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.
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.
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.