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not having it all

If you’re sick of talking about having it all, join the club. After a while, I started to think of the Anne-Marie Slaughter article from the Atlantic Monthly as an annoying land shark that follows me around and wants to hang out, totally uninvited. The article came up at dinners with friends, at the gym, at my kids’ school. It came up at work, when our forward-thinking managing partner sent around an email, inviting discussion on the subject. When I actually read Slaughter’s book-length article, the first thought I had was that I’d have a lot more time to have it all if I didn’t spend so much time reading about having it all. But by all means, please don’t let that thought stop you from reading this post.

Just when things started dying down, new Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer threw fresh kindling on the fire by proclaiming that she intended to take an abbreviated maternity leave. I’m not in the stratosphere of “high-achieving” women who occupy cabinet posts and run Fortune 500 companies. But I have a job that is important to me. And I have kids and a husband. And anyone with a worklife combined with a homelife knows that having it all is hard no matter what your job is. It is a vast understatement to say that I include full-time stay-at-home parenting as a job, but I’m not going to demean my friends who do that work by trying to talk about it intelligently, because it is not my reality, and I can only talk about the pain I know about.


when kids and work collide

The thing about the word “all” is that everyone’s definition of “all” is different. I know what my definition of “having it all” is, and it’s this: feeling 100% effective and satisfied in all aspects of my life. And I can’t have it all, at least not as I define it, without the aid of reality-altering drugs. The assumption that you can be 100% effective in all aspects of your life, and fully satisfied in all aspects of your life, has to be a uniquely American one. In 2009, the birth rate in my homeland, South Korea, was the lowest in the world, in large part because women are prioritizing their careers and opting out of having children altogether.

For me, the idea that you CAN have it all is the most damaging part of the discourse, because it sets a standard that no one, male or female, has a hope of attaining. I feel worse for many of the dads I know than I do for myself. Tom has me at home, expecting him to shoulder 50% of the parenting burden, or 65%, if he wants to earn his TV time. And Tom has partners at work, many of whom raised kids in a time when they were not subject to the same demands at home, and are therefore challenged to understand why Tom has to be home for dinner, even if he has to go back to work later.

I don’t blame Tom’s partners. It’s like asking someone without children to understand the reality of life with children. Or asking me to understand what it feels like to be a lion. I’m not a lion. I’m a human. On some level, understanding and empathy can only go so far. But we have to keep trying.

at work on a sunday, my birthday. thanks amara for bringing me cake and taking this pic

Right now, it’s enough when I’m hitting 100% in one aspect of my life at any given time. Like, when I write a brief that I’m proud of. Or when my kid eats a vegetable without throwing up. When I’m writing that brief, my kids are at home with their dad eating Chipotle for dinner, because I can’t be at home to cook. And when my kids are eating vegetables, it’s because I took mental time away from work to think hard about a viable vegetable option, and got home in time to cook that vegetable in the least threatening presentation possible, and to prepare myself emotionally for the inevitable rejection.

I can’t write the killer brief and get my kids to eat vegetables at the same time. Once I figure out how to do that, I guess I’ll really have it all. Until then, it’s enough that I have a lot of good stuff, most of the time.

45 Comments Post a comment
  1. Reblogged this on jjnsubuga's Blog.

    September 20, 2012
  2. Reblogged this on jjnsubuga's Blog.

    September 20, 2012
  3. Wandering Voiceless #

    LOVED the pic “when kids and work collide.” Priceless. Brought back a lot of memories.

    And I haven’t read that article; hadn’t even heard of it until I read your post. So forgive me if the rest of this is not quite on point… so for what it’s worth:

    I always knew I would not be a stay-at-home mom. Had I tried that route, I would have been the mom that drowned her kids in the bathtub. And I’m only kidding a little bit. Having it all wasn’t the point of working outside the home. Maintaining my sanity was. It doesn’t work for everyone; that’s what makes the world go round as they say. I never even considered whether I had it all, or wanted it all. It just worked out the way it was supposed to work out. Thankfully.

    I will, say, too, tho, that when folks tell you make time for yourself, they are offering you the most honest and caring advice they can. Because it’s like when you’re trying to save a drowning person, you have to know how to swim yourself first. Or when you’re given instructions on an airplane to put the o2 mask over your own face first. Because you can’t save your kids if you can’t breath. Same thing goes for life: you can’t raise your kids if you can’t breath. So, yes, you must take some time to breath… whatever that means for you (zumba perhaps is your o2). Because that makes you a better mom.

    Wonderfully written post, from the opening to the closing. :>

    August 4, 2012
    • i love this comment. i have a feeling that your not focusing on having it all had something to do with things just working out. and i absolutely agree that happy parenting starts with happy parents. it’s just hard to really appreciate that when you are in thick of it, i think. very much enjoyed the air mask analogy. it will stick with me

      August 4, 2012
      • Wandering Voiceless #

        Oh good… I was concerned I was overstepping. :>

        From the get-go Prince Charming and I agreed that our marriage came first, then our kids, because happy kids come from happy marriages. I think that’s the reverse of how most folks come to it tho. I got a lot of grief for not making my kids the center of the universe.

        August 4, 2012
  4. This is really good Yoona and I don’t think it is discussed often enough without leaving reality on the sidelines. I empathize with Tom on the generational gap with colleagues and how family responsibilities can be viewed. I try to remember that if I strive for what is probably not attainable I can feel empty. If I do the best I can and can look myself in the mirror knowing my effort was complete, I can find complete fulfillment in the ups and the downs and the successes and near misses. This post was great, Bravo.

    July 30, 2012
  5. Gulgun #


    July 27, 2012
  6. Michele #

    Again Yoona thank you for the post. There must be something in the universe. As someone who spent the majority of a drive from Salem to Eugene in tears yesterday because I finally had the inevitable melt down from the stress of trying to be all things to everyone- I appreciate the blog post. If someone tells me one more time to make time for myself there will be fury that only an Italian woman starved from the kitchen and a good workout could summon. Also, nice work on being so gentle to Tom in the post. I am constantly perplexed at why I have to always be the lead on all things childcare related. But you did a great job putting it into context and reminding me of the ridiculousness of some of my expectations. On that note I need to head back to work as the rest of my family frolics on the beach in Bandon. Awesome.

    July 27, 2012
    • hey michele. i have long wondered how friends who commute long-distance manage to keep their equanimity. you guys have it extra hard. i love when people tell me to make time for myself, almost as much as i love it when people say i need to make time for romance

      July 27, 2012
  7. Caveat, caveat, first world problems…. Part of me wants to offer a reassuring long hug, part of me wants to challenge… You think you have it bad? Do what you are currently trying to do while taking care of your ailing parents. Be sandwiched as a caretaker between generations and try to give your best at the office on top of that. Then talk to me about how hard it is you often don’t get to control your office hours. At least you have some control. Many (most?) women in the work force have no choice about when they arrive or when they are allowed to leave either one.

    That said, everybody’s situations as described feel plenty difficult enough.

    Maybe we all give ourselves a break, give others a break as well, and focus more on how we can work together on big picture stuff. As in let’s work together to assure daycare, health insurance and housing options are available and affordable across the board. After that? We tackle carrots!

    July 27, 2012
    • total first world problems all around. we all have a lot to deal with and do what we can. i have written about vegetables on my blog a lot, because they are an easy shorthand for everything that i want for my children’s health and future well-being. for me, change starts at home. thanks for the comment.

      July 27, 2012
  8. SWood #

    “And when my kids are eating vegetables, it’s because I took mental time away from work to think hard about a viable vegetable option, and got home in time to cook that vegetable in the least threatening presentation possible, and to prepare myself emotionally for the inevitable rejection.”

    Ok, you’ve been in my brain. I’m glad my old friend David Bean linked to your blog on Facebook, because this post just made my night. And if you’re not already, you should count avocado as a “green vegetable.” We do. It’s very non-threatening. Great post–

    –Shelby Wood

    July 26, 2012
    • hey shelby, glad the inimitable mr. bean led you here. i totally count avocados and tomatoes as vegetables, seeds be damned

      July 27, 2012
  9. balancinggal #

    This is so very, very true. Every minute at work is a minute away from th kids, and every minute with the kids means something not getting done at work. There is no possible way to be 100% anything when so divided.

    July 26, 2012
  10. “Having it all” is a concept invented by a man to make a woman crazy . . . crazy enough to say “F*** it, I’m not having children,” therefore giving her more time to have sex with the man, or crazy enough to say “F*** it, I’ll give up my career and stay home,” therefore giving her more time to have sex with the man. That many of us are dogged enough to actually try to have it all, including time for sex with the man, just means they underestimated our stamina.

    Life got a whole lot better when I cried uncle and enlisted Mr. Mom’s help.

    July 26, 2012
  11. You hit it right on. Having it all is impossible. Someone who does their job and their mothering perfectly still isn’t winning olympic gold while painting a masterpiece. No matter how much we multi-task there are still only 24 hours in day. We make choices as to what we are going to ask of ourselves, and many of us condemn ourselves to failure by expectations that are impossible.

    July 26, 2012
    • i spend a lot of time trying to set realistic expectations. but in my bleaker moments i worry that my ever-lowering bar is barely clearing the floor. so i have warring impulses.

      July 27, 2012
  12. alena #

    This post made me cry. I don’t really know why, but it did. I wish women were easier on e/o and not in a perpetual state of competition (especially this one, which is soooooooo passive aggressive). If we could all just be supportive and empathetic, we would all be happier.

    I am glad you work; I don’t. If you ever need me to pick up your kids because you are drowning in your job, then let me know, because I am flexible like that; and you can forgive me for wearing shitty clothes that are usually dirty because I am with kids all day and can’t afford a nice wardrobe. But you’ll still let me eat your paella right? Sweet. It’s a deal.

    P.S. Screw YOU Miss Mayer; why are you telling the world about your maternity leave? Oh ya, because you want the world to blow sunshine up your dress and prove that you are so awesome. Go get some self esteem that doesn’t require your narcissistic arse to be kissed by the world.

    (feel free to remove this post 🙂

    July 26, 2012
    • your comment made me think even more about an issue that has been on my mind a lot–privacy. i have a blog and i share a lot of information on it, for better or for worse. and i guess what bothers me about the marissa mayer situation is that she maybe felt compelled to declare a very private piece of information in service to yahoo’s shareholders. but who knows, maybe that’s not the way of it at all. always difficult to see into other people’s situations. i can barely make sense of my own. xo alena.

      July 27, 2012
  13. Dana #

    Yoona, read “Composing A Life” by Mary Catherine Bateson, Margaret Mead’s daughter. Although she is the generation ahead of ours and the book is far from perfect, there are some nuggets of wisdom in there about how we should be shifting the paradigm from “having it all” to being the most effective and enriched, happy person we can be, which necessitates a balance between our vocation (however you want to define that), our personal relationships and our commitment to our community at large. I thought the Atlantic Monthly piece was a bit ridiculous, given the fact that only the smallest percentage of the population would even imagine that working in the office of a national leader while trying to stay part of a family that is hundreds of miles away is a situation that one should strive for.

    July 26, 2012
    • i just changed my definition of “having it all” to include having the time to read “Composing a Life.” thank you for raising the point about making room for our commitment to the community at large–you’re right that it can’t be just about a bunch of insular family units, being happy amongst ourselves. thanks dana.

      July 26, 2012
  14. Courtney #

    I think this issue suffers from overthinking. Most women reading your blog are probably relatively privileged. If you have a kid and don’t hate your spouse and job, I think in any modern, reasonable definition, you “have it all.” If you LIKE your spouse, job, and kid, and earn more than $75K a year, then you absolutely have it all. It may not be pretty, but it’s a shitload more than most women on the earth have. I can’t imagine someone who is a perfect spouse, mother, and employee at all times, but who cares? How did 100% become the standard and who put your buddy Gwyneth Paltrow in charge of defining happiness anyway? I say focus on what you’re doing right rather than what you’re doing half-ass and call it good. This “good mom” “bad mom” guilt stuff just makes me insane, by the way.

    PS — That Atlantic article involves a chick w/ a very unique and unusual job location/family set up so I don’t know why she’s supposed to be some representative of womanhood generally.

    July 26, 2012
    • i agree with you and others that it is ridiculous that slaughter should be the test case. and i agree that we have it better than most of the women roaming the earth. but i think it’s a human impulse to constantly strive for more, no matter how much we have. it’s what makes us great, and what makes us terrible. i am working on being satisfied, and having satisfaction be enough. but it is a struggle.

      July 26, 2012
  15. I’m following now.

    And I wish we had more moms like you at our school.

    July 26, 2012
  16. Love it! Thank you.

    July 26, 2012
  17. Erin #

    Your definition of having it all is WAY more ambitious than mine! I don’t think I have ever been 100% effective or completely satisfied with one aspect of my life. Of course, you always were a high achiever! I think Kristin stated it well above, it is not possible to be everything to everyone. Heck, I don’t think it is even possible to be everything to any one person. This whole “having it all” thing is bullshit. One of the best things about becoming, uh, more mature (not old!) is realizing that the only person I have to be happy with is myself – which makes it a lot easier to define my own criteria for success and celebrate the small stuff. None of us have it all – but what we have is pretty damn great. Well, except the working on your bday thing. That sucks.

    July 26, 2012
    • 100% sounded better than 86% or whatever my real number is. but i get depressed if i start to think that even with all my focus on only one thing in my life, i’m not hitting 100%. it is important to appreciate our successes, i agree

      July 26, 2012
  18. Thank you for this. I don’t have kids yet, but I do have a demanding job an hour and half away from my new, full-of-projects house and a boyfriend 45 minutes away from my house and my job. Trying to figure out how to balance the three points of my triangle and still get more than three hours of sleep at night is really hard. And it doesn’t help when I have a mom who did a long distance job while living in a house with needs and raising a small child by herself. She somehow managed to “have it all”. I have no idea how she did it, or why she thinks anyone else can. It’s so hard!

    The sentence “I can’t write the killer brief and get my kids to eat vegetables at the same time” was really nice to read. Because part of the time I’m thinking “I can’t go see a movie with my boyfriend and paint the wall under the stairs at the same time”, part of the time I’m thinking “I can’t get to work early and have breakfast with my boyfriend”, and the rest of the time I’m thinking “I can’t stay late to serve this document and hang the new curtains.” I’m so glad I’m not the only one trying to paddle up this creek.

    Thanks for reminding me stop focusing on not being able to have/do it all, and to look at (and appreciate!) the lots of good stuff I have most of the time. =)

    July 26, 2012
    • hey, i appreciate this perspective because it doesn’t involve kids, and reminds me that there are competing interests in everyone’s life, regardless of whether kids are involved. you’ve got a lot of juggling there, my friend, not to mention high fuel bills…

      July 26, 2012
  19. This totally rings all my bells! And let me tell you, the pride I felt two days ago when my girl was gobbling down a bowl of steamed carrots was EPIC.
    I don’t believe I could ever have it all the way they describe it, but I’ve got lots and I dig it.

    July 26, 2012
    • that is an emotion that i predict i will never know. but i can only imagine that if my kid ever gobbled down a bowl of carrots, i would spike the empty bowl in the dining room and do a touchdown dance

      July 26, 2012
  20. THANK YOU. Nodding in agreement while reading as I walk to court half asleep after attending to my liitle one’s a 3am fever and extra special surprise that had us all taking 3am showers. “Having the good stuff most of the time” makes all the not so great moments totally worthwhile.

    July 26, 2012
    • oh man i’ve never had to shower at 3am in a child-related incident, so your comment makes me feel a lot better. hope court went well!

      July 26, 2012
  21. Kristin Corcoran #

    Yoona, I used to think that I had to do it all. It was my mission to be everything to everyone at the “low price” of my sanity! Now that I am at home full time, I have come to realize that it’s not possible to be everything to everyone. We all try to do what we can to have a good life currently and a secure future. It’s a fine balancing act and no one can do it perfectly. We just do what we can!! Great post. It’s a good reminder!!

    July 26, 2012
  22. Michele #

    Yoona- I just read your post after arriving at work before 7am- a luxury afforded to me only because my kiddo is at camp this week. So I miss him terribly and feel like a really bad mom on a level, but I get to come to work to get all the stuff done that I can’t do when I’m being a “good” mom. All of this is to say that your post was a well timed and much appreciated message, as usual!

    July 26, 2012
    • camps seem big with the really “good” moms this year. so consider yourself wholly absolved, my dear michele. and while i wince that you describe arriving to work at 7am as a luxury, it’s only from recognition, because i get it, i totally get it.

      July 26, 2012

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