Friday, June 22, 2012

My Thoughts On This Whole, "Why Women Can't Have It All" article

I - finally - have lots to say about the recent Atlantic article causing a stir across the Internets. It is, not surprisingly, an issue that hits very close to home. I do not yet have children, but I hope to have them someday, and when I do I'll come up against the very issues that the brave woman who wrote this article experienced. It's not looking likely that I too will be weighing a job at the U.S. State Department, but you never know. I do know all ten of the four-letter word countries by heart.

I couldn't decide quite how to respond to this particular article because I have so much to say. At first I wanted to write a piece about my own fears surrounding the future balance of family and career. They are plentiful, and they play no small part in what I do today to "become successful" so that I'll "be successful" before it's time to have children. I personally know that I will want to be home with my hypothetical future children as much as possible. I also know that the finances of that are extremely challenging. So there's that whole mine field of fears that most, if not all, of my female peers feel. We should talk about them more, I thought after reading that piece. And we should definitely talk about them with the partners in our lives.

Then I thought I'd write a piece about my own mother. My parents made sacrifices so that my mother could stay home to raise my three younger sisters and me. She took a pause on her fast-rising career in education to make that personal and family choice. While home with us she supported the family through tutoring and teaching college courses in the evenings, but her career trajectory remained on hold until my youngest sister went to school full-time. I believe that was a period of twelve years "out of the game." Since re-entering the field my mom has earned two advanced degrees, transitioned from the classroom to an administrative position and now travels around the country consulting for schools in need of her expertise. She is beyond a shadow of a doubt a success in her field, and she achieved that success from age 40 and beyond. My mom has many things to say about her decision to structure her life and career in the ways that she did, but if you ask her if she's happy and fulfilled in her current professional life, she will say yes. I thought maybe that would be the right topic to use as my response to the Atlantic piece.

But - as you know - I often like to get to the most bottom of all the lines in play on a given issue. Yes, this article is about motherhood. Yes, it's about the career aspirations of women and how they relate to those of men. It's also about gender roles and personal fulfillment and what's best for young children. But - in my opinion - the bottom line here is this god-awful premise of "having it all."

I want to know what exactly "it all" is, and I want to know who in the world has "it" because what all these articles imply with the idea that women still can't have it all, or will never be able to have it all or are trying too hard to have it all is that there is actually some "all" that is attainable to have.

It also, in an unsaid way, implies that men do have it all. They have careers unfettered by the pause of bearing children and less pressure from society to be home to raise those children. Is it crazy to say that men "have it all" because they don't have the guilt? I'm not saying I agree with that, but I do think that's what these articles about the plight of women suggest. Men don't have to worry about it like women do. I trust that my dad, whose work allowed for the decision my parents made for mom to stay home, would say he did not have it all.

Listen - I want companies to be more flexible with hours. I want maternity leave to be longer. I want everyone to stop being so competitive. I want bosses to hire the best candidate, not the candidate who isn't going to leave for two years to raise her kids. But that's not the world we live in.

This whole conversation, to me, is about expectations and perceptions. If you expect to have whatever "it all" is, you will be disappointed. And if perceive that men do "have it all" because they are the gender less expected to stay home, or that rich people "have it all" because they can hire nannies, then you're wrong. There are sacrifices on each side for each class of people - massive, massive sacrifices.

It's not easy to decide which you want more in life - to achieve the greatest success you can in your career or to be the greatest parents you can be. (Note: It is especially not easy if what you aim to achieve is one of the highest posts in one of the biggest companies in the world - a pattern that's common among people frustrated by their inability to have it all.) It is, perhaps, the hardest decision one ever has to make. So reducing that decision to a conversation about "having it all" just isn't fair. 

As such - in conclusion - I motion to strike the entire phrase from our vernacular. We don't need it, it's not helping anyone, and it's way to vague anyway.

So, who's with me?



  1. "And if perceive that men do "have it all" because they are the gender less expected to stay home, or that rich people "have it all" because they can hire nannies, then you're wrong. There are sacrifices on each side for each class of people - massive, massive sacrifices."

    You're right, and very well said.

  2. I very much agree. I think a huge problem with this debate is that older feminists believe that we should have the option to work all the time and become highly invested in our careers without feeling guilty the way men can. But who is to say men don't (...or shouldn't?) feel guilty being choosing work over their families? I think we should be striving to change the expectations for everyone. Women can work more and men can work less and any combination thereof. Make your choices, that's why the options are even there. All life choices are valid and I'm tired of society dictating our lives for us.

  3. I think 'having it all' is different for each person and will mostly depend on your goals in life. Being a mom and having a full time job is like having two jobs in a 24 hour time period. In no way am I saying it's harder than being a stay at home mom, it just comes with different stresses. It's difficult to meet your expectations on wish you could be a home room parent and see your kids more often, but you have that 9am meeting to get to. You wish you could climb the corporate ladder quicker, but leaving early for your kid's soccer practice doesn't make that easy. Thus, you can't have it all. Men don't feel the same way women do, that is, they don't bring their emotions to the forefront as women often do, including the feeling of guilt. Like you said, Jessie, they have less pressure from society. I know, I know it's not easy for them either. But I don't know one mom who didn't cry the first day they dropped off their child at daycare, and I don't know one father who did. Emotions are part of the equation. My conclusion, go after what you want, do it all, no one ever said life is easy, so do what you love. If you're happy with what you love and the direction your life is going in, then you 'have it all'. ~Maria B.