My All is Not Your All: Comments on “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All”

By: Wendy Rhein

Like many people, I’ve been caught up in the polarizing dialogue around the recent Atlantic Monthly article by Anne-Marie Slaughter called “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All.” Yep. You’re bristling already aren’t you.

The Women’s Studies feminist activist of my youth was prepared to tear apart her every argument, but the working mom of two was saying “wait a minute, let’s hear her out. She’s got a point.”

And she does.

I do not agree with all her arguments about why women are not able to simultaneously achieve what she considers high level professional success while maintaining a functional family life. Many of the arguments have merit but in fact, I disagree with her very definition of “all.”  The premise itself is the most flawed part of the whole article for me.

Having It All has not been culturally redefined since it was coined as a quippy goal of the feminist movement of the 1970s when women fought for the rights of respect, equal access, credibility, and the ability to make the same life choices as men. I’m eternally grateful. However, when “having it all” means women need to have a successful, high powered and financially lucrative career, coupled with a hot love life to a committed partner, well behaved children, and a clean house, I think we’ve done ourselves a disservice.

First of all, I think that a lot of these issues women are facing also apply to men. More and more often men are experiencing similar internal battles of high pressured work and wanting to be there for soccer games and the first day of school.

We set women up for feeling like failures when society instills – and we accept – the Martha Stewart effect. That everyone, every woman, should be able to make her own laundry detergent using organic lavender she grows in the palatial backyard while simultaneously running a multi-billion dollar media conglomerate. Martha almost seemed to have a disdain for those of us who didn’t follow her 29 ‘simple’ steps for a five-layer Flag Day cake replete with marzipan soldiers re-enacting a battle from the War of 1812. Setting that as the standard of “having it all” is a cultural punishment of women that does little to support people who want and/or need to work while simultaneously having a family life.

I never liked Martha, not until she went to jail and mellowed out a bit.

The social and cultural issue that we need to tackle I believe is to more broadly define what it means to have it all. It isn’t about ambition. It is not, as Facebook’s Chief Operating Officer, Sheryl Sandberg, said in her 2011 commencement speech at Barnard, a matter of women not dreaming big enough. (SERIOUSLY?!) Not all of us will be a COO of a massive company, or head a university or even a country. But more importantly, we may not want to! We can want more than nosebleed-high professional success and still be worthy, contributing women.

I know many women who have been lucky enough, talented enough, to take side steps off the professional path they were on and find fulfillment and compensation to support their families in a more present way, but it is not easy. We all started in a similar way – fresh from college or grad school, putting in long hours, living in tiny apartments, willing to say yes to any project or advancement opportunity and only thinking about its life impact later. Or when something happened that forced us to stop – a father’s heart attack, a lay off, a divorce, a pregnancy, or a sick child. I myself have made very different professional choices since my kids came along and have been questioned about it time and again. I resent the questions and having to justify my decisions to bosses and even human resource managers who think that ‘spending time with my children’ is a less reasonable reason to take a lateral job than ‘taking time off to travel Africa.’

When my first son was 18 months old, I chose to leave an executive job  and became a consultant for a few years. I was minutes from his day care, and he no longer was in someone else’s care 10 hours a day, five days a week. Life was more flexible, and I was more accessible mentally and physically. It was precarious, as many of my single parent and self employed friends know, but the freedom to control my own schedule was paramount to being able to dedicate time to my family instead of punching a clock and being beholden to someone else’s schedule. I should not have to apologize for that choice but I have been asked to justify that decision in job interviews since then.

There are times when I do feel twinges of envy for the high flying life of champagne receptions and international travel. And then I go home to my messy apartment, greeted before I can even get my heels off and my heavy laptop bag down, by jumping children who scream and crave my attention and love. It is not about commitment, because to make a decision to step out of the professional rat race, or turn down a higher paying job because it will require more travel, is the definition of commitment to one’s family. My “all” includes family first and work second, not the other way around.

We have gotten so far from our politically pithy commitment to “family values” that we are routinely telling young women (and young men) ‘you can have it all, just not at the same time’ when really we should be saying ‘fight for a life balance, demand it of yourself and your colleagues and employers.’ We should be realistic that being a working parent who achieves as a parent and as an employee is tremendously hard, and for those with professional choices and the ability to have help at home and affordable child care it is much easier than it is for the vast majority of working women. We should applaud, not penalize, parents whose career path looks like a staircase and not a rocket launch.

My “all” is not the same as yours, and certainly not the same as Dr. Slaughter’s, but it is one I’m proud of and happy with. That alone should be the definition of achievement.

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Comments

  1. Madgew says

    So true Wendy. I was that Mom in the 70′s who was encouraged to have it all. A life, a family and a job. I soon found it didn’t go together and was not achievable without some some sacrifice somewhere. I was the pick up Mom from the activities while other Moms did the drop off who were home. I still had to carry the full load and I had a husband who was willing to help but I still couldn’t manage it all at 100% which I was told was achievable. It wasn’t. So glad more and more companies are understanding this and working from home is an option I never had. No laptops, no cellphones, no computers. Just a madness to be all things to everything. Great article Wendy.

  2. Wendy Rhein says

    Thanks Madge, when I talk to my peers we tend to agree that having it all is possible if and when we define what “all” means. Contentment, happiness, functioning relationships, rewarding work and happy children all contribute to a sense of accomplishment.

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