You’ll have to indulge me with this essay. This is a topic I have thought about a lot, and after reading Anne-Marie Slaughter’s essay “Why Women Still Can’t Have it All,” in the Atlantic I decided I need to write my thoughts down.
Last week, I, along with hundreds of thousands other women, read Anne-Marie Slaughter’s cover story, “Why Women Still Can’t Have it All,” in The Atlantic. I also, along with millions of other women, worked beyond a 40+ hour week, tended to my house and all that it entails, cared for my relationships, and whether in minutes or hours, carved out time for me.
And, in living my reality and reading about Ms. Slaughter’s, I found that I began to question: why do we continue to have this conversation at all? Further, how do we define “it all” and more importantly how do we widen it to accommodate today’s women? If Ms. Slaughter is right, and I think she is, about our not being able to have it all, how do we encourage women to have enough?
I question the concept of “having it all” not because I am not woman enough for the challenge, but rather because it seems that what we’re really searching for is more. And like the pursuit of the Fountain of Youth, it appears to be a never-ending quest without a fruitful return. Both resulting in frown lines and wrinkles.
More can be good. It can be a mile marker of success and achievement. It can be a sign of intellectual progress, professional performance, and personal development. But at some point, there is a limit to our mental, emotional and physical capacity for more. The limit is different for every person and the mile markers are measured differently too.
In Ms. Slaughter’s essay, she recognizes that her argument is written for women in her own demographic, “highly educated, well-off women who are privileged enough to have choices in the first place”. She is writing for women like me, but who are typically 15 – 25 years my senior. Ms. Slaughter, and the cadre of other inspiring successful women who have written or spoken on the theme of women succeeding at the highest levels of their professions, relationships and lives are all writing for their peers. A woman, for whom attaining a C-level position, directorship, or other outstanding promotion is closely within reach.
Few are speaking to young women, a handful of years out of college, who still want to have it all or who feel like they have to. And when are spoken to it is often with a tone of forewarning.
I am happily married to a supportive and encouraging husband, healthy, well employed with interesting work, financially secure, and yet, I do not have it all. I don’t yet have the career that is equal to the size of my ambition. I don’t yet have the children that will compete with the aforementioned career and radically change my life. And frivolously, I don’t yet have the shoe closet that will be funded by again that career. I don’t feel pressure to have it all – all of the things mentioned here and more – from anyone but myself.
The chase to “have it all” is the same as when I learned to swim and my mother would inch her fingertips further away from my reach as I gained more confidence in my stroke. “It all” is a moving target, and dare I say, unattainable because it doesn’t exist. There is no “it all” for all women. And when we promote a uniformed definition of success, that is when women make other women, of privilege and without, feel inadequate and incomplete.
Ms. Slaughter aligned her time spent juggling a marriage, two children and an extraordinary career with the State Department with the feminist cause. She recounts how on occasion, she’d “been the one telling young women at my lectures that you can have it all and do it all, regardless of what field you are in. Which means I’d been part, albeit unwittingly, of making millions of women feel that they are to blame if they cannot manage to rise up the ladder as fast as men and also have a family and an active home life (and be thin and beautiful to boot).”
If we are to talk to the women of my generation in an effort to put them on the right track towards successful and fulfilling professional and personal lives, we have to understand how this generation is different from Ms. Slaughter’s, our mothers’ or our grandmothers’. This generation, of the “take your daughter to work day” and “Girl Power” mantras has been told we could do and be anything. I cannot possibly be the only 27-year-old who for a fleeting moment was disappointed when Hillary Clinton, who I deeply admire, was so close to having the Democratic Party’s nomination for President. Somewhere within me, the 4th grade girl who wanted to be the first female POTUS was crushed.
As we’ve grown up and the pace of our shared world has quickened, we’ve set our sights on doing more, achieving more and having more instantaneously. Our foremothers achieved great professional success through decades-long journeys. They did more and achieved more; they had “it” – but perhaps not it all, over the course of their lifetimes. My generational peers are achieving phenomenal professional success before they graduate from college, if they graduate at all. And by raising that point, I want to underscore that these two paths to success do not cancel each other out, nor does either come with more inherent value.
The privilege to be able to choose what is important to me, and only me, is the greatest gift given by the generations of women before me who said, ‘I will prove to the world, my male boss, my husband, my father that I can do it all’. The opportunity, which is still not easily accessible to all women across all socioeconomic lines, to choose how to do “it”, this is the greatest success of feminism.
In this cultural moment, the mere construct of having it all feels dated. We are encouraging women to step up to the all-you-can-handle buffet of life and telling them to not skimp on seconds (degrees, promotions, children, bank accounts, homes, the list goes on). We don’t encourage anyone to eat like that, why are we demanding ourselves to live like that? We need to create a culture for women and men, to feel satisfied with enough.
Think about a world of enough. To have enough work to feel challenged; enough personal relationships to feel supported; enough things to keep you comforted; enough food for your health; enough time to consider how today’s ‘enough’ will evolve into what will be enough in a year, five years at the end of your own life.
Ms. Slaughter brilliantly identified some cultural shifts that would address the working mother’s struggle to have “it all”: changing the culture of time, revaluing family values, redefining a successful career arc, pursuing happiness, innovation and enlisting men as equal partners.
I offer the following to add to that list: make the value of time equal for all genders; make parental leave the expectation and not the exception for mothers and fathers; allow success to be defined by the one who achieves it; seek contentment in the current; remain competitive but never condescending.
The immediate and potentially greatest outcome of Ms. Slaughter’s essay is that it was honest. And it is this kind of honesty, in my opinion, that is the underlying solution to the problem of “having it all”. When Ms. Slaughter reveals that her decisions came at a cost she removed the highly polished veneer of a woman who outsiders celebrated for having it all. She revealed her hand and if we follow her example we do the same. This means, we share with our peers and friends what we struggle with; we seek mentors; and we live with the awareness that the pursuit of perfection is not easy and that being good enough can be great.
As a culture we need to stop degrading women for their hairstyle, homemaking, child rearing, and other failures of modern womanhood. Instead, we need to celebrate and uplift women who succeed at home, in the classroom, in the boardroom, and one day in the White House.