What’s with all this “having it all” nonsense?

J.C. schools a kid (Photo from http://movies.zap2it.com)

Within the first five minutes of the 1987 movie Baby Boom –  about female advertising executive J.C. Wiatt – a partner at the firm, Fritz, delivers this piece of advice after telling J.C. he wants her to be a partner:

You know that normally I don’t think of you as a woman. But in this case, I do have to look at you as a woman-slash-partner. What if you and Steven decide to get married somewhere down the line? What if he expects a wife? Do you understand the sacrifices you’re going to have to make? I mean, a man can be a success and still have a personal life. A full personal life. My wife is there for me whenever I need her. I mean, she raises the kid, she…eh…decorates, she…(laughs)…I don’t know what the hell she does. But she takes care of things. I guess what I’m saying is, I’m lucky. I can have it all.

J.C. tells him not to worry, says she doesn’t want it all.

If you’ve seen the movie, you know that J.C. soon inherits a baby, falls in love with the baby, adopts the baby, and decides being a mother and working reasonable hours in Vermont (at a baby food company she created out of boredom, no less) is more important than working 70-80 hours in New York City.

At one point during the movie, when she’s still with the firm and trying very hard (and failing) to meet her work demands, Fritz gets frustrated when J.C. argues that she should be kept on a major account and flips the speech he gave earlier:

I told you, you can’t have it all. Nobody can. Not me, not anybody. Look, I don’t even know how many grandchildren I have, okay?

Despite that common-sense truth uttered over 25 years ago, this having-it-all business remained a hot topic well into 2012, when Ann-Marie Slaughter wrote an article for The Atlantic titled Why Women Still Can’t Have it All. In it, she admits that working as the first woman director of policy planning at the State Department was just too demanding of her time. She was a mother. She missed her son. She couldn’t stop thinking about all the things she was missing in his life.  So, she quit.

This quitting, to her, meant she was no longer currently having-it-all.

The having-it-all discussion came up again with Facebook executive Sheryl Sandberg’s book Lean In, a discussion of female leadership in the workplace.

Again, we were asking ourselves, “Can we have it all? Can we not have it all? Can only men have it all? How come women can’t have it if men can?”

I think it’s time to stop asking.

1. No one, as wise old Fritz says, can have it ALL, if “having it all” is defined as being a full time worker, full time parent, effective spouse, and full time social butterfly – and doing it all very gracefully and effortlessly.

2. It’s greedy, unrealistic, and obnoxious to expect that it can “all” be had.

We all have to get over ourselves.

I don’t know if it’s a uniquely American thing to want to have – nay, to feel entitled to have – everything, but we’re exceedingly good at wanting it. We see two options and weigh the pros and cons. We choose the better option. Five minutes later, we’re upset that the option we chose doesn’t also include the stuff from the option we didn’t choose, and we bitch and whine that we should be able to have both.

Why? Because we want it. We don’t want to have to choose. Choosing means giving something up. (Even if it’s something we never had to begin with! If we can’t have it, we’re somehow “giving it up” by not acquiring or possessing it.)

What if we just eliminate “having it all” from our vocabulary so that we can remove some of the pressure, strip away the “I WILL HAVE EVERYTHING” entitlement, and be just a tad more realistic? What if instead of “having it all” we say “finding personal fulfillment”?

What made Slaughter happy at the time was to work less and spend more time with her kid. What makes her happy now is to spend less time with her kid and go back to working extra hours (she returned to Washington in April of this year). In both cases, she “had it all” because she was (or is) doing what’s important to her, what will satisfy her.

“Having it all” is too connotative, too weighty. We all know that in the world of women it means “having a successful career while being a super-mom to a family.” Which is why when women like me who don’t have children (but who are significantly more successful than I am) are found to not have children, the automatic assumption is, “Oh, she couldn’t handle having it all. She had to sacrifice children for her career.”

Or, conversely, if you’re a woman who does have children and you choose to take care of them more hours than you work outside the home, the assumption is that you “sacrificed” your career for your children (ah, the cross a good woman must bear…tsk).

Slaughter experienced this when she left Washington, as she writes in her Atlantic article:

I routinely got reactions from other women my age or older that ranged from disappointed (“It’s such a pity that you had to leave Washington”) to condescending (“I wouldn’t generalize from your experience. I’ve never had to compromise, and my kids turned out great”). The first set of reactions, with the underlying assumption that my choice was somehow sad or unfortunate, was irksome enough. But it was the second set of reactions—those implying that my parenting and/or my commitment to my profession were somehow substandard—that triggered a blind fury.

It isn’t women’s liberation, the desire to work, or feminism that has put undue pressure on women; it’s the expectation we – men and women both – have that we can, must, and will have all of everything.

If you want to work full time and parent full time, you have issues understanding the limitations of time, energy, and matter.

No one can have everything. But if we all just do what makes us truly happy while recognizing that we’re not little princes and princesses whose every demand will be met, we can have something much more important.


23 thoughts on “What’s with all this “having it all” nonsense?

  1. I’m glad to see someone acknowledge that this is nonsense and that men have never “had it all”. It is just assumed that men will have to sacrifice personal lives in order to provide for their families.

    Not that my personal life is unfulfilling, but I don’t spend as much time with the kids as my stay-at-home wife. I can’t. It’s never gonna happen.

    I have sacrificed time at home to better provide for my family, to advance my career, and to make enough money so that my wife can stay home full time.

    I’ve also not advanced as quickly as others because there are times I just can’t make the sacrifice. I don’t want to miss my kids’ childhoods. There are things money can’t buy.

    I’m happy with this. I don’t have it all, but I have it pretty good.

    Oddly, this whole “have it all” thing seems to be a feminist creation. I don’t understand why women have set such high and unrealistic expectations for other women.

    1. Thanks for sharing your thoughts, Rob.

      It sounds like you two have a setup that works for you. And who knows? Maybe something will come along that will make it possible for her to work while you stay home, if it’s something you both want to do later.

    2. Bad Puppy!

      I think part of why “feminists” have set such high and unrealistic expectations for other women is because society in general seems to REFUSE to let women opt out of motherhood altogether without viewing them as evil and unnatural harpies. When the choice to be free of childbearing, PERIOD, instead of spacing or delaying it, becomes a legit option, we might see the landscape change. I know some women love babies and want to be mothers more than anything and want to stay home with them, etc. But, not ALL women do. Yet they are guilt-tripped until they cave or are ostracized. And feminism sure as hell didn’t create THAT issue.

      1. Susan Nercher

        Feminists have set such high and unrealistic expectations because that was the only way they could convince women to embrace feminism. Feminism basically wanted women to act like men – working long hours at a job and moving up the corporate ladder. But the average woman didn’t necessarily want that, yes, she wanted more flexibility in her life but the average woman wanted to spend more time with the children. So, feminists came up with the “having it all” concept. You can have a thriving career AND be a great mom. This would be easier to sell to the average woman. Of course, men never had it all because they were always expected to work but feminists, out of arrogance and misandry, postulated that women were superior to men and could have it all. So feminism sure as hell did create THAT issue.

  2. JT Devine

    I admit to being one of those people who wants it all – not necessarily in a parent vs career way, but in many other ways. I didn’t realize when I had children how much of myself and my relationship with my husband I would be giving up (ie – things as simple as no sexy nighty in the living room in the evening while watching tv because that would be weird around our boys, and then the bigger things like just finding time and energy to be alone.) But I like your perspective on giving things their due – and not needing to have them all at once. So maybe time together with my husband will come around again.

  3. I think the “have it all” mentality has trickled down to high school kids – or maybe it’s just their parents rubbing off on the kids, making them think it’s normal to think you can be and have everything. When I was teaching, I’d run into this all the time – kids who thought they were entitled to be in the school play, and be on the tennis team, and be taking four AP classes, and still get straight “As” – and if they weren’t getting all of that, we, as teachers, must be doing something wrong. I sometimes felt like I was the only one with a sense of what the kid was actually capable of accomplishing in a 24-hour day, and I was the one left holding the bag, having to “crush the kid’s dreams” by telling them they were only doing “B” work. Are these same kids going to be the ones who grow up to think they can work a 60 hour work week and have 2 kids and be a room-parent and feel entitled to take their kids to bars?

  4. I’m not sure if seeing ‘having it all’ as an entitled demand is quite right. What I understand by it is that women don’t want to be thrown on the career scrapheap because they’ve had children. It’s a problem increasingly faced by men who choose to stay at home with kids for a period. The underlying problem is that raising children appears to be incompatible with the demands of the modern workforce, and that’s surely a big problem for everybody, not just working mothers.

    1. Realistically it’s not that hard to overcome but it requires thinking that is not common in corporate culture. Frankly, a lot of companies are still being run with a very 1980’s mentality.

      I’ve had a lot of working mothers as employees and the positions they’ve fulfilled were ones that allowed a great deal of flexibility. As needed, I’ve allowed people to work from home, flex schedules, and EVERYONE has emergencies (children or no children)

      Technology makes a lot of this possible, but leveraging that flexibility has minimized lost productivity while keeping morale high. Of course, you can’t discriminate against those that are single, which is where the pendulum seems to swing these days. I try to keep everyone’s needs in mind.

      This is also offset because I look for results rather than butts in seats. Yes, you have to fulfill a certain hourly requirements for a whole host of reasons but that can still be accomplished while offering some flexibility around working hours and work location.

      Unfortunately, you are still dealing with a lot of management that came up through the workforce that doesn’t understand many tasks don’t have to be performed between the hours of {X} and {Y} and get upset whenever employees want to stray from it.

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  6. Bad Puppy!

    It seems to me that men in our culture are more socialized to both A. understand this and B. Actually make CHOICES. They don’t have these same kind of pressures where being a “good husband” means being SUPER intensively involved outside of earning money. Nor do they have the kind of pressures where being a “good father” means being SUPER intensively involved outside of earning money.

    It grates my freaking cheese that there have been and still are so many men who seem to think it is a woman’s “JOB” to do all the “wife stuff” (where is the correlating ‘husband stuff’ and why is it that the wife stuff takes so much more time?) And it’s also her job to do all the “kid stuff”. Yeah, obviously a woman can’t “have it all”, if she’s EXPECTED to do a much larger chunk of all the household stuff and kid stuff. That’s just treating women like slaves, IMO.

    This might not be a popular notion (or maybe here it will be, who knows), but I sincerely believe in the world we live in that a woman can only have true FREEDOM to the highest degree if she doesn’t have children. No matter how much many men “say” they will contribute as much to household and kid stuff by the actual active WORK than just a paycheck, it almost never actually plays out that way no matter how feminist the man thinks he is.

    Screw that. All of that. My husband can wipe his own damn bottom. I clean when the hell I want to (though I do more of it than he does because I have more free time than he does and it’s more important to me than it is to him), but I could never bring myself to have kids because there are just so many things in life I couldn’t do or have that I would much RATHER have than “being defined by motherhood”.

    If a woman like me decides she can’t have it all and so she picks the things she can reasonably have and wants and those things don’t include having babies… then cue the “you’re so selfish”, “you’re so evil and horrible”, “What’s WRONG with you?” chorus. Nothing is wrong with me. I’m a logical, rational human being who can see the long term consequences of choices and have determined that option A. (making babies) is not going to serve my personal long term goals. Men make this choice all the time and it’s admired. Women make it and we’re evil.

    Again, screw that. We have to teach girls that they can CHOOSE SOMETHING DIFFERENT than making babies.

    1. Susan Nercher

      Men are not socialized to make more choices than woman are. In fact, men are socialized to make less choices. Men are expected to work. How many companies would hire a man who took 3 years off to take care of children? How many women would marry men who say they want to be stay-at-home dads?

      If a man says he wants to be a stay-at-home dad, people will think that he is a lazy man who wants to ride on his wife’s coattails. No matter how much women “say” they want equality, the truth is, they want men to bring home the paycheck.

      Well, perhaps men should say screw that. Woman want the big houses in the good school district and to drive the luxury cars? Then, let them work for it. The men can stay home and take care of the kids. And when there is a divorce, the men should get alimony, the property, custody of the kids and child support. Plus, women should give men engagement rings that men get to keep in a divorce. Men should work whenever the hell they want to. Women make this choice all of the time and it’s admired.

      And if women can opt out of motherhood by having abortions, men should be able to opt out of fatherhood by not being forced to pay child support.

      We should teach boys that they can CHOOSE SOMETHING DIFFERENT than earning a paycheck.

      But of course, this won’t happen. Why not? Because feminism today is based on the notion that women should have choices, not that men should have choices. Choices require sacrifice. Somebody has to pay for those choices. Somebody has to work so that there can be a stay-at-home parent. Someone has to work to pay the taxes so that welfare and social service programs can be implemented. Basically, someone has to work to pay for the consequences that choices bring. And women are saying that they don’t want to be that someone. They want the men to pay for their choices.

  7. I personally define “having it all” as having a happy life. No one’s life may be perfect, but I think if you’re generally happy, enjoying your life and you couldn’t ask for anything more (or you could, but don’t want or care for it), you have it all.

  8. 1Life

    This is actually becoming a very real realization for many people all over the world. In Japan, Europe, Taiwan, The Philippines, USA est. The birth-rate is starting to lower all over the world. This is caused by Corporations (no matter how big or small), expecting/REQUIRING men/women to work longer hours for less pay and benefits. People are currently working 2-3 jobs as is JUST to make ends meet (In 1st world nations and developing nations). The cost of living continues to rise as the rate of pay and employment continues to decrease. Its hard to find work for many people regardless of their education or lack thereof. Allot of men and women aren’t willing to give up their financial security to have a child, which would cause more of a financial burden and even cause the loss of employment that neither person could afford. Not to mention in our modern times women are STILL expected to do ALL of the child rearing, house work, Caring for their husbands, ALL WHILE WORKING. PEOPLE ARE TIRED! WOMEN ARE TIRED!

    Our political leaders are starting to panic because birthrates are starting to lower all over the world and continue to drop. So they spurt out this crap about “Having it all” and “Keeping the population alive” So that they don’t have to make any changes to how corporations are treating us all like disposable cattle. Men and women just can’t keep up. Social expectations are also very slow to keep up with modern times. Many men still expect women to be submissive and “traditional”. Even in Homosexual relationships, one individual is expected to be or hold a submissive role. Many women are tired of that role. Being exhausted from nearly working to death, allot of men and women View relationships and children as unnecessary burdens and expenses that they don’t have the time, energy, understanding, or patience to devote to. So not only are men and women opting out of reproducing, but they are also opting out of relationships. Men and women are getting burnt out. We’re all raised being told how things are supposed to turn out if we follow X,Y,Z rules, and gender norms. Men and women grow up following these rules, and find out, that they’ve been duped. They’re frustrated.

    The idea of being able to have it “all” isn’t an unrealistic concept. If wages were to match the cost of living, then many women and men would consider themselves to be “living the dream”. However the “Average” life model just doesn’t fit when you try to force our technological/social advances in freedom to also comply with archaic beliefs about work, gender roles, relationships, and child rearing. Until our beliefs match up with the reality of our living situation, far more men and women will opt out on child rearing vs. financial security. Especially since full time work continues to shrink, and part-time work without benefits is becoming the norm.

    1. Bad Puppy!

      This! Feminism somehow overlooked addressing the idea that women going to work with or without kids means that men need to pick up some slack at home. I do most of the housework and cooking (however, this is because I have WAY more free time than my husband, not because I have girl parts), and even so, he doesn’t get put out if I let the house go for awhile. Generally what happens is whichever one gets annoyed most by it first cleans it, and that’s usually me. Also 90% of the mess is created by me anyway. With cooking, I like cooking and I like MY cooking, so I cook. He can cook, but he isn’t as fancy as me about it. And if I don’t feel like cooking, picking something up is always an option and he doesn’t grumble about it. But knowing how our schedules are and how his work is, having kids would mean that none of this felt like “common sense” anymore, because I KNOW which one would be doing most of the parenting. Plus our standard of living would drop like a stone. No. Freaking. Thank you. Honestly I don’t know how anybody has kids anymore without falling into poverty.

      1. 1Life

        Exactly! The feminist movement made it socially acceptable for women to do more, however there wasn’t a movement that made it socially acceptable or desirable for men to do more if it was considered “feminine” or “woman’s work”. Men are raised to believe that they only need to provide financial stability and “protection”, in order to attract AND keep a wife. They’re growing up to realize that women require and NEED more from them. So allot of men are frustrated or feel like women are “asking” for too much, because they are doing what society tells them to do in order to be “desirable” and its not working.

        Women are raised to believe that not only do they need to have intentions on doing most of the child raising and house keeping, but they need to be educated and work hard as well in order to attract AND keep a husband. They’re growing up to realize that its just not humanly possible without more support from their partners. So allot of women are frustrated or feel like men aren’t doing enough because they are doing what society tells them to do in order to be “desirable” and its not a fulfilling or happy arrangement for them.

        I believe this is where allot of tension and hostility comes from both sexes. Women enjoy the freedoms they gained and are realizing that they aren’t capable of caring for family with a partner that isn’t more involved emotionally and physically with the family and household. Men enjoy the Freedoms they’ve ALWAYS had and they don’t want to get more involved emotionally or physically in order for a partner to care for them and their family. They feel like they do enough. Granted this is a GROSS over simplified explanation, but in reference to “Women who want it all”. IT fits. Women are taught that they’re perfectly capable BY THEMSELVES. But being capable BY YOURSELF in a relationship doesn’t fit. Especially when you are burnt out from work and have finances to worry about.

      2. Bad Puppy!

        I would like a movement that makes it socially acceptable for women to do LESS. Because I fill my life with as LITTLE as possible because I don’t enjoy a life where I’m constantly frazzled and overworked and stressed and rushing around trying to do everything and be everything all at one time. I have a fairly laid back life compared to about 90% of the people I know. I would love it if it would just be generally acknowledged that the reason I HAVE that life is: A. no kids B. being self-employed but not in a super workaholic way. C. not overcommitting myself to things so that my time is my time.

        I think everybody gets bait and switched. When you’re a kid you can “do whatever you want when you’re an adult’ but then you reach adulthood and everybody is trying to take away your time freedom and peace. You have to guard it like a vicious dog and when you do you are “selfish” and “lazy”. Umm… excuse me? Sounds like sour grapes. I took people at their word when they said I could do what I wanted when I became an adult.

        And true re: Men. I think there are a lot of men now who are just bitter because women don’t have to put up with cheaters and abusive assholes anymore or else face living under a bridge. We can make our own freaking money. We need a partner, not a man-baby, and not a caveman. How many random mountain lion attacks happen anymore? How many other cavemen with clubs are coming around to drag me off to their cave that I need my caveman to protect me from? Alright then.

        Also, I could five two Sh**s if I am “desirable” to men. Seriously, I am SO over that boat. I have a great husband and love him, but I would far rather be FREE in my life than have to deal with the drama that comes with 90% of relationships these days.

      3. Bad Puppy!

        I also love how some men on the internet are running their mouths about how they are “going their own way” and not getting involved with women anymore. So? Do it. What do I care? Do it and shut the hell up about it. But they won’t. They still want to sleep with women, they just don’t want to be human with them.

      4. Susan Nercher

        Well, if you want men to do more work around the house, does that mean you want men to work less outside the home? Sorry, but women want the right to choose between staying at home to raise kids or to work outside the home. In order to make that choice, someone has to bring in the paycheck. You can’t have a stay-at-home parent when there is no money coming in.

        And it is a myth that men don’t do their fair share of the housework. Women do more housework because they are home more. They choose more flexible jobs, part-time jobs, etc. so of course they are going to be home more. A man who is making $300,000 a year won’t have the time to rush home and cook dinner or do the grocery shopping.

        If a woman wants a man who will do more of the housework, that means she will have to settle for a man who will not have a demanding, high-paying career. Again, women can’t have it all. You can’t expect a man to be a tall, handsome, confident, authoritative, highly-paid professional who can also put on an apron to bake cookies and clean the house.

        Feminism taught women that they can have it all, that they can be superwomen. Women are finally realizing that they can’t be superwomen so now they demand that the men be supermen.

        There should be a movement that says men should do less and demand more financial support from women. I am sure feminists would fight this.

      5. Susan Nercher

        There are a lot of women who want to sleep with men and not be human with men. Why don’t you criticize them? Women have gone their own way – more promiscuity, more illegitimacy, more welfare programs, more affirmative action programs, more abortions, more work flexibility and so on. What are they complaining about? Shut up and enjoy your freedom. Now that men say they want to go their own way and be free too, women complain? Women want men to be knights in shining armors who come to their rescue whenever they feel vulnerable. Well, the way things are going, there won’t be any such knights left so be sure to make the right choices.

  9. 1Life

    @ bad puppy- I wish there was a movement where people are encouraged to do ENOUGH! I’m so sick of seeing articles how its “heroic” to sleep in your car, eat rotten food, and deprave yourself of any basic necessities in order to Pay back outrageous student loans and interests rates, by working 3-4 jobs and not having any time to sleep. It’s not normal! We all get what it means to work hard and sacrifice, but people shouldn’t have to nearly kill themselves just to make ends meet, or to get the tools that they need to start a decent life.

    There needs to be a movement where people are encouraged to do Enough. Its ok to take a break. Its ok to recharge. ITS OK TO NEED AND ASK FOR HELP. People are going nuts because we’re all required to work like machines, with no empathy, sympathy, or apologies.

    Everyone’s just burnt out from the long hours, sleepless nights, and poor diets. Trying to keep up with today’s impossible standards. People have reached their breaking point, they know they want and NEED change, but they are expecting everyone else to be the ones to change. If you slow down to think about it, you might loose your job and end up on welfare.

    1. Bad Puppy!

      I’m extremely fortunate in that I can slow down because I’m self-employed, in a way that does NOT require I bust my ass 60 hours a week. I don’t even have to bust it 40 hours a week. I don’t say that to brag. I know how lucky I am. This whole world and all of its systems pretty much suck.


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