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The Fallacy of “Having It All”


The July/August issue of “The Atlantic” featured an article by Anne-Marie Slaughter entitled “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All” that generated a significant response. Katie Couric hosted an interview and audience discussion with the author; Diane Rehm hosted a panel discussion including comments from the Editor-in-Chief from “The Atlantic” who proclaimed the digital version had more hits than any other article has had. People seem to have been awakened to a reality that had not been considered before: that having it all may not be possible, may not be pursued logically, or may not even be worth it. As blogs have been written in response by “women of a certain age”, it seems many shared the thought: “Welcome to my world!”

The scope of the article is wide; it ranges from a personal history of the author’s career and family choices, to reflections on the platitudes offered by an older generation of women to the younger women following behind, to changes needed in the workplace and to societal presumptions so that women can truly “have it all.”  Slaughter presents the caveats that a woman must be born into wealth, must be committed enough, must marry the right person, and must manage to sequence her work and personal life choices correctly.  She, also, presents the case that this is more rightly a family values issue than a women’s issue. The author acknowledges that men have been making similar sacrifices in different ways and that these sacrifices have been just as costly to men as they have been to women. By the end of the article, the concept of having a high powered career, a family, and a personal life seems like an attempt on Mount Everest; it can be done, but only by a few and under the most perfect conditions.

A cold, dispassionate look at my own life might lead you to say that I’ve fulfilled the criteria.  I got a degree, held positions of impact in the organizations where I was employed, opened and maintained my own consultancy for twelve years, raised three children, and am now retired, chasing another dream of becoming an accomplished writer.  Success in the ‘90s was defined for me as being able to make $50,000 by the time I reached age 50. Financial success: check. I developed software applications that are still in use today in the field of Human Resources. Career impact: check. My positions have included analyst, speaker,  trainer, non-profit charity chair, and mediator. Community impact: check.  I helped develop the concept of health maintenance organizations for a legislative task force and wrote the criteria for assessing equal pay across all levels of job descriptions for state and local governments, nonprofits, and medical institutions. Lasting impact: check. Sounds like a woman who had it all, right?

I agree with this but in retrospect, it seems that I gave my all as well. All includes a lot of things that Slaughter never mentions in her article, situations and choices that leave the taste of ash in one’s mouth. Experiences I could have done without: miscarriage, divorce, single parenthood, being a working mother while attending college classes (before anyone provided on-site daycare or subsidies to assist with tuition).  In my career, I’ve been fired, laid off, and made redundant. My family life includes remarriage and a long attempt to blend two families, making accommodations for a disabled child, advocating for his educational rights, and dealing with rebellious teens and suicidal teens. Please don’t take these words as the lyrics to an anthem entitled “Poor Me.”  In conversations with women born in the 1950’s and 1960’s, this describes reality for many, if not most, of the women who proved that  a woman’s place is not just in the home.

Slaughter made a choice for which she felt judged by her contemporaries and the work world: to step back from a position of power to pay more attention to the needs of her family.  She posits that this decision hinders a woman’s return to the work force later, that to succumb to the need of your family leads to punishment when returning to work. Her conclusion is that returning to a powerful job with an equally powerful salary is not so easy. She’s right – it’s not, not for women or for men who take a lengthy time off from such a career. Is this really unreasonable?  Technologies change, processes change, connections disappear, you lose your credibility.  To return means to start again or to start over in a new career.  As far as business is concerned, that’s reasonable. It’s your choice, and you always pay for your choices in some way.

On reflection, my choices were based on values ingrained in almost any person raised in the 1950’s. When my first husband decided to try for a veterinary degree, I agreed to drop out of college and support his dream. Today’s twenty and thirty-somethings women seem less inclined to put themselves second in a marriage. Progress! When he decided his dream included a different wife and a different life, I moved on to become a working single mother, which led to starting my own business so I could control my working hours and be an involved mother.  Today’s women might have the foresight to build investment capital for their business into the divorce agreement, perhaps through a prenuptial agreement. Progress yet again! What was the cost of building a business, doing the hard work of that business, while raising two toddlers and taking night classes to finish my degree? Children who learned quite early that mom’s priorities were always focused on something other than them. Today’s women? Well, in my own extended family, several women in their twenties and thirties have decided that children will not be part of their world. Others right behind me waited twenty years longer than I did to have  children and then only one child per family.

I think the most important lessons from this article and from this retelling of one person’s experience is that everyone, male or female, needs to consider, assess, and plan for their life to be able to make reasonable choices. Many people find themselves in their twenties and thirties trying to decide between their hoped for education/career versus following their heart into a romance that changes all that. Or maybe the difficult choices are surrounded by scholarships versus a less prestigious school, or dropping out to accept what seems to be an incredible job offer, or sacrificing one’s own dreams to care for aging parents.  What Slaughter failed to recognize is that one could “have it all” from any of these choices, as long as the choices are understood and made by a rational mind rather than a short-term emotional response.

Would I make different choices now? Sure, with hindsight anyone can see the wrong turns one has taken along the road. The definition of  “having it all” should be individual and personal, and one must remember the path to achievement will be altered by life along the way. Make your choices with a clear mind and know that each choice discards or delays a different path. Accept that you will have regrets: everyone does. Discard what society or family defines as success for you and be single-minded in chasing your dream, throughout your life. Hopefully, the women currently beginning the foundations of their lives will be able to do so in a world where balance between work, self, and family is the definition of success.

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