I'm Pretty Sure I 'Have It All,' But No One Believes Me

With a happy family and a career, I generally feel like I've got it made. According to the current cultural dialogue, however, I do not "have it all" -- I have two halves that don't make a whole.

Dec 15, 2013 at 11:00am | Leave a comment

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My daily 5:30am wake-up call is a small person's voice shouting "Chucho!" (That's the dog, who proceeds to jump off the bed and run into the baby's room.)

Then, "You want to get the bottle or the coffee?" I ask my husband, knowing full well that he'll lie in bed another 10 minutes before he can do much of anything, at which point I'll hand him the baby and the bottle and run upstairs to get the coffee. A half hour later he'll head out to catch his train and I'll play with the baby, then make his lunch, get him dressed and hand him over to the nanny.

By 9am I'll be at my desk working, or in the car on the way to a meeting. At 2pm, the nanny will hand me a video monitor on which I'll see my boy, Archie, flat on his back, arms wide open, fast asleep. I'll keep working until he wakes up at 3pm, then we'll go for a hike with the dog, play some more, have dinner and a bath. Sometimes my husband makes it home for that part, sometimes he doesn't, but either way Archie is in bed by 7, leaving us to hunker down for a few episodes of whatever TV series we're binge-watching at the time.

Sure, I sometimes wish I had more work hours or that my husband helped out more or that we had more money for this or that, but in general I think I've got it made. I know how amazingly fucking lucky I am to be able to afford childcare, to have a partner who shares both the bills and the child-rearing, and to be able to work just 30 hours a week and set my own schedule doing something I love. According to the current cultural dialogue, however, I do not "have it all" -- I have two halves that do not make a whole.

First there was the debate around Marissa Mayer taking over the top job at Yahoo and having a baby at the same time. Then came former State Department policy director Anne-Marie Slaughter's essay in The Atlantic, in which she called the whole idea of women "having it all" -- by which she means reaching the top level in their profession while having a functional, healthy family -- a myth.

Next up were Sheryl Sandberg's various talks, culminating in the book Lean In, which argues precisely the opposite. Then the New York Times Magazine story revisited the so-called "opt-out" generation, which now apparently "wants back in." Esquire fired back saying men don't have it all either, so quit whining, bitches. Then came Time magazine's cover story focused on having it all without having a baby, and then Glamour, with essentially a repeat of Slaughter's essay -- women can't have it all and we need to stop putting pressure on ourselves to even try -- only this time written by the president of Barnard.

The pendulum has swung back and forth all year, but at no point has there been much examination of the definition of "having it all." I thought maybe the Time story would go there, but it was yet another rehash of the with-child vs. childless debate. The current definition of women having it all is bullshit. Very few people really want to run a company and deal with a toddler at the same time. There's also this undercurrent to all of it that hints at women just wanting what men have had for years. But what men had for years was the go-ahead to devote themselves to work and get a pass on family life. When we started expecting more out of dads, men stopped having it all in a big way, and it could be argued that they never had it to begin with, they just had careers.  Big fucking deal. And anyway, does equality need to mean both genders having all the same things, whether they want them or not? Why does the traditional definition of male success -- something which many modern men rail against themselves -- need to become the goal for ambitious women?

Gender roles have shifted enough in the last decade, helped in part by the economy, to enable an increasing number of men to take a more active role in child-rearing. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the number of full-time stay-at-home dads has doubled in the last 10 years. As of 2010, 17 percent of fathers reported being their children's primary caregiver and by all accounts that number has most certainly increased in the last three years. If society is beginning to accept Mr. Mom, can our cultural notions of what constitutes "having it all" for a woman not be at least as flexible?

Part of the problem is the way women judge each others' success, or lack thereof, in both the professional and personal realms. As the first generation of women who had the option of having a career, and who were sort of expected to have one, there's a lot of pressure for stay-at-home moms to be super-moms. If you're not heading to the office every day or bringing home a pay check, the thinking goes, you better be putting in some serious time making sure your kid is surpassing all developmental milestones. You'd also better be cooking nutritious, organic food, keeping a tidy, chic house and keeping your ass tight and lifted. And not necessarily because of what your husband wants or what society dictates, but because of how the moms in your mom group will judge you if you're not taking your little moppet to every class possible or if your mum tum is still showing after a year.

I suppose a little bit of mom competition isn't necessarily a bad thing, except that it perpetuates some rather rigid ideas about the roles of women. Does being the best possible mom mean making sure you spend absolutely all your time with your kids? That you think only of them, that you put your needs and interests second, 100 percent of the time? And, if it does, isn't that mutually exclusive with being anything else, including a good spouse or partner, or even just a happy, sociable adult?

Plus what does that say about women who don't have any choice but to juggle raising kids and working one or more jobs? No educated, upper class woman would be caught saying such mothers are "bad," but this is the judgment inherent in such definitions of motherhood. Meanwhile, my husband and his Silicon Valley colleagues criticize co-workers -- both men and women -- who go home early to spend time with their kids. "They claim they're 'working from home' but I don't buy it," he's said to me on more than one occasion. Because God forbid anyone put their family's well-being above that of their boss.

If we're going to keep arguing about whether women can or cannot have it all, shouldn't we set aside some time to discuss the fact that "having it all" means different things to different people? Perhaps some women aren't "giving up" on C-suite aspirations to have kids, but rather deciding that they'd rather have more balance than more money. Others may not be "sacrificing" family for the sake of career, but rather find themselves to be better people -- and better mothers, for that matter -- if they're allowed to pursue a career they love. And that career may not be running a multi-million dollar tech company. It might be, I don't know, freelance writing or something.

While we're at it, our corporate culture doesn't just need to shift to accommodate families, but to be healthier places for people in general. Whether you've got kids at home or not, it's probably not good to spend 80 hours a week working, and you'd be hard-pressed to find anyone doing so who'd say they feel like they "have it all." Before we as a society decide what women can and can't accomplish, and what roles women and men should play, perhaps we should stop and figure out whether anyone wants the current definition of "it all" in the first place.