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I remember very clearly the first time I realized that I was on the proverbial quest to "have it all." An important meeting had been added to my calendar unexpectedly at nearly the same time as a prenatal appointment very early on in my pregnancy with my first child. I hadn't told anyone at work that I was pregnant and the meeting was important, one I normally wouldn't have dreamed of skipping. The doctor's appointment was obviously very important, too. I proceeded to orchestrate the precarious juggle of priorities known all too well by any working parent. It was an attempt to move in two spaces at once, to be two different people at the same time: career-woman and mom in one overwhelmed body. “Having it all” felt pretty terrible, and I was just getting started.
Women should be able to thrive in their careers and motherhood if that’s what they want. Full stop. The women who came before us fought hard for the norms that exist today. However, we must acknowledge that the societal structures required to support such a reality have not sufficiently evolved yet. You need only to look at the hours in a school day and compare them to those in a typical work day; or think of the 60-plus weekdays in the year that fall outside of the standard school year in the form of breaks and holidays; or look up the monthly cost of child care in your town to recognize that our society is failing us in this pursuit. These safety nets function largely in the way they did when moms stayed home and dads went off to work.
Let’s do a little thought exercise together. Have you ever felt compelled to ask a man if he was planning to continue working after becoming a parent? Or when a man at work has to leave the office early to pick up a sick child from day care, do you think, “Wow look at him, he’s really trying to have it all”? Probably not. Because we as a society don’t find anything strange about men having careers and being dads, right? So why should it be anything but normal when moms do it? Why does it have to be “having it all” when we do it?
The glorification of “having it all” diminishes the experience of a mom who chooses to stay home with her kids or must stay home with her kids because the cost of child care is simply too high to justify working.
Moreover, the glorification of “having it all” diminishes the experience of a mom who chooses to stay home with her kids or must stay home with her kids because the cost of child care is simply too high to justify working. What about the woman who doesn’t have kids at all? Are these women living incomplete lives because they only have part of the “all”? Of course not.
That day after I had juggled my important meeting and the OB-GYN appointment, I felt a strange kind of guilt and inadequacy that would come to plague me often in the years to come. I hadn’t been able to give all of myself to either important event. I was distracted and disconnected. I knew that I wasn’t fully present for the meeting or seeing my baby for the first time via ultrasound; I felt like I had failed at both in some way. It was merely the first of countless similar experiences I would go on to have over the years and still have at times today.
What I’ve learned since then, however, is that the idea of “having it all” perpetuates an unrealistic and patronizing ideal for women. That doesn’t mean I’ve given up on having a career and being a mom. What I strive for now is making clear spaces in my life for both of those parts of me and showing myself grace when the lines blur due to unforeseen circumstances. I have taken a career path that gives me more flexibility than I had in the past, which has greatly diminished much of the untenable tension that previously existed between those two dueling women inside of me. I know now that it’s impossible for me to be everything to everyone all at once, as was my modus operandi when I wanted to “have it all.” That’s just not the goal anymore.
When we tell women they can “have it all,” it sells an idyllic image of perfect balance and harmony between work and life and parenthood that simply doesn’t exist for most of us within the current framework of our society. We must instead be honest about the challenges we still face as women who have both careers and children. And we must continue to fight for the safety nets and workplace culture until we no longer need a trite catchphrase to define what we’re doing.