Why I’m Done with “Having it All”

I’ve been trying to write this post all day, in between putting my baby down for naps, folding laundry, taking a shower, breastfeeding, etc., and it’s a disorganized mess. I want to write about the idea of “having it all” and what that means, and what it doesn’t mean, and how we need a new way of thinking and talking about work-life balance. [If you’re interested, here’s a recent article by Anne-Marie Slaughter that made some waves on this topic. And here is Slaughter explaining why she’s decided to renounce the phrase “having it all.”]

But any time I start going down one direction, I begin to argue with myself and get pulled in another direction. So, I’m just going to write a disorganized post and throw a bunch of things at the wall and see what sticks. Hopefully this won’t scare away any faithful readers who expect me to know my own mind all the time. (Hint: lower your expectations.)

On the one hand…

I’m done with the ideal of “having it all.” This post represents me killing it, for good.

Those words feel like a yoke around my neck, something I owe to my foremothers who bravely struggled for the rights women of my generation now take for granted. I want to honor their struggle, but sometimes that’s just too much pressure.

When I hear or read about women “having it all,” I can’t help but think, “Of course I can’t have it all. NO ONE WITH KIDS HAS IT ALL.”

The other day I was leaving for my writing group, and Michael looked at me woefully and said, jokingly, “One of these days you’re going to leave and never come back.”

“I have to come back,” I said. “I’m lactating.”

And that’s no joke! Every three hours or so, I have a date with either a pump or my baby, and all that pumping and breastfeeding is more time-consuming than you’d think. And that’s just the wee tip of the icy tundra of parenting. I’ve only been a mother for four months, but already I’ve had to make professional sacrifices to keep up with motherhood. (Not to mention the professional and financial sacrifices involved in Michael being with Julian fulltime.)

Betty Friedan

Betty Friedan, watching

But I’m tired of feeling guilty for making those sacrifices, as if the time I spend with my baby is somehow wasted time, that I should be using that time to meet with students or write another book or go to a conference or somehow make a name for myself because BETTY FRIEDAN IS WATCHING.

If “having it all” becomes my battle cry, I’m afraid I’ll constantly be asking myself, “Am I working hard enough? Am I climbing far enough, fast enough?”

I’m also annoyed because “having it all” carries some weighty and troublesome assumptions about gender. We don’t hear much kvetching in the media about how men with high-powered careers have had to sacrifice time with their families. Nope. It is assumed that that will happen, and it’s not seen as a loss for those men, or their families. Not only does this undervalue the very real and necessary work of caring for children and keeping a home running; it undervalues the importance of children having close, intimate bonds with fathers as well as mothers.

Yet women are always at the center of this conversation, because the conflict between work and family is assumed to be a uniquely female conflict – which reveals that this conversation is ACTUALLY focused on what happens outside the home (i.e., in the workforce) and not so much what happens within it. Because if our culture really valued domestic labor, we’d be concerned that, by and large, men aren’t taking part. (Feel free to check out my earlier post on this issue.)

This concept of “having it all” seems married to a value system that privileges money and power. And sometimes I feel like American feminism has too easily absorbed the cultural values of said money-making and power-grubbing. But how can we seek both to empower women AND reject that power as problematic? (And now I am beginning to understand why this post is so difficult to write…)

The implicit message we grow up with is that what we do to earn money should be our center of gravity, rather than the people we love, or other kinds of unpaid work we do out of necessity or enjoyment (like blogging!). And the scary thing is, you can climb and climb and accumulate and accumulate – and then you retire and die. There’s always more money to be made. Even the mind-blowingly wealthy among us are busy making more money. I worry that the attitude of “having it all” means that nothing will ever feel like enough.

On the other hand…

living room

Messy living room, iPhone style

As soon as I hear myself say, “you can’t have it all,” I think about my female college students, women who are just beginning to find out who they are and who they want to be – personally, professionally, philosophically. Women who are learning to believe in themselves, to see themselves as leaders in their communities. I don’t want them to hear in these words that they have to choose between having a job they love and being a successful parent. Because you can do both, absolutely. Many women, including myself, are living proof of that. [Of course, it might mean that your living room looks like THIS for several years.—->]

[And, as an aside, my single best piece of advice for women who hope to have a career and a family is this: choose a supportive partner, someone who is committed to co-parenting, someone willing to making sacrifices and compromises alongside you.]

But you don’t HAVE to have both. You can also choose to pursue just one of these paths, or you can hop back and forth between them. You can decide to be an at-home “breastfeeding executive” (which is how one of my smart, successful SAHM friends lists her occupation on facebook). To choose this doesn’t mean you’ve failed in the quest of “having it all,” that you’ve failed your college degree, or your professors, or womankind, or God. You don’t have to be famous. You don’t have to earn a shitload of money. You don’t have to have a career outside the home to make a tangible difference in the lives of those who share your little patch of Earth.

And you can also choose to NOT get married (seriously, you can!), or to get married but not have children. Again, this doesn’t mean you’re betraying your ovaries, or your parents, or the species, or God. None of these modes of living is inherently honorable or valuable or “successful” than the others. There is no cookie cutter for your life.

I also think about my male students, who have grown up in a culture that tells them to define their self-worth by what they do to make money outside the home, beyond the context of their family and community. I want to tell them that success actually might look like “having less” – it might look like working less, or earning less, in order to be present to the people they love.

What I want these young men and women to understand is that having a family — whether you have a career in addition or not — will always require certain sacrifices and compromises. It means that, in the pursuit of balance, you might have to make some tough choices. And in that context, measuring yourself against a slogan of “having it all” could feel like failure. Which is why I want to jettison those words.

I want to give my students, and myself, permission to shirk the societal model of ladder-climbing, the success rubric of money and power, to choose NOT to define ourselves by what we earn and own, but by who and what we love.

So as I reach the end of my jumbled thoughts, I guess my conclusion is this:

Don’t ask, as you enter the world, “Do I have it all?” Ask: “Am I living deeply? And where am I putting my roots?”

work life balance

Work-Life Balance

[Please discuss in the comments, because I don’t even know if I completely agree with myself.]

33 comments

  1. ninjasmum

    My husband and I both have good jobs (and I’m currently on maternity leave) but he is usually the one complaining about what he hasn’t been able to achieve because our toddler/baby is keeping us too busy! I tend to think that the kids are my main achievement for now and I really don’t want to stuff it up, so that’s much more important than renovating the house etc etc. We were talking about this at work a while back and it really seems common for fathers to get to middle age or retirement and wonder what they’ve achieved in life … whereas the mothers are happy to concede that they’ve raised x number of healthy, happy kids and that’s an achievement in itself! I think it’s not about having it all, but what your priorities are … that’s just my two cents anyway!

    • Abigail

      That’s a good point about the middle age/retirement — I’ve thought about that myself lately, in the context of my own life, which is why I’m realizing that it’s important for my not to root my entire identity or self-worth in my career, but rather in the people I love. (Having a cute baby helps with that!) :)

  2. Jacinda Thomas

    Thank you for this, Abi. Today I had to take myself on a walk after staring at scholarship questions regarding my accomplishments and career goals. I felt overwhelmed with the burden of needing to have all my crap together. Instantly. Even crap that hasn’t happened yet. I’m slowly realizing that “having less,” as you put it, and “having it all” are options, rather than defaults that damn or commend.

    • Abigail

      Ugh, I pretty much felt that way CONSTANTLY throughout my early twenties. And brilliant women like yourself have SO MANY options that that can be pretty paralyzing at times. Don’t feel like you have to have your entire future mapped out yet; just do the next thing, and then the next thing after that… What you want right now may change, or may look different than you expect. The not-knowing was torture for me for quite a few years. Now I’m trying to open myself up to it more. The other day, I actually thought, “You know, if for some reason I eventually lose or leave my job in academia, that will be okay. I’ll figure out a Plan B.” My early 20s self would be shocked to hear me say that.

    • Abigail

      PS: Not that I’m planning to leave academia or anything — I am just constantly processing hypotheticals. One of my neuroses.

  3. JayNine

    LOVE LOVE LOVE LAUGHTER LOVE !!! And we have matching living rooms, accept mines a four year olds disaster (I’m convinced were both now add) So I know exactly what it’s like to fold, shower, think of writing post, dishes, think of writing post, dog out, post, photo post, maybe tomorrow ill post and that’s the end of the day with a four year old jumping off the couch watching my brain bounce up n down in my head. Then I lie in bed and remember why I actually gave up having tilt all. The cost was too high for me physically. THANK YOU soo much for your share!! Jeanine H

    • Abigail

      Thanks, Jeanine! And it’s helpful to know that this “baby chaos” thing isn’t going to get better any time soon; it’ll just morph into toddler chaos, and so on — I need to manage my expectations about that. :)

  4. Erin Wood

    These are good thoughts Abby and I can tell you you are not alone in trying to figure it all out. I think “having it all” sounds good in theory but in reality we see that it’s not possible because we desire relationships with those around us (family, friends, co-workers, spouse, children). And with relationships comes the aspect of time…which is what we never seem to have enough of. If all we had to think about was ourselves then it would be easy to “have it all”. But I think we would be pretty miserable and the world would be a scary place to live. Even if someone is single or without children they are still going to have relationships in their lives whether its friends, co-workers, family, etc.

    Maybe if we hired house cleaners we could have it all? Ha. Or if we didn’t need to sleep.

    • Abigail

      Yes, I think you’re absolutely right. Which is why I’m trying to make a shift toward thinking more relationally, rather than individually — but that’s tough in this culture, where the focus is on “me, me, me” all the time….

  5. Odd-toed Ungulate

    The main problem, for me, is that we’ve let the world’s system tell us what “all” we’re supposed to be having. We now see it in terms of career, upward mobility, income, and/or “stuff”. All of these things are good in their proper proportion and priority. But like an all-you-can-eat buffet, trying to have it all, all the time, to the maximum degree, just leaves us ill and sick of all of it equally. And yet, even knowing this in my head, I still feel the pull to work and overwork, to make as much money as possible in order to create as much security as possible. I am continually reminded that the “all” I should be seeking is not dictated by earthly wealth or a fancy job title. The “all” I should be seeking is dictated by a different kingdom, with a different set of priorities. How to balance these two competing “alls”? Got me there. That’s a work in continual progress.

      • Odd-toed Ungulate

        Uh, I don’t know what you mean, I’m just an anonymous stranger who, uh, stumbled on your blog while Googling “post-partum Ricki Lake cat pictures”! You know, normal work stuff…

  6. Melanie

    Yes to all of this, Abby. I think it’s important for our students to see folks like you modeling what one version of having enough (but not all) might look like; as you note, nobody can have it all, and it bothers me that we rarely interrogate that notion with men, esp. those who have chosen to be all-in with their professions, which will mean having less time at home with their kids. It still grates me a little when I drive on campus over break to pick something up that I’ve left in my office, and recognize a few of my colleagues who don’t have to make the choice between hanging with the kids all day or getting some writing done, between another game of Candy Land or finishing their grading.

    But then, I also think that everyone of us make a million and more choices about what our lives are going to look like: their choices mean they will miss out on stuff, and choices mean they will miss out on stuff, too. Because I made the initial choice to have kids, I’m faced with a range of other choices: Do I spend my lunch in the Den, and therefore take more work home with me in the evening and miss out on time with the family? Do I take a moment to watch a crappy TV show with my sons, thereby staying up a little later to answer email? It’s all a matter of choices, some made well and some not.

    I think we need to get to the place where we can celebrate the choices each of us make individually, knowing those choices might guide us toward living a richer, deeper life–even if those choices are far different than those someone else might make.

    • Abigail

      Yes, love what you say in that last paragraph. The comparison game is perhaps the most effective way to sabotage one’s own happiness. I catch myself doing that WAY too often.

  7. Steel Magnolia

    Yes. All of that. Yes.
    I had a professor tell me that one could have “it all” but not at the same time, and I’ve tried to use that to keep my head in check.
    I’ll be revisiting this post when I feel like I’m losing it. :)

  8. Susiemessmaker

    In my life of work, wife-hood and motherhood, I’ve learned that having it all comes with exhaustion, guilt, and the feeling I’m constantly living on the edge of insanity. But playing only one of these roles can leave you feeling that way too! At the end of the day I love and am loved and this is what matters to me.

  9. Caity

    I, too, struggle with this outside the home work/at home work balance, and I am only staying at home! I absolutely feel the pressure to continue in academia or somehow contribute to the education of young people, but I feel a similar strain to be present every single moment of my daughter’s life. Her first tooth broke through two days ago and I was emotional about how quickly she will be a toddler and then a little girl…I blinked and I was caressing *her* baby’s head. (I, however, tend to “future-trip” and need to remember to park my DeLorean in the present). Some days I still muse about getting my Master’s degree and teaching PT at a local college. I suppose I just go toward the stronger “pull” as the tension’s disappearance is a dubious prospect. PS: Thanks for the shoutout ;)

    • Abigail

      I can completely relate to where you’re coming from, but from the flip-side. Sometimes I envy Michael that he gets to be home and present for more of those moments than I am. And I have a remarkably flexible working situation; I can’t imagine, at this point, if I had to be away from Julian 9-5, five days a week. Yikes. Yet I also know myself well enough to realize that, if I were home, I’d have similar angst about wanting to be back at work … Sigh. The tension is inevitable, you’re right. The only solution is to just dig into the present, which is tough, because I am definitely a neurotic “future-tripper!” Love that I have a new name for that now. (Congrats on the first tooth! Woot. So I guess maybe it was teething after all?!)

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  11. sbialostok

    ” To choose this doesn’t mean you’ve failed in the quest of “having it all,” that you’ve failed your college degree, or your professors, or womankind, or God. You don’t have to be famous. You don’t have to earn a shitload of money. You don’t have to have a career outside the home to make a tangible difference in the lives of those who share your little patch of Earth.”
    Thank you for that. I’m going to print this out and hang it on my wall.

    I’ve only been married for 5 months and we’re not planning on having kids for a while but this idea of “having it all,” and being good at everything is already stressing me out.

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  13. dominique

    I read this last night while nursing my daughter and am just now getting the chance to comment while I’m pumping. I appreciate everything this post said and much of the comments as well. My husband and I have both been struggling with life/work balance since our daughter was born in the summer.

    • Abigail

      Ha! I JUST finished pumping. (So do you have one of those fancy hands-free holster things that allow you to type while pumping??? I’m constantly doing the awkward one-handed thing…)

  14. charliegreenberry

    Because I’m in the second half of my 20s and feeling pressure to both settle down to have a family and to give my career some extra energy, I found this post really heartening. While I understand why the conversation you enter is happening, the trickle down is that I am reminded (literally) that I have to make a choice soon: successful career or wife and mom. It’s nice to have someone say “calm down and just live,” which is, ultimately, my philosophy. Also, you gave me hope because if you replaced the kid stuff with dog stuff and books, that’d be my living room on a good day. I can live with that. :)

    • Abigail

      Yes — it does all come to a head in the late 20s for women, doesn’t it? And what you choose this year, or next year, might not be the choice that defines the next thirty years. You can think, “What do I need to live well and fully in the now?” (Not that that is necessarily an easier question to answer… None of this stuff is easy.)

      • charliegreenberry

        I’ve settled on writing out everything that overwhelms me in possible scenarios. Oh, and spending a lot of time just staring off into space. That’s what I need to live now. Thanks again for a great post!

  15. John Meindersee II

    I wish you had more musing on what to tell men, although I can’t expect a mother to completely understand the male dilemma as much, I suppose.

    The challenge for me here is that I so desperately want to co-parent and be that supportive partner you mention at the end of your post. At the same time I have a startup business that brings in no income right now and someone needs to bring home the bacon. Here are the questions I have right now:
    – Is it ok to sacrifice being an involved father in order to pursue my business?
    – Does the potential end of the business being success (working from home with a flexible schedule, control of my own time, doing what I love, etc) justify the means of sacrificing time with my daughter?
    – Should I just abandon my goals and dreams, get a good 9-5 job and spend every night and weekend with my family?
    – If I can’t have it all, what do I give up, and for how long?

    I suppose this would be a general trend in what it means to be a male, but regardless, this is how I feel. Maybe women feel a pull to the workplace, but I feel a pull to the home.

    • Abigail

      Actually, to be perfectly honest, what you describe doesn’t sound uniquely male to me; in fact, your questions are eerily similar to the ones I’m wrestling with, especially this one: “If I can’t have it all, what do I give up, and for how long?” I think the tension you’re describing fits anyone who feels a simultaneous pull toward a career (whether for practical or ambitious reasons) and to the home. Maybe it’s just becoming more and more the case that both men and women find themselves in this same boat. I was much more career-oriented before having a baby; it’s only since becoming a mother that that has shifted for me. I wish I had more helpful advice, but I feel like I’m right there with you! Still, maybe it’s helpful to think about this as an ongoing balance you’ll have to negotiate, rather than something you have to decide, once and for all, right now. I don’t think being the breadwinner or investing in your start-up business means you can’t/won’t be an involved co-parent — at least that’s what I tell myself, as the current breadwinner in my family. If there’s a parallel to your situation, it might be that I am trying to juggle 1) my breadwinning job 2) my writing, which is connected to but also independent from my job and 3) being a wife/mother — right now, what I’m sacrificing most is probably sleep. I do most of my writing after Julian is in bed. And I’m definitely pulling back in terms of commitments at work, when I can. But some days I feel like this means I’m just doing all three things half-assed. And now I’m just sort of rambling…

  16. ginaelisedavis

    Oh I LOVE this post! I am a new mom to a now 6 month old daughter. I work full time and try my hardest to spend quality time with her when I get home and on the weekends. Before I had her I painted, did crafts, read, ran, ect. I have been trying to figure out how people “have it all” But I think your right, you don’t have to have it all. All you have at any given moment can be all you need.
    Hmm did that make any sense?! Im not as good as a writer as you! But I love your blog! thank you!

    • Abigail

      Thanks so much! Glad you like the blog. I used to run regularly before the baby, and just haven’t had the time or energy to get back into it. I’m trying to give myself a little grace, though. Can’t do it all. And that’s okay.