The Myth Of Having It All

I don't even have kids and I'm struggling to keep my head above life's waterline.
Publish date:
October 10, 2013
feminism, having it all, balance, time management, work-life balance, scheduling

An observant commenter, not too terribly long ago, noted that I seem to be struggling to find some balance between feeling like I am not doing enough and doing way too many things. She wasn't wrong -- "When is enough enough?" seems to be the central question of my life this year. I've not yet found an answer, but I've got a few ideas. Maybe y'all can help me put them together a little more clearly.

See, I'm used to this idea that we can have it all. I don't know if it's a particularly 80s message of feminist empowerment or what, but I grew up with the idea that women could work challenging jobs and have fulfilling relationships and practice their intriguing hobbies and so on -- somehow women in the 80s must have had amazing time management.

Marriage -- I never really wanted to get married. (The joke we tell is that Ed tricked me into it.) I wanted to be a woman who wore suits and didn't take shit. I wanted to be in control of my own life in as much as any of us are in control. I was focused on my goal. I was driven and intense. (In hindsight, perhaps worryingly so for a child.) I was working toward a really well defined mental image of "having it all" that involved retiring to a horse ranch in Arizona even though I'd never been to Arizona.

I also had these weird tremors that meant I couldn't hold my hand steady.

Seriously, no child should be that tense.

It wasn't until I left home for college (I was technically a junior because I had a truckload of dual enrollment credits) that I realized that there might be some alternative to how tightly I was wound. I only managed it then because some upperclassmen befriended me -- saw me in the cafeteria one day and sat down next to me and took me under their wings. I was cramming in 21 credit hours (including two languages at the same time) at a demanding women's college, so maybe looking dragged out tired was to be expected.

And that's the short version of how I found myself burnt-out almost beyond repair at 17 years old.

My friends and I kept surviving though, and even as I slowly figured out that everything I'd worked so hard to achieve wasn't really what I wanted out of my life, I still figured there was some mythic "having it all" that just depended on me finding a new direction. I settled on editorial work as my career path and buckled down to work myself into the ground doing that.

And somehow, as the years passed, I found myself winding more and more tightly again. I wasn't working hard enough. I wasn't doing enough. I got married and started working on that kind of relationship, too. I juggled work (demanding but good), friends (demanding but generally awesome), home (demanding but only because I can't sit still) -- but now I find myself evaluating just how many balls (heh, balls) I really need to have in the air at any given time.

I'm not the only one mulling this over. There are tonsofrecentarticles about women (and men!) who have decided that they aren't having kids because they are dedicated to their careers or who have decided to give up their careers to take better care of their families or who have decided that no, really, they want to be mothers (fathers) first but still have careers (the work/life balance theory) or who have decided that no one can have it all because capitalism (which, uh, I kind of agree with actually). And there are tons of less-recent articles as well -- because everyone seems to want to talk about how and why so many people are so stressed out and unhappy.

There's a huge privilege involved for plenty of women in this "choice" though -- some women stay home with their kids because they can't afford childcare and other women work ANYWAY because they can't afford not to. The socioeconomics of the situation aren't really discussed much because the question only seems to apply to women who are executives in some fashion.

That might be true for the media coverage, but what about the rest of us? Because I think women at every level are stuck in the struggle to keep their heads above water with a swift-moving current.

And I find that I don't much believe in this idea of work/life BALANCE anymore. (Man, fanfic has ruined the forward slash for me FOREVER.) Instead, I am trying to think about working hard when I need to work really hard and focusing on other stuff when I need to focus on other things. In that sense, it's more of a work/life tradeoff. Sometimes I'm just not available because I'm at work for 12 hours a day, getting things sorted out as much as I can. Other times, I might need to be far more mentally focused on the narrative structure of my novel. Or on Ed.

That's a solution I can contemplate because I have plenty of PTO saved up and no kids. It's what I can do at the moment -- but it hardly seems like a long-term solution in general. Our social structure is geared toward a few people "making it" and everyone else feeling like they are somehow personally at fault for not beating the odds. And no matter what choices women make, in as much as they have the freedom and control to make those choices in the first place, it's still not enough. If we aren't working to acquire more (maybe out of a fear of scarcity), then we're radical hippies or Communists or failures.

I really don't know the answer. What I do know is that I don't want to have tremors in my hands caused by stress again. And I don't want other little girls to experience that either.

In my last xoFitnessing post, I talked about how progress is not an infinite upward curve. It's easier, these days, to keep that in mind when it comes to physical stuff. But it's also true with everything else. Maybe life in general is more like a sine wave. And maybe figuring out how to be okay with that -- as a culture -- is the first step in getting outside this compulsion to even try to have it all.