The Top Five Regrets of the Dying, which notes that every male patient she worked with said they regretted working so hard, that because of it “They missed their children’s youth and their partner’s companionship.”
- Slaughter also said, “I do not believe fathers love their children any less than mothers do, but men seem more likely to choose their job at a cost to their family, while women seem more likely to choose their family at a cost to their job.”
- She suggests that in order to make work/life balance better for everyone, business paradigms need to change (and I agree that every one of these changes would be positive ones in terms of the impact on work/home balance):
- Companies need to be more thoughtful about using technology to allow alternative work schedules and remote working.
- Contribution should be measured (for purposes of advancement and compensation) more by value added and less by face time in the office.
- Women (and men) should become comfortable with a different kind of professional trajectory. Instead of expecting a steady climb to the peak, expect that there will be ups and downs as time is allocated between career and family and personal pursuits when and as it makes sense to the individual. Part of the issue with “having it all” is that people expect that a successful career is always on an upward trajectory, and that may not be realistic or reasonable when there are other priorities in a person’s life.
The societal solution?
Some say in order for women to have it all, men and society have to step up and take more of the share of work and change the laws to provide free (or at least “affordable”) child-care so women can pursue the career success they want. Those are valuable suggestions, but I’m not sure that would solve the fundamental problem.
Would mothers feel better at work if our children were in the care of well-paid, expert, loving caregivers?
I think we’d still feel torn, because we want to be with our children (even when we don’t want to be with them!). We can be relieved and grateful to know they’re well cared for but still distracted, conflicted, maybe sad, because they’re with someone else.
And the problem of needing to leave work because of a sick child won’t go away. That need arises not just because there’s no one else to care for them, but because we want to be there with them when they’re sick or in pain. No amount of societal change will change the desire of a mother’s heart to comfort her child. This is what Slaughter refers to as “a maternal imperative felt so deeply that the ‘choice’ [between career and child] is reflexive.”
Slaughter acknowledged the drive behind her decision to leave her powerful position and go back home to New Jersey:
“I realized that I didn’t just need to go home. Deep down, I wanted to go home. I wanted to be able to spend time with my children in the last few years that they are likely to live at home, crucial years for their development into responsible, productive, happy, and caring adults. But also irreplaceable years for me to enjoy the simple pleasures of parenting; baseball games, piano recitals, waffle breakfasts, family trips, and goofy rituals.”
I do think it’s possible to have a healthy family and a fulfilling career and take care of our own physical and mental health, but it requires careful thought, conscious awareness, and intentional choices.
Framing the question of “Can we have it all?”
Please understand I'm not trying to prescribe a single right way of making these choices. But the conversations I’ve had and the articles I’ve read raise a lot of questions that warrant some consideration in order to create a life that matters as we define it. There are no right or wrong answers to any of these questions, but we need to ask ourselves and make sure we can live with our own answers.
What assumptions are built in to our thinking on these issues?
“What we assume has an enormous impact on our perceptions and responses. Fortunately, changing our assumptions is up to us.”
- What is the “all” that we want?
- What is a strong, happy family? Does it mean there’s never any conflict and everybody’s happy all the time?
- What is a successful career? Is it defined by traditional male paradigms to mean rising to the pinnacle of leadership in the field and making the most money possible? Or does it mean spending a reasonable amount of time doing satisfying work? (And what does satisfying work mean to you?)
- What is required to maintain your health? Is it workouts at the gym, developing a perfectly proportioned hard body we can display in form-fitting clothes, or are a daily walk and sensible amounts of healthy food enough?
- What assumptions underlie our perceptions of having it all? A big fancy house? A nice car for each licensed driver? Private schools? Annual vacations to resort locations? A corner office and a secretary? Or is it something else?
What is the “all” I want?
- Do I want to marry? Do I want children? What do I want that to look and feel like? Everybody individually accomplished and achieving and happy? Close and loving relationships? Lots of time and activities together? Or supporting each other in each person’s separate pursuits?
- Do I want to pursue a demanding career and achieve a high level of position and power there? What will that look like?
- What do I want my days to look like, and what resources will be necessary to achieve that? Why do I want that?
What are the components? Where do these fit in a life of having it all?
- A variety of relationships: spouse, children, extended family, friends, society as a whole.
- Career/vocational/avocational considerations: Where do these fit in the concept of having it all? Is it about achieving status? Money? Recognition? Power? Authority? Autonomy? Which of these need to be present, at what levels, in order to feel like we have it all? And why? Why do we want these things? Is it because they are intrinsically valuable to each of us? Or is it because of what we think other people will think of us if we have these things?
Where does your definition of “having it all” stem from?
Does it come from your own values? From comparing yourself with others? From the media you consume?
We each get to make our own lives. Comparison doesn’t help anyone. We still need to come back to the same questions and answer them for ourselves.
Satisfaction comes from finding our own answers to those questions. If we are defining success by reference to what others are doing instead of by what our heart tells us, we’ll always be frustrated, sad, and tired.
Tradeoffs are inevitable
I do believe we can have all the things we've talked about. The question is in what measure. The truth is, there always will be tradeoffs, because all these things–parenting well, career success, self-care–require time, energy, and attention, and time, energy, and attention are finite.
“We all get only 24 hours in a day, and at a certain point, we have to choose between work, family, socializing, resting and whatever other ways we choose to spend our time.”
The choices we make have consequences
We need to increase our awareness that the choices we make have consequences. Time/energy/attention spent on one thing is not available to spend on another.
When we moved back to Texas for me to rejoin my old firm as a partner, we chose to buy property in a rural area 50+ miles from my office so we could have horses and land. The consequence was that I had little time at home and missed lots of family events. The job itself demanded a lot of time, but the costs were increased by our choice to live farther away from my office.
In Anne-Marie Slaughter’s situation, many of the challenges seem to come her family’s choice to stay behind in New Jersey when she went to DC to take the job. While the job itself was demanding, it seems like much of the conflict and difficulty she experienced came from the fact that she spent most of her time in a different city than her husband and children. Without at all minimizing the job’s demands, it seems her struggles were equally affected by her choices around how to do the job, how to structure her life and her family’s.
Tradeoffs are inevitable. Each of us needs to think about what tradeoffs we can live with.
Choosing to have a family and be the kind of parent we want to be may mean we will advance more slowly or make less money during a period of time.
Improving our personal or family standard of living may require us to invest a lot of time/energy/attention for some time to getting a degree or taking some other steps to establish ourselves in a career. How will we take care of the other things that are important to us during that period?
If spending more time with family or controlling our schedule is highly important, will we be okay giving up the prestige or security of a job to build a business we can operate from home, perhaps with our spouse? This is what Shane and Jocelyn Sams of Flipped Lifestyle did. I encourage you to check out their website to learn more about them and how they did it.
If we want to be able to work from home to be with our family, where are we willing and able to cut expenses to live on one income?
Some argue women are disadvantaged because we still do more of the childcare and housework than men do. But I’d suggest that even that still is our choice, that we do that because we care more (or maybe differently) about those things than a lot of men do (that is, we care about the way those things are done).
It seems that sometimes what we mean by “the men should do more” is that we should get to set the standard, decide what should be done and how, and then they should do half of that, and do it the way we think it should be done. It’s possible that what they’re doing is half of what they (consciously or not) think needs to be done. Is that really unfair?
Do we have the right to impose our preferences or standards on the ones we share our home with? Do we get to be the arbiter and require their compliance in order for the division of labor to be “fair and equitable between the genders”? Are we entitled to make our choices about life and then require others and/or society to make it easier for us?
Life involves choices. And choices have consequences. And no one owes it to us to take the consequences away or to make our choices easier.
- Spend time thinking about the questions I’ve mentioned. Make your choices intentionally.
“Know what matters to you, and when you are making a decision ask yourself what will support the things that matter most to you. Let your priorities guide you.” But it starts with knowing what that priority is.
Courtney Carver, in Soulful Simplicity
- Have a conversation with your spouse or partner about what you want and why, and how it can happen.
- Think about these additional questions to create an “all” that is meaningful and satisfying to you, and worth the time you spend on it:
— What standards are you trying to live by in each area of your life?
— Where did those standards come from?
— Are the things you’re spending time on absolutely necessary? Are you sure?
— If you feel overwhelmed like you’re not quite where you want to be in any given area, where can you trade time, energy, and attention that’s going in one area to apply to another?
What do you think?
Is this something you’ve thought about or struggle with? What does “having it all” mean to you? How are you managing the balance among the various elements of life that are important to you? Please share them in the comments section at the bottom of this post or in The Productive Woman Community Facebook group, or send me an email.
Resources and Links
- The Complicated Origins of ‘Having It All’
- Having It All Kinda Sucks
- Having It All—and Hating It
- Why Women Still Can’t Have It All
- Why “Having it All” Is Not Just About Having it All
- How the idea of ‘having it all' makes women feel terrible about themselves
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