In 1982, HG Brown published a book titled Having It All: Love, Success, Sex, Money…even if you’re starting with nothing. The phrase “having it all” has since evolved to represent whether women can have both—glowing family life and an equally stellar career, a topic of intense debate worldwide.
An editorial published in the New York Times, almost a century ago (June 1922), responded to the question “Who are the twelve greatest women in the United States?” with the names of twelve prominent living women from that time. But, not before the editors acknowledged that the greatest women were those whose names we wouldn’t know because they had put their ambitions on hold to build careers for their husbands or take care of children and other household matters.
The editors noted that none of the prominent twelve women named in the report had children. Six of the twelve remained unmarried. They concluded the article with this comment:
“Let those who think it’s easy to manage a first-rate career and a first-rate home simultaneously find an explanation for that.”
As I read the article, I had to ask: Is this even a meaningful yardstick (in the 21st century) to measure progress?
And more importantly, a century later, is it now possible for a woman to have a first-rate career and a first rate-home simultaneously—aka, can one have it all?
Having it all
It is with a lot of apprehensions that I use the phrase “having it all.” But since the term has somehow become the go-to language to signify concurrent professional and personal success, I’ll stick with it. Albeit, reluctantly.
What does it having it all even mean?
Common sense tells us to stay away from superlatives terms such as All. That said, we need to define what all means in the context it’s used here.
Having it all isn’t about pure hedonism or simply seeking the next rung in the pleasure-ladder. Nor is it about being dissatisfied with your current lot in life—job, relationship, finances. These issues are all simply part of being human, and they exist regardless of gender, culture, or social class.
Having it all in this context has a much more targeted definition. It is a unique yearning to be an effortless and content superwoman. It signifies a state of being, typically for a woman, where work, love, family, responsibilities, hobbies, beauty, and time blend perfectly. But in a manner that is stressless and guiltless.
Sounds impressive, doesn’t it? That’s because it is. And for that reason, it’s about as rare as it sounds.
How do I know?
I have firsthand experience of what it’s like to have it all. Whoa! What?!
With a caveat, of course.
My having it all usually lasts for one day, each leap year. For about one day in every four years, I feel totally balanced—all facets of my life seem to be in perfect harmony with one other.
The rest of the time, i.e., 99.9999% of my existence, is spent walking through life in a lopsided state—a tug-o-war between competing and (IMHO) equally essential priorities.
Guess what, though. I’ve managed to find my peace in the chaos.
That’s what this essay is about. It is an opinion piece shaped by my personal journey.
The color of the “have-it-all” rainbow I see is unique to me because the prism I use to view the rainbow is molded by my experiences, learnings, and cultural beliefs. Some of these beliefs were brainwashed into me in my childhood; others, I’ve cultivated as I’ve grown. While a few of the principles are core to my belief system, others are ever-changing and ever-adapting, subject to new information and interpretation.
So, I’m here to show. Not tell. This is my take on what having it all means. You may have your own, very different take, and that’s okay. In the meantime, I hope you’ll indulge my perspective on this subject.
Nature and Nurture
Over the few decades of my life, I have gotten a lot of advice on what my place as a woman in society should be. The advice ranged from practical to aspirational. While some were grounded in reality, some were plainly uninformed. Some advice was solicited. There were other nuggets (unsought by me) but freely dispensed to me.
Here’s a sample of the guidance I received fairly early on in life:
- Economic independence is crucial – make sure you can fend for yourself financially, so you never have to rely on another person.
- Get married, preferably to someone who’ll earn more than you do (no hurt egos), and raise a family.
- Do something to shatter the glass ceiling since there are so many people looking up to you.
- Put your career on hold while you raise young children; no one else is capable of caring for your children the way you can.
- You are incredibly fortunate to have the career opportunities available to you. Do not fritter them away.
And so on.
Inundated with such conflicting (sometimes well-intentioned) advice, it’s no surprise I started journeying through my life and career in a somewhat discombobulated state. The conflation of what I should vs. what I would was like a musical drone accompaniment to everything I did in life. The voices in my head meant I was never sure if I was furthering feminism’s cause or impeding progress.
What I hadn’t bargained for in the quest to have it all was how I merely succeeded in feeling guilty about it all. All the time.
The guilt fest started early.
After our daughter was born and my husband went back to work (leaving me to deal with a crying baby and endless cycles of feed-burp-nap-change), I wished to be the one escaping to work instead of him. Then, a nanosecond later, I felt this massive pang of guilt for thinking unmotherly thoughts.
When the thought of getting back to work after maternity leave surfaced, I became despondent. I was caught between two worldviews: being told you couldn’t trust another human being to raise your child right and the equally forceful thought of knowing you’ll lose your place in the corporate rat race if you don’t show up at work soon enough. The result? Guilt at work for not being a 24/7 hands-on parent and guilt at home for not going the extra mile on work projects.
Then, over the years, sometimes, as I lost track of time at work, due to the rare privilege of finding the work fulfilling, I’d forget to be home at a specific time to get dinner on the table. A privilege I usually paid for with a guilt trip on the way back home and a bribe of some sort.
At other times, after leaving work early for school pick up, instead of answering a work email or sending a presentation slide deck for review if I chose to go out for a run, my brain rewarded me with not just endorphins but added a good dose of guilt.
I could go on, but you get my drift, right? I wish I were unique in this regard. Sadly, no. This particular brand of neuroses is an affliction suffered by countless women. I know because I see it. Every. Single. Day.
This endless finger-wagging, fear-mongering, and guilt-tripping, though self-generated but borne out of societal expectations, isn’t without severe consequences.
Standing behind every great child is a woman who believes she’s somehow screwing it all up.
Guilt and stress are natural to our existence. They are control mechanisms built into the human psyche. They don’t discriminate based on gender or culture. No one should expect to live wholly guilt-free or stress-free. But I’m not talking about that kind of guilt or stress here.
I’m talking about the constant drone of guilt in the background.
When guilt becomes the baseline condition instead of an add-on, the situation warrants closer scrutiny. Think of guilt like an acrylic sweater for someone with sensitive skin. A 70% cotton and 30% acrylic sweater may be a tad uncomfortable, but you can still function with it. But an 80% acrylic sweater will be itchy and make you miserable and angry, no matter how hard you try to treat the symptoms.
We all walk around in the 80% acrylic (guilt) sweaters most of the time. No wonder we snap, bark, and shoot daggers out of our eyes, with the slightest provocation.
What is all this guilt doing to us?
In the pressure to have it all, women engage in a losing battle with the odds stacked heavily against them.
I don’t dispute we’ve made progress.
A few decades ago, my mother had to turn down several career opportunities in favor of family stability. She did not even entertain the thought of advancing in her career because that would mean uprooting and moving the family frequently from one city to another, which couldn’t be done because of my dad’s career choices. There wasn’t even a discussion to entertain the possibility of mom’s career taking precedence over dad’s. It was just assumed she’d play a supportive role, which she and countless others in similar circumstances did. Quite happily and without an ounce of resentment.
In comparison, women of my generation and the ones after me seem to make much more objective choices. That is definitely progress, and, in that sense, yes, it isn’t just a man’s world anymore.
But we have an awfully long way to go still.
In 2012, the Atlantic published what went on to become a much-debated, much-discussed article by Anne Marie Slaughter titled Why women still can’t have it all. The article’s premise was that unless some fundamental social changes are made to ensure equal opportunity across sexes, it would require enormous privilege and superhuman capabilities for a woman to maintain (to quote NY times) a “first-rate career and a first rate-home.”
Not to be outdone, the men’s magazine Esquire, in response, published a twice-as-long counter piece on Why men can’t have it all—whining about the supposed whining in Slaughter’s article.
We can all agree that work-life balance is now a gender-neutral issue. The fact that men even have to worry about work-life balance indicates we’ve come a long way.
Men don’t have it easy either. Suppose a man spends his life climbing the corporate ladder in the hope of providing well for his family. In that case, he may have to contend with his child complain later to therapists about mental trauma because “my father was never present to take me to soccer practices or piano lessons.” Yes, men cannot have it all either.
But the Esquire piece missed the point. Society is still organized today like its 1922. Especially when it comes to the division of roles and responsibilities when running a household and managing a family. There are exceptions, but they are few and far between.
The invisible project manager
We’re contending with generations of conditioning in terms of who does what.
Time studies by the Bureau of Labor Statistics have indicated that as of 2016, women spend an average of 2.3 hours per day on household activities compared to the 1.4 hours spent by men. That’s almost an hour more each day. Which, let’s be honest, is probably, the only “leisure” time you get, on an average day.
Not that men aren’t capable of doing the same household chores, especially if both partners have equally demanding jobs outside the home. It just doesn’t occur to them that they need to unless they are asked. Women have become the unseen project managers at home, but unlike paid project managers, they also are the doers of most of the project tasks.
French cartoonist, Emma, illustrates the concept of Mental Load. Women are the ones having to remember just about everything—whether there is enough milk in the fridge to last another day, or if camp consent forms for the kids need to be signed, or when to schedule the plumber. This mental load can be exhausting and never-ending.
I’m sure many are familiar with the sick-to-the-stomach feeling of forgetting to turn in something on deadline because you were overwhelmed or were too busy finding your child’s favorite lost sock.
Crucially, though, this load is invisible. There are no upsides to carrying the mental load, but the downside—slacking off on this load, can be disastrous.
New century, old setting
When the NY Times referenced a research study that said mothers with jobs outside the house spend as much time parenting as stay-at-home moms did in the 1970s, it should raise the alarm. Couple this with the fact that, based on a 2019 Gallup poll, a record-high number of women now prefer to work outside the home instead of being traditional homemakers.
It does not bode well when the cart has left the building while the horse is still in the stable.
We all crave a little vintage sometimes. Longing for the good old days grandpa used to tell us about. There’s one area, though, that doesn’t require too much imagination. We don’t have to wonder what it used to be like. That’s because it still is arranged pretty much the same way today...
Who’s waiting for you when you get home?
I’m referring to our society’s policies and procedures that still assume we have a matronly figure taking care of things at home.
At a work meeting a few years ago, I was asked why I seemed agitated when everyone around me seemed to be enjoying a moment of levity. While I’m all for humor in the workplace, and good-natured small talk, forgive me for not paying attention to my coworker’s chit-chat at 5:45 p.m. about the helicopter circling his neighborhood. I was too busy wondering how to get creative with leftovers for dinner and whether to make a vinaigrette or ranch dressing. Crucial decisions.
I have a fair share of chopper stories up my sleeve too. I certainly wish I could have stayed and prattled some more. But what I truly wished for was to have someone waiting at home for me with a prepped dinner, cleaned dishes, and sparkly floors. Oh wait, that was supposed to me. Then I had an out-of-body moment. I was at work. Oh, my poor family. Wait, no, poor me. Well, poor, all of us. Okay, I’m confused. And guilty. Very mad. And sorry. All at the same time.
There you go. I do have it all—confusion, guilt, empathy, and anger. Pity, it wasn’t the “all” I was chasing.
In Anne Slaughter’s article in the Atlantic, she references how Louise Richardson combined an assistant professorship in government at Harvard with being a parent to three kids. Slaughter writes, “She organized her time so ruthlessly that she always keyed in 1:11 or 2:22 or 3:33 on the microwave rather than 1:00, 2:00, or 3:00 because hitting the same number three times took less time.”
If having it all demands that kind of brutal efficiency, it’s no wonder many of us fold our cards and forfeit the game sooner than we thought we would.
It’s going to take a lot of deconditioning to reset some of the more unreasonable expectations society sets for women. Like being ambitious but kind to every moron; looking put together without a hair out of place while still working hard; keeping the floors gleaming and the dishes hot while never missing a work deadline; not being a helicopter parent but always available to your kids.
I don’t know about you, but I think it will take a while to get us there.
In the meantime, I have introspected my way through this dilemma and found my secret sauce through this realization:
Always feeling off-balance is my balance
I may not have it all every day, but in general, if I average my life out over a period of time, I get close to having it all.
I’m content with my “coach” life—the search for first-class is simply too toxic to my well-being.
And when someone says to me, “I didn’t have to give anything up, my kids turned great, and I’m senior VP of Earth Inc,” my response is, “Well, good for you!”. (Even if I don’t mean any of it.)