Who Said We Could Have It All? You Did!

Image via Oprah.com

One of the questions I’ve heard in response to Anne-Marie Slaughter’s article “Why Women Still Can’t Have it All” is “Who said you could have it all?” The Broad Side Editor-in-Chief Joanne Bamberger discussed this question eloquently here a few days ago. I’m sure everyone out there has a different answer to this question, but mine is this: You did! My parents, my friends’ parents, my teachers, my future bosses, the media—every authority figure I encountered during my childhood encouraged me to live up to my full professional and personal potential. (That, by the way, is my definition of “having it all.”)

It was a great time to be a woman! I didn’t have to stay at home. I could choose any profession I wanted; there were women astronauts, a woman Secretary of State, a woman vice-presidential nominee, and Oprah. After centuries of inequality, women were finally getting their due, and the women in my generation were born at just the right time to take full advantage of our foremothers’ blood, sweat, and tears. The glass ceilings were shattering; all we had to do was climb up and through.

I believed it all. In fact, I thought having it all was my responsibility, because so many women had worked so hard to give me the opportunity to have it all. It wasn’t until I started working at a law firm that I began to realize that I’d been seriously misled. A few of the female partners had young children, but most of the female partners didn’t have children at all. I eventually learned that many of them had put off having kids until they made partner, a seven- to nine-year process. When I spoke with the women attorneys who had children about how they balanced family and career, they inevitably gave credit to their supportive spouses, who had flexible schedules. As the wife of a doctor, I started to get nervous when I realized there were very few lawyer-lawyer couples or lawyer-doctor couples with kids. I also learned that most of the male partners—who were almost all fathers, too—were married to women who stayed at home or had less demanding jobs. That meant that while there were more men than women attorneys at the firm, especially at the partner level, the calculation was the same regardless of which parent was the attorney: childcare required at least one parent with a flexible schedule, or alternative caregivers who provided rides to and from school, meals, bedtime stories, lullabies, potty training, and, presumably, advice about everything else.

Now that I’ve realized that I can’t have it all (at least not under current working conditions in this country), what am I doing? Honestly, I’m still figuring it out. I am self-employed and work part-time. I’ll get back to my full-time career for a few years after my daughter starts school, and again after she’s in college. (I’ve heard the teenage years are pretty demanding.) I can’t give up my work because I love what I do, and I don’t have the strength or stamina to be a full-time stay-at-home mom.

Here’s a not-so-secret secret: I don’t think men can have it all, either. While women are feeling the pinch more at work, where we’re discovering that we’d rather spend less time at the office and more time with our children, many of my male peers are feeling the pinch at home, where, after coming home from their still demanding jobs, they’re expected to cheerfully help out their exhausted, having-it-all, doing-it-all wives. As hard as it is for a professional woman in our society to opt out of the rat race for a few years to make time for her family, it’s harder for men. It’s just “not done”—or done only rarely. In other words, men aren’t getting any slack at work, and when they come home, they can’t relax with a beer in front of the television like their fathers did. Instead, they’re cleaning, cooking, and changing diapers.

I think that most of my male peers are happy to be married to professional women, and happy to participate more in what’s going on at home. But it’s hard on them to be stretched so far, just like it’s hard on us. If you and your spouse don’t frequently remind each other that you are teammates and not competitors, you’ll be in trouble.

I don’t mean to rebuke those of you who told me I could do it all. What else could you say? This was a new day for women! But I won’t tell my daughter exactly the same things. I will be honest with her—honest about how exhilarating it can be to find work that you love. Honest about not settling for a job that doesn’t suit you, even if the pay is good. Honest about finding a career that pays enough. Honest about the fact that balancing work and marriage and children is hard, but not so hard that it’s not worth the struggle. That’s what life is all about.

If I had a son, I’d tell him the same.

Guest contributor Eileen Youens teaches and advises local governments and government contractors about public contracting, public construction, and conflicts of interest. She also puts her litigation training to good use in negotiating with her two-year-old daughter. Eileen tweets at @eyouens and blogs at youensconsulting.com.

  • Norma Houston

    Great post Eileen! After 23 years in the legal profession, I’ve decided that the real issue isn’t trying to figure out how to “have it all,” but settling on my own personal definition of what “all” really means for me. There’s no avoiding the fact that life is about making choices, and the beauty of being a woman in this era is that we have far greater latitude to define for ourselves what “all” means for each of us based on our own individual aspirations and talents. If we allow others to tell us what our “all” should be – “you should be the greatest lawyer AND mother AND wife AND community leader AND cocktail party hostess in town” – we will inevitably fail because achieving such externally-imposed aspirations are unrealistic. Worse, we will have abrogated to others our right to define the “all” for ourselves (and, throw really crappy cocktail parties). This is what making choices is all about. Webster’s defines “choice” as “the act or power of choosing” – note the inclusion of the word “power” in the definition. There is real power in having the ability to choose. If we view our juggling of work, family, and social obligations as personal choices instead of a struggle, we change the paradigm to one of exercising our own power to choose based on what we want, not based on what others have told us what we should want. All that being said, I’m still working at it . . . thanks for giving me great food for thought!

  • Helen

    Everything you say about this generation, including the father’s participation, is true. But one thing we do forget to mention is that while we were telling women they could have it all, we were also turning up the heat on how parenting is conducted. No one wanted latchkey kids; no one wanted children who were not involved in team sports; or extra tutoring; or personal coaching in everything from voice to fencing. We became helicopter parents, thinking we need to be connected to our children every moment of every day and technology allowed that. The stress is higher than ever.

    In childbirth classes they taught you to breathe, and then you went into labor and all that training went out the window with the most demanding and unpredictable hours of your life. Well, it’s the same with “having it all.” Everyone of our lives are different. The combination of jobs, of couples, of where we live, of number of children and their health and capabilities, of living (grand)parents, of financial demands, etc. changes how it all comes together.

  • The biggest issue I have with the question, “Why can’t women have it all?” is that it assumes that every woman wants the same thing, which we all know is not true.

    I agree wholeheartedly with what you’ve said here but a bigger point to me made is that this question – and everyone’s unique answer – is part of the larger issue of pitting mom against mom when we don’t agree on what is best for kids or family based on the choices we each make (which are due to our own individual circumstances).

    We all want to have a choice in how we live our lives, whether it’s staying home with our children or working outside the home. I think it’s fair to say we all have different options and reasons behind our decisions, but until it’s an equal playing field, men and women can’t have it all (however that’s defined).

    I think the another important question we should be asking is “Why can’t I be happy with what I have?”

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