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The Falsehood of "Having It All"

The truth about work-life balance for women.


  • The reality of "having it all" in the traditional meaning of that term may not be what we think it is.
  • It is hard to combine professional success and satisfaction with a genuine commitment to one's family.
  • When thinking about "having it all," we should ask ourselves what's important to us.

I grew up believing I could "have it all." Personally, "having it all" meant getting married, having children, and having a career I love. At the same time, I maintain my friendships and close relationships with my family of origin and stay healthy by working out and eating right while having time to myself.

Now, as a working mom, that idea sounds silly and more of a fantasy than reality. Speaking with other moms about this has proven that we had bought into the dream and now find ourselves having to make sacrifices at work or with our family, never feeling like we are doing anything well, or we are exhausted because the only place we can cut back is the time we had for ourselves and with friends. We cut back on anything that seems leisurely or "unnecessary," so we are overwhelmed and tired daily.

I also want to clarify that "having it all" can look different for everyone. I don't want to push the idea that you must have children or a career to "have it all." Your having it all might look different than mine, and that's OK. The point of this post is for me to be transparent about the reality of "having it all" in the traditional meaning of that term.

Many of us are at a loss and cannot figure out how to combine professional success and satisfaction with a genuine commitment to our family. I understand that I am blessed to have been born in the 1980s and for the opportunities I have. My mother and grandmother didn't get the chance that I did to pursue a doctoral degree. I owe my career possibilities to the pioneering generation of women ahead of me, who, if they admitted or acted on wanting children, it would have been fatal to their careers.

Coming to Terms With Reality

However, I think it's time to stop buying into the fantasy of "having it all" and come to terms with the reality. If we are honest, we can help younger women make better choices for themselves, choose what sacrifices they want to make, or be clear about their future so their partner knows what they can expect from them.

For example, my teenage niece is looking into careers in the medical field. I was honest with her about the difficulty of having a career and a family. I asked her if she wanted to have children one day, and she said, "Yes." So, she is researching careers in the medical field that have more flexible working hours, and when she is ready to date, she will communicate with her future partner about their roles in the home. This way, she can invest in a career that will complement her family life instead of working against it. Also, she will choose a partner who will carry his weight in household chores and parental duties. The reality is that many women work and still bear all household responsibilities, emotional labor, and childcare.

As a career woman, I don't want to tell young women you can have and do it all, regardless of your field. Then, I would make women feel they are to blame if they cannot rise up the ladder as fast as men and have a family and an active home life (and be healthy and rested). I hope women can "have it all" (and men can, too). But not today, not with how America's economy and society are currently structured. My experiences over the years have shown me many uncomfortable facts that need to be widely acknowledged—and quickly changed.

I am lucky in my career choice; I make my schedule and work when my children are in school. I get asked by many women, "How do you do it?" I can do it because I am in charge of my schedule, which is the only way I could make having a career and children work. I realized what I should have known: Having it all, at least for me, depended almost entirely on what type of job I had. The flip side is the more complicated truth: Having it all was impossible for many careers.

We have had progress thanks to many professional women before me. But thanks to their progress, another conversation is now possible. It is time for women in higher positions to recognize that although we are still breaking ceilings, many of us are also reinforcing a false ideal: that "having it all" is, more than anything, a function of personal determination. It's not. We only get a certain amount of energy and time in a day. Having time for anything else is impossible when a career requires all our energy. Many careers don't leave the flexibility for someone to have a good work-life balance. That is OK if that is where you are choosing to place all of your energy; however, it becomes an issue when you want a well-balanced life or to be more patient and emotionally and physically available to your family.

Figuring Out What's Important to Us

When thinking about "having it all," I question what's important to me. What is a fulfilling and rewarding professional and personal life to me? We should not let society and others dictate what "having it all" means. Currently, having it all means to me that I have my health, I have emotionally healthy children and a good marriage, I make time for family and friends, I am making a difference in people's lives through my work, I have financial security, and I have time for an occasional quiet moment. That's what matters to me.

We must figure out what's important to us and place our energy on those aspects of our lives, not unrealistic expectations. My message to this younger generation of women is not to put your energy into fantasy but to clarify what is important to you and how you want to structure your life. Raising children is a big responsibility with much unpredictability, and you only have so much time in a day. Make decisions on what is true to you and what you want to spend your energy focusing on.

Make Your Selection

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