Tuesday, June 26, 2012
Having it All
Perhaps you heard recently about a controversial article written by Anne-Marie Slaughter in The Atlantic entitled, Why Women Still Can't Have it All. The article (and surrounding controversy) has been getting quite a bit of press lately. Slaughter is a former high-level director at the State Department who left her job because she found it impossible to juggle the demands of her career with the demands of being a mom. She felt her kids were not getting enough attention and were worse off for her living the have-it-all lifestyle, so she quit her State Department job to dedicate herself fully to raising her teenaged sons.
The article is an interesting read and the gist of it is that it's tough for working moms and "having it all" is either not really possible, or it's possible but not the optimal lifestyle women have been led to believe. I will answer this with a big AMEN.
What I would like to focus on, however, is how "having it all" has come to be defined for women in the first place and how I - as a child-free by choice woman - define it for myself.
Women are taught that we have three choices in life:
1. Be a stay at home mom
2. Be a career woman (with the ultimate goal of being a mom)
3. "Have it all" - i.e. be a career woman who is also a mom
For the past 40 years or so, girls and women have been given the impression that "having it all" - i.e. being a career woman with kids - is the ultimate goal in life, and it's been dangled before us as the feminist ideal; that is, women are no longer bound to the home and relegated to a life of monotonous scut work. They can be movers and shakers in the business world at the same time. They are all things to all people. They are superhuman. They are woman, hear them roar.
There's a problem with this ideal, however, which is why Ms. Slaughter's article touches a nerve with so many women. The "have it all" ideal is a myth and women are becoming wise to the fact that they've been sold a bill of goods. Being a high-level career woman AND a mom is not ideal for most women. It's a full-blown stress fest where nobody - not the woman, not her husband, not her kids or her employer - receives the best from her. Every one of her roles is compromised by the unending demands of her other equally-demanding roles.
Yet, despite the fact that most women find the stressful "have it all" lifestyle unsustainable and detrimental to herself, her spouse or her children (if she has them), it continues to be pushed as the ideal for women. Stay-at-home moms, women who postpone childbearing to focus on their careers, women who choose not to have children and women who cannot have children, are viewed as deficient beings who walk the earth with a gaping hole that is just waiting to be plugged with the missing role. Only when a woman is running herself ragged like a headless chicken, shoving McDonald's food down her kids' gullets while she hurriedly tosses them and her briefcase in the car, is she deemed to be a full person, a real woman, a true success, and fully actualized.
Despite the fact that "having it all" has been defined for women in this one rigid way, the truth - which of course is kept from women - is that "having it all" really means different things to different people, depending on who the person is and what she wants to have in her life.
As a woman who wants nothing to do with having children and the lifestyle that comes with it, a life of career-plus-kids is the farthest thing from "having it all" that I could imagine. For me, that traditional lifestyle means having less - giving up what I really desire in life for something that provides little benefit for an enormous cost; sacrificing the things that are deeply important to me - such as my devoted relationship with my husband, family and friends, my dedication to learning, to exploring, to growing, to sharing, to taking care of my mental, spiritual, physical and intellectual health, to the interests and pursuits I hold dear to my heart and am so grateful to participate in fully. When I think of what "having it all" means to me, I feel so grateful because for the most part, I already have achieved it. And the best part? I have given up nothing to live my have-it-all life. I have practically everything I desire in life while still getting a full night's sleep each night, having weekends free to do the things I enjoy doing, and being a fully attentive spouse, friend, daughter, sister, aunt and employee. "But you gave up having kids, so you did give up something", you say? Well, I never wanted to have kids, so not having them is no more a loss to me than not having a dog would be to someone who doesn't want one.
The problem as I see it isn't that our society is not set up for women to truly have it all. The problem is that women are not encouraged to decide for themselves what having it all means to them and are made to feel inadequate if they do not buy into the one rigidly-prescribed idea of what the optimal female life looks like. For more and more women the optimal life is one which is free of the burden, stress and unrelenting demands of childrearing. This freedom is not a gaping hole. It is space to be filled with the delights of our choosing, or to be left open and clear - for thought, for imagination, for ideas, for contemplation and creativity.