Have It All and a Bag of Chips

Can women really have it all? I guess I would answer, that depends on what the definition of “have” is. And what the definition of “it” is. And what the definition of “all” is.

I understand what the original intention behind the phrase was. It was a rallying cry, an invitation, from first wave feminists to their friends, little sisters, and daughters: you don’t have to make lesser choices because you have a vagina! Don’t give up! Have it all! The spirit of the message is good, I guess, but I think if you scratch the surface it just becomes a marketing slogan. Aspirational, but kind of empty, like a Cosmo article about How to Get the Perfect Man.

I don’t mean to pooh-pooh the whole concept, or Anne-Marie Slaughter’s article. It’s very good (I mean seriously, which one of us is published in The Atlantic?) and I have listened to two NPR inteviews with her (on Fresh Air and On Point). Slaughter acknowledges and pretty much concedes every critique thrown at her and the article, and winds up boiling it down to this simple three part problem: 1. Women are underrepresented in positions of power, 2. they can’t get to positions of power if workplaces are not family-friendly, 3. workplaces would be more family-friendly if more women were in power.

I can’t really argue with her there, but.

When I listen to Slaughter describe her life and career, I’m a little unsure about why she thinks she hasn’t had it all. She has two children, a supportive spouse, a successful career as an academic, and did a two year stint in what she describes as her dream job – as Director of Policy Planning for the US State Department – what exactly am I missing here? She’s achieved everything she dreamed of and more, and she acknowledges this, but still presses the point and claims that what she did just didn’t work. She left her dream job to return to her tenured professor position, which allowed her to spend more time with her family. A perfectly valid choice.

I know I’m not the first to make this critique, but by describing this as a failure to have it all, Slaughter is perpetuating a myth of perfection that is harmful to women. The original idea behind “you can have it all” is simply that you can be a woman who has a career and a family. That’s it. It doesn’t promise that you can defy the laws of physics and be in two places at the same time. It doesn’t promise that you can be the Perfect mother and the Perfect careerwoman.

It’s fine to want more family-friendly working conditions – everyone wants that (I’d venture to say that everyone would like a raise too) – but to imagine that women can work full time and be hands-on parenting full time is simply ludicrous. Let me tell you as someone who works at home with small children in the house, even I can’t do both at the same time unless someone wants to start paying me to change my own kids’ diapers.

I feel that we as a culture have some kind of perfectionism disorder, especially we women, and especially especially we mothers, where we have the idea that we MUST be constantly refining and perfecting and optimizing EVERYTHING we do and everything around us, from work to children to food to sex to hobbies and even fun. No one ever claims to be doing it all – that would be gauche – but everyone’s trying to get there. Be more organized, manage our time better, enrich our children, improve ourselves. Sometimes I feel like I can’t do a single thing without “researching” it first to make sure I do it the absolute best way – a trait my husband has always admired in me because he likes my passion for learning, but taken to extremes it just makes me completely neurotic.

Can women have it all? Well, what if we can’t, and we’re okay with that? Maybe you can accept that when you choose one path, you don’t choose another. When you’re doing one thing, you’re not doing something else. Nothing will ever be balanced, some things will be half-assed, your kids won’t turn out perfect, but we can still love each other and be happy. A dose of lowered expectations (let’s be more like the Danes, the happiest people on Earth!) might help us realize that we do have it all, if we rethink what “having” “it” “all” means.


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