What Does “It All” Mean, Anyway?

With the conflux of Anne-Marie Slaughter’s article “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All” in the July/August issue of The Atlantic and Marissa Mayer’s announcement of being named Yahoo’s new CEO and her pregnancy on the same day, women are agog about whether or not they can have “it all”.  But what does that mean?  What does “it all” imply?  And is a woman less of a woman if she don’t want “it all”?

When Mayer left her previous job at Google, she was worth $300 million dollars, and her salary at Yahoo won’t be pithy either.  She is married to a supportive man who is an entrepreneur, so he probably does okay in the cash department,too.  Now they are going to complete the picture and have a baby, but everyone seems up in arms– will this 37 year old be able to have it all?  Will she be able to handle the problems of motherhood and Yahoo– especially with her plans to work through her maternity leave?  There are many who wonder how she will accomplish this feat.  They seem to think that it’s just going to be Mayer and her son alone in their big house looking at a lap top together– the light from the screen casting an eerie glow over their faces.  Mayer is the CEO, and most likely has a cotillion of staffers who will be near her ready to do her bidding, or at least hold the baby.  Yes, she faces great challenges, but she’s not going to do it alone; her world is not the world of the regular working woman.  When she returns to work as CEO, I doubt she will have to bow to other people’s schedules very often, mostly they will revolve around hers.  As CEO, she can also shape the culture of motherhood at work through her attitude toward working mothers and any changes she implements for their benefits (for example, at my work many of my colleagues have recently had children and they would really like a comfortable and private place to pump).  On the home front, she can probably hire a nanny or two, give her husband the freedom to be a stay-at-home dad, and have plenty of help.  She can afford the best private schools and already has her son’s college tuition, not to mention the health care benefits for a CEO are probably pretty good.  She and her family are well set, and fit the realm of having “it all”.

Slaughter quit her high profile job in the State Department working under Hillary Clinton to spend more time with her devoted husband and two sons, but she is still a professor at Princeton who still writes articles, teaches a full course load, gives speeches, appears on TV, and is working on a book.  Yet, because State Department job didn’t work out with the needs of her family, she can’t have “it all”.   But really, what more does she need?  While she is not incredibly wealthy as Mayer, she can still provide her family with a very nice life and still work in a field that is rewarding.

As much as I appreciate Slaughter wiping away the facade of having “it all”, because it’s really hard to get in this imperfect world that only provides 24 hours a day to do it all in, I think it would be beneficial for women to redefine “it all”. Slaughter wrote her article for highly educated women on the fast track to the top, so their definition includes a loving husband, kids, and a high-powered job. Considering that there is a finite number of those jobs, and a lot of women, not every women is going to pursue that career path.  Most women are like me: they have a job they enjoy but do not wield lots of power nor bring in anything close to Mayer’s salary.  For those of us in this bracket, the expectation is still the same. Women my age should have strong, committed relationships with their husbands that include great sex, adorable children who are signed up for a myriad of after school activities, a good job that they excel at, and still have the energy to look like their “best self” and throw spectacular birthdays parties complete with Elmo and gourmet cupcakes (made from scratch).  Women aren’t expected to be women, they’re expected to be a multi-tasking super-hero.  But what we’re really left with is a bunch of tired mommies.

This model of having it all leaves out many women.  My sister-in-law opted to not get married or have kids, and she lives on her own and travels.  Whose to say that she doesn’t have “it all”?  She has the life she wants.  There are stay-at-home moms who chose their children over their careers.  Then there are women like me who are married with no kids.  Women like me know that they would throw Elmo into the neighbor’s pool and hand the other kids the goody bags  and push them out a half an hour the party started out of sheer boredom. Not to mention, many women are unable to have kids.  Are sippy-cups part of having it all?   Slaughter points out the divide between women her age who fought to shatter the glass ceiling versus the newer generation of women today who are reluctant to fill their shoes.  In order to have a high-powered job– or mostly any job– there are sacrifices that need to be made.  Such jobs demand polygamy of both male and female employees– they have to be married to their work and married to their spouse.  It seems like most women are glad those types of jobs are there for the getting, but they also see the challenges they would face if they pursued them.

Women are still in the fight for equality in the workplace and on the pay scale; they are also still fighting for their reproductive rights.  The battles are far from over.  But I don’t think the goal of the Feminist Movement was to mandate that women marry, have kids, and work all at the same time.  The Movement was started to give women a voice and a choice– the choice to break away from the domestic role of wife and mother, to create new identities for themselves.  One result is the choice to have “it all”, but more importantly, it gave women the choice to have the life they want.  It all boils down the the ability to make one’s choices in life.

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10 thoughts on “What Does “It All” Mean, Anyway?

  1. Oh such a complicated issue… Before going on maternity leave I worked as an engineer at an oil refinery. It was a 24/7 operation and no matter what you did there was a lot of money at stake. So there was certainly an expectation to make work your priority should something come up (which happened very very often). I’m sure many people work jobs like this in many different fields. Probably most jobs are like this.

    Anyway, I think it would be extremely difficult to be the kind of mother that’s around a lot and involved with her kids and successful at work. Impossible really. One or other would always take the back burner.

    But as you highlighted, that’s not really the point. Who says we need to do both? I’m certainly not going to pass judgement on a mother that chooses not to work, or a working woman that chooses not to have kids. So I guess the women who don’t want “it all” are more likely to get it.

    1. It is a complicated issue. Having a demanding job can equate to having more income, which in turn can provide more opportunities for one’s children. It goes beyond time and energy, and especially in today’s economy, a job is a job. Many women do not have the choice in the lifestyle they want to live– they need to work any job to provide the bare necessities for their family. Your last line reminds reminds me of a critique of “happiness projects”– those who aren’t focused so much on their own happiness are more likely to be happier.

      On a side note– I appreciate you chiming in. Your responses are always well-thought out, extend the discussion, and give me more to think about. Thank you!

      1. That’s true – a lot of women have to work in order to provide for their children. And thanks for the compliments! Glad to participate. You always present interesting topics.

  2. Great post!

    I agree, “having it all” does not and should not mean the same thing for every woman. How reductionist that is.

    And while being a mother is a great thing, it bothers me greatly when society implies that unless a woman is a mother, then she’s not fulfilled. Gaaaaah

    1. Yes, the one size fits all model certainly doesn’t fit all (like when I try on a one-size-fits-all t-shirt, it’s always way too big). It’s funny– I’m not a mother, but the expectations for today’s mothers bothers me. It seems like there is so much judgement of how a woman raises her child– from how long they breast-feed, where the baby sleeps, what kind of instructional activities they do with the kids, are they going to Mommy and Me Yoga, etc. I want to scream, “Look, women have been raising babies since humans existed! Everyone will turn out okay! Back off!”.

  3. My prayer is that some day the urge to have “All that we want” and “All that we’re told we should have” will be trumped by “All that we need.”

    1. Yes, I agree. Although, I do think that having the life we “want” can also equate into the life that fulfills our “needs”, but for others the life they strive for can be excessive.

  4. So interesting you’ve posted about this. I recently attended my sorority’s convention and we had an amazing speaker who touched on this article and the topic as a whole…her advice to the young women in the audience was that you can’t and shouldn’t have it all….you should have “all that you want” in order to be happy. There is a difference and often a misconception on what having it all really means. Interesting concept to think about! Great post!

    1. Thank you! Glad to see you’re back. It seems that the discourse of women’s roles is changing and moving away from the perception that women are super beings that can effectively have demanding jobs and be superb wives and mothers at the same time. While women have been gaining more equality and men have been taking on more active roles in the household, the standards for women are still much higher than for men. In order for women to gain more fulfillment at work and their home life, there needs to be policies in place that not only support women, but the family. It is just a reality that women cannot deny their roles as mothers at work– it is who they are. On the flip side, more women are opting to not have children and that, too, will change the discussion of women’s roles. It’ll be interesting to see how all of this plays out as women follow what they “want” instead of what they’re told to “want”. It’s an exciting and frustrating time.

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