Does Anyone Really “Have It All”?

Between having, leaning, and surviving

Since The Atlantic Monthly published Anne-Marie Slaughter’s piece “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All” back in 2012, the concept of “having it all” has been “evoked so frequently and facetiously that it has become akin to some malign joke—heard, hated, yet repeated ad nauseam.” The phrase garners eye-rolls from plenty of people, yet the debate over whether it’s really possible to “have it all,” and what that really means, stubbornly persists. Can women really have it all? I used to respond to that question with righteous indignation. Of course we can have it all! If we want it badly enough and work hard enough, we can do anything we put our minds to… can’t we?

As I get older and start to think about what that really means, though, I’m not so sure. I guess that depends on how we’re defining “all” these days. At its simplest, “having it all” seems to generally imply striving for some semblance of work/life balance—and that’s a goal nearly everyone can get behind, right? But I don’t think these three little words would have spawned so much debate (and so many think pieces) if the phrase weren’t loaded with heavier implications. Slaughter characterized “having it all” as a “feminist credo,” but a recent New York Times article, “The Complicated Origins of ‘Having It All,’” suggests that feminism isn’t to blame for promoting the (supposedly) “false promise” that women could “have it all—rewarding career, loving partner, cheerful brood.” History shows that the phrase was more “marketing pitch” than “feminist mantra” until the late 1970s, and didn’t gain “real cultural momentum” until 1982, when former Cosmopolitan editor Helen Gurley Brown’s book, Having It All: Love, Success, Sex, Money… Even if You’re Starting with Nothing was published.

Of course, it turns out Helen Gurley Brown herself hated the title: “‘Having It All’ sounds so [expletive] cliché to me.”

I’d have to agree. For many women, balancing work and family is not a lofty goal, but a financial necessity. It’s not a question of whether you can have it all or want to have it all—it’s a question of how the hell you’re going to manage it all, because that’s the only available option. And for those who do have the option of “leaning out,” having it all can sound, as the New York Times put it, “less like peppy encouragement and more like an admonishment or reproach.” In Lean In, even Sheryl Sandberg laments that the coining of the phrase “having it all” constitutes “[p]erhaps the greatest trap ever set for women…. Bandied about in speeches, headlines, and articles, these three little words are intended to be aspirational but instead make all of us feel like we have fallen short.”

But what exactly are we falling short of? The myth of “having it all” seems to not only require merely balancing a job with family life, hopefully with a bit of sanity leftover (an ambitious enough goal, in my opinion). Instead, “having it all” suggests that women (always women!) are aiming to effortlessly balance a high-powered career with Pinterest-worthy motherhood, and look fabulous while doing it. That they’re still striving to work the same long hours, keep up with the same hobbies, and maintain the same social calendar they had before… while being supermom at the same time. Beyond the question of whether or not that’s actually possible, I’m not sure that’s what most women even want.

what is this elusive “all” WOMEN ARE supposed to be having?

Helen Gurley Brown’s book barely mentioned children, and Brown herself had “a hard time disguising her suspicion that children aren’t so seamlessly integrated into her program.” These days, though, its readily assumed that “all” requires both “professional success and a fulfilling family life”—with that family including at least a kiddo or two. But this description of what “all” entails necessarily implies that “having it all” is a privilege reserved for a very specific class of women, to the exclusion of all others. By this narrow definition, child-free women, stay-at-home moms, and single moms could never have it all, because one of the allegedly essential elements—kid, career, partner—is missing from the equation.

Not only is the assumption that a woman has to have a child to have it “all” offensive, it seems to discount the fact that balancing work and family can be challenging enough when you don’t have kids. I’m sure I’m not the only child-free working woman who frequently has weeks where I feel like I am falling behind in one area or another. Life can get complicated, and managing competing obligations and responsibilities isn’t a challenge that’s unique to motherhood.

But there’s no denying that caring for a child adds another layer of chaos. When I have a hectic week and start to feel like I am failing left and right, there’s a little voice in the back of my head whispering, “…and you don’t even have kids yet.” How am I going to manage all this, I wonder, when I throw some kids into the mix? Brown’s version of “all” included “Love, Success, Sex, Money,” so how did we tack on “and nurture tiny dependent humans,” without acknowledging the nearly inhuman balancing act this would require? Everyone has the same twenty-four hours in a day, so it’s only logical, when taking on something as major as parenting, that something else (or several somethings) has to give.

And, more importantly, how did we get to a point where this balancing act is reserved for working mothers, while the working fathers just… get on with things? (Tina Fey once recounted “the rudest question you can ask a woman”: “‘How do you juggle it all?’ people constantly ask me, with an accusatory look in their eyes. ‘You’re screwing it all up, aren’t you?’ their eyes say.”) No one seems to question whether a man can work and have kids. It’s just assumed that he will. Anne-Marie Slaughter suggests that, in addition to the fact that women are still socialized “to believe that their primary family obligation is to be the caregiver,” women also have the maternal instinct that can lead to a “reflexive” choice of family over career. But I’d suggest that the very idea that all women are just biologically inclined to give up their careers for their kids is, to borrow a phrase from Helen Gurley Brown, “so [expletive] cliché.”

In “I Am the Slacker Parent,” Meaghan O’Connell lamented, “If motherhood is an identity, then fatherhood, conventionally, is more like a very enriching side project. It’s voluntary, done in the hours between home-from-work and bath time.” Contrary to Slaughter’s assumption that many women “reflexively” choose family over career, plenty of mothers or women who intend to become mothers—myself included—simply have no interest in assuming the role of “primary caregiver.” Suggesting that women who prioritize a career are less “maternal” is just as offensive as suggesting that women (or men) who prioritize parenthood lack ambition.

While the biological fact of pregnancy tends to place women at the center of the “having it all” debate, plenty of men wrestle with the issue of work-life balance, as “[n]early half of fathers report dissatisfaction with the amount of time that they are able to spend with their children,” and the number of stay-at-home fathers continues to rise. U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s former clerk, Ryan Park, wrote about temporarily becoming a stay-at-home dad, expressing his disagreement with the “underlying assumption that women and men have different visions of what matters in life—or, to be blunt about it, that men don’t find child-rearing all that rewarding.” Just recently, Google’s chief financial officer, Patrick Pichette, announced his resignation, acknowledging that “so many people struggle to strike the right balance between work and personal life,” and that “life is wonderful, but nonetheless a series of trade offs, especially between business/professional endeavours and family/community.” But beyond these relatively rare instances of high-profile men acknowledging their own struggles to balance work and family, the “having it all” debate is nearly universally framed as a women’s issue.

But acting as though work-life balance is a struggle unique to women is problematic because this assumes that the responsibility for raising children still falls primarily to women while men are, presumably, free to build successful careers without balancing all those pesky familial obligations. Jennifer Garner once noted that, at a press junket, “every single person who interviewed me, I mean every single one… asked me, ‘How do you balance work and family?’” Upon comparing notes with her husband, Ben Affleck, she found: “As for work-life balance, he said no one asked him about it that day. As a matter of fact, no one had ever asked him about it.”


Debating whether or not women can “have it all” might just be a distraction from the day-to-day problems working parents face that can be addressed with concrete solutions. Balancing family and career—any career—is challenging enough, but it’s worth noting that Slaughter was splitting her time between Washington, D.C., where she held an exceptionally high level job at the State Department, and New Jersey, where her family resided. That may be impossible for anyone (mother, father, or not), and doesn’t deal with the day-to-day reality of paying for childcare, or balancing minimum wage hours, that many parents deal with. The “having it all” debate seems to swirl around women with particularly high-level jobs, ignoring the plight of working parents struggling to balance work and family without the benefit of an executive-level salary.

As Ann Friedman points out, “not every working woman is bound for the C-Suite,” and “[t]here are some women for whom ‘it all’ is a living wage and a paid day off when their kid is sick.” The United States lags painfully behind other nations when it comes to both maternity and paternity leave, with only “about twelve percent of American companies offer[ing] paid maternity or paternity leave in 2014.” Parental leave, affordable childcare, reasonable minimum wage… don’t these issues deserve more of our time and attention than a never-ending debate over whether or not women can “have it all”? As the New York Times put it: “To say that women expect to ‘have it all’ is to trivialize issues like parental leave, equal pay and safe, affordable child care; it makes women sound like entitled, narcissistic battle-axes while also casting them as fools.”

Maybe, as Rebecca Traister has suggested, “[w]e should immediately strike the phrase ‘have it all’ from the feminist lexicon and never, ever use it again.” Instead of debating the ambiguous, abstract concept of having it all, we should be focusing on actual substantive solutions to make it possible for everyone—women and men, whether parents or child-free—to achieve some semblance of work/life balance. The semantics of the “having it all” debate tend to obscure the very real issues including “the ways in which sexism, the economic divide, the wage gap, and patriarchal models for public and personal life persist.” Instead of debating what it really means to “have it all,” and if having “all” that entails is even possible, we should focus on making sure everyone has enough.

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