Having it all

A snapshot of my version of “it all”: hydrangeas (one of our wedding flowers) grown by my husband, in our small front garden, on the kitchen island.  In the back you can see a construction paper garland that Grace recently made for father’s day.

Like everyone else in the blogosphere and real-world-o-sphere, I have been participating in many conversations about Anne-Marie Slaughter’s cover story in the Atlantic, Why Women Still Can’t Have it All.   While I certainly don’t have a clearly-articulated response to Slaughter’s comprehensive and thoughtful examination of working motherhood today, I do have a profound emotional response.  By the third page of the article my eyes were full of tears, the words having touched some reserve of emotion in me as inarticulate as it is endlessly deep.

Most days I feel pretty good about my choices regarding work and family.  Sure, I wonder sometimes what would have happened had I not “leaned back,” as per Sheryl Sandberg, before I was even pregnant.  And yes, I do wonder what it would be like not to work, mostly whether I’d be a more relaxed and less distracted parent to my children.  But on the whole I feel pretty good about the decisions I’ve made and about the trade-offs I make every day (I hate the word and notion of balance when it comes to this topic).  My emotional reaction – quiet, but intense – when I read articles like Slaughter’s, however, suggests that something deeply buried in me still grieves, hurts, and wonders.  About and over what, I am not entirely sure.

Mostly what Slaughter’s article has me thinking about, though, is what “it all” really means.  My friend Kathryn, who is one of those can’t-live-without-her-friends that are for me a big component of feeling like I have anything like “it all,” emailed me to say she was at home because her nanny was out, sitting on her bed with her laptop working while her children lay on either side of her watching TV.  Is this “it all,” she mused?

For me, the answer to that is yes.

I am certain this is a deeply personal equation, and one that changes every day.  For me there are some elements of “it all” that are non-negotiable.  Downtime with my children most days.  A happy relationship with my husband.  Work that I find challenging with colleagues I respect and learn from.  Not missing any – or almost any – school events, plays, concerts, assemblies.  My handful of dear friends, those native speakers whose companionship I cherish.  Time, several days a week, to think and write about this divine and devastating life.  Time to read.  Eight hours of sleep most nights.  Time, several days a week, to run by myself.  The calculus of how each day’s hours are allocated is ever-shifting; I think having “it all” is something we ascertain over the arc of weeks and months, not in a single day.

The point of Slaughter’s piece with which I agree with most vociferously is that flexibility is absolutely essential to making this particularly rich, and demanding, phase of life work.  There’s no question that that is true for me.  I’m certain that my ability to be present for events both big and small in the lives of my children while working full-time has a lot to do with my job’s flexibility.  Of course I’ve made compromises though, and I have written before about how my life over the past years has simultaneously narrowed and widened.  What I’m not totally clear on is where the line is between a mature acknowledgement of the need for compromises and a defeatist acceptance of “not having it all.”

There is lots I don’t have.  Lots.  Tons of children.  A book published.  A fancy house.  A perfect figure.  Extravagant vacations.  Sound sleep every night.  A marathon under my belt.  A high profile CEO job.  A real yoga practice.  Unbitten fingernails.  A yard for my children to run in.  A king size bed.  A red-headed child.  A basic orientation towards calm.

But I think I would say that in the ways I care about, I do have it all.

What is your definition of “it all”?


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17 Comments

  1. Posted June 26, 2012 at 5:02 am | Permalink

    I am grateful for this space, and the other tender spaces that have been made, likely in snippets of nap time, to chronicle. Like unexpectedly shimmering webs in a far off corner of the rafters, our stories nestle, hurts and triumphs crowding against one another.

    The way you wonder, the way Kristen puts it out there http://www.motherhooduncensored.net/motherhood_uncensored/2012/02/5-things-sahms-can-learn-from-working-mothers.html the way we find in each other’s voices that we have vastly more than we may think, including huge admiration from others spinning their own web.

    xo to you.

  2. Posted June 26, 2012 at 7:13 am | Permalink

    I haven’t read the article, but I think you’ve asked the right question. What does “it all” mean? The answer is vastly different for each of us and, given the nature of desire, even if/when we manage to get “it all,” we’re going to want more (of something). I believe that’s God helping us redefine “it all.” The best we can do for each other is to be supportive. There are plenty of opportunities for self-doubt and self-judgment without taking on other peoples’ expectations for their own lives.

    As for balance…I completely agree that striving for it on a day-to-day basis can be completely crazy-making. Balance is a built-in feature of the universe, but we were designed to be able to withstand the extremes and come out better for it.

    Thank you for another great post!

  3. Kathryn
    Posted June 26, 2012 at 8:02 am | Permalink

    Very very well put! I woke up this morning also thinking: my own definition of “it all” changes daily. For example, when O was up at 4:39 (yes true) this morning “it all” might only be 8 hours of sleep. Balance schmalance. xo

  4. Posted June 26, 2012 at 8:25 am | Permalink

    I follow Meghan O’Rourke on Twitter, and her reaction to this topic/article was summed up as follows: why do we always have to couple “having it all” with women? The truth is, NONE of us “has it all.” It’s just impossible, and the people I know who appear to be trying to “have it all” just generally seem run ragged. So I think “having it all” is an illusion; so is “balance.” It is all, as you say, a trade-off that involves making choices — often very difficult ones. And I don’t think this is simply an issue of working vs. nonworking moms. Regardless of our employment status, every one of us is faced with making choices about how we are to spend our precious time and our precious lives. Something that has always struck me about you, Lindsey, is the clarity you have about how you wish to spend your time, and your actions seems to flow from your intentions. This is something I’m still trying to figure out: what are MY non-negotiables?

  5. Posted June 26, 2012 at 8:48 am | Permalink

    There is always more to do than anyone can manage.

    We often believe that men can have it all because they have a wife at home to take care of the kids and the house. But there’s an implicit definition of “all” that you and I probably wouldn’t agree with.

    It is possible to work incredibly hard, and if you’re lucky, get wealth, fame, and power, while still remaining married and having well-adjusted children. That’s what we often mean by saying of men that they have it “all.”

    But it is not possible to work 80 hour weeks and be a good husband and spend significant time with your kids and have a set of fulfilling non-work activities (hobbies doesn’t quite reflect the level of passion I’m thinking of here). You simply run out of hours.

    The only way any of us can have it all is to scale our expectations so that we’re satisfied with how we allocate our time. In the end, we control the process, not the outcomes.

  6. Rick Corcoran
    Posted June 26, 2012 at 9:18 am | Permalink

    Good piece, L. Have been having some interesting discussions about he article in other parts of FB and beyond. Of course I have a guy’s perspective, but I think Elizabeth’s point above is the most important one– no one can REALLY have it all, no matter what “it” is. We all make tradeoffs. It’s a bummer, but such is life. I do think it’s probably harder on balance for women, but it’s also tough for guys. I am lucky to have a lot of the flexibility that Lindsay describes, but I have absolutely left career/ambition choices on the table in the process. Same goes for my wife. I think part of the problem is that for whatever reason we all think we can/should have “it all” even though it’s just not rational. And then related, of course, is the recurring theme in L’s writing that I like and relate to– the idea that lots of stress in life comes from your life not turning out quite how you pictured it. This having it all stuff is dead center in that whole saga.

  7. Posted June 26, 2012 at 9:40 am | Permalink

    I don’t want “it all.” What I want is certainty in my choices and a reliable sense of peace. Which I will never have, either. Unfortunately, the older I get and the more wisdom I tuck into my pockets, the more I see that learning to find grace in the daily struggles and joys of life is the sole reward we can count on. I say “unfortunately” because so much of our “modern” life is set against these simple goals. So the balance I seek is to keep coming back to that simple truth, and to practice unattachment from the rest of it as much as I can. But, oh, how good our society is at making sparkly, shiny distractions that woo me away from what I believe is true!

  8. Posted June 26, 2012 at 11:24 am | Permalink

    This is a topic I know well, and intimately. Calling myself a “feminist” is not something I would have done prior to being involved in a sexual discrimination lawsuit against a women’s health company. But if this can happen to me, it can happen to anyone and thus life basically sat up and called my attention to this issue.

    The article isn’t about “having it all.” That was a provocative title. It wasn’t about that at all. Everyone makes compromises, that is a part leaving the realm of childhood and becoming an adult. No one is saying that we shouldn’t compromise.

    What Slaughter is saying is that women aren’t making it to the top because of the lack of choices in raising and having children. And when women don’t make it to the top, we all suffer.

    I think you would agree that women are an important voice to have at the highest levels of governement, business and policy making entities. This voice isn’t being represented with only 16% of C-level positions being women. THAT was Slaughter’s point.

    We are suffering because the “life balance” portion of the work-life equation is unfairly set on top of the women’s shoulders.

    You and I, we are fortunate enough to have options. I, too, am happy with where I am in life and the choices I’ve made to make it work. But from my experience at my last place of employment, I am all too familiar with the sacrifices required if you do desire to rise into a position of leadership.

    *Stepping off soap box now.*

  9. Posted June 26, 2012 at 12:19 pm | Permalink

    What a thought provoking post you wrote!!! I definitely don’t think I have it all because my life is wildly different than I thought it would be and so many things happened that I didn’t want to happen and yet were out of my control. I am more of the mantra lately that we get what we need and learn the big lessons from what we may not have wanted but that came to us anyway. I ALMOST (not quite) think that if I had it all, I wouldn’t want it. That the narrow life I lead is actually more interesting than the one I imagined. Love to you friend!!

  10. Posted June 26, 2012 at 12:55 pm | Permalink

    Nodding, nodding, nodding.

    I don’t know what my version of “it all” is, precisely, but I do know that I look at my husband multiple times a week and say something in the vein of, “It’s a pretty great life we have, isn’t it?” That said, there are always things I’d change. I love your notion that “it” changes with time and that we have to allow for our goals and desires to evolve, even while knowing that they’ll never all be met.

    Really lovely post. Thank you.

  11. jj
    Posted June 26, 2012 at 1:34 pm | Permalink

    Really enjoyed this post as well as the comments, esp. Shannon Lell’s. As a single woman in her early 40s, I think about the trade offs and compromises I’ve made and wonder. I see my married friends with kids (and my single friends with kids) struggling with their choices, too, and the words of my dear friend Molly keep echoing in my ears: We all need to be more gentle with ourselves. Great discussion, great topic. Thanks L.

  12. Posted June 27, 2012 at 9:55 am | Permalink

    One lesson I’ve had to learn over the last 21 years of working and parenting is that you can’t have it all, but you can choose what you do have. Some things in my life I’ve definitely not chosen-and get pissed that hey keep interrupting the ‘plan’ I had for my life. Those are the big, deep disruptions that only the universe knows why they happen. The little things-those I can control. My ‘all”, I guess, would be to live each day with grace and love.

  13. Posted June 27, 2012 at 11:56 am | Permalink

    I may be one of the very few who hasn’t read the article you mention here. I think it would stress me out. Like other people have commented, I don’t think this is an issue unique to women. I also think the question itself — “can we have it all?” — is faulty, maybe even a little demented, and wholly out of balance. The simple answer is, “of course not.” My more complex response is, “what does that even mean?”

    I think of it this way. My children just got some money from their relatives to spend on vacation. More money than they usually have. I’m feeling quite proud of them in their spending choices. At five and eight, they managed to think carefully about what they wanted and buy wisely. They didn’t buy everything they saw. They didn’t try to “have it all”. They found a place to be content.

    So, my wish for my girls is not to have it all, but to understand that life is cycles, tides, and movement. As you say above, the “all” of “it all” changes with the day and seasons. I’d rather be grateful and replete inside the moment, hydrangeas on the counter top, artwork on the wall. And if we were overflowing, where would grace come in?

  14. Posted June 27, 2012 at 7:04 pm | Permalink

    Somehow I just didn’t find it so surprising that holding a prominent position in national government made it hard to find time for family. But Ms. Slaughter’s descriptions of interactions with other women in discussing this whole topic very well rendered and insightful – my favorite part of the article.

    So I would agree that it depends on what “it all” is for you and how ambitious you are – I know plenty of mothers who balance professional accomplishment with quality family life. However, I don’t know any high-ranking government officials. Maybe this means I am just “leaning really far back” in the Sheryl Sandberg terminology ☺

    My favorite part of this post – your list of “have nots” – One thing I do not have is a rambling Victorian house with a big porch – something I always thought I would want. Now, I find I could care less.

  15. Mb
    Posted June 28, 2012 at 11:54 am | Permalink

    A little late, but thanks for this post. My first comment on your blog, but I was so happy to read how you framed “having it all.” The article infuriated me. I understood so many of the points, but felt that the bar for “having it all” being an incredibly high-profile government job was so unrealistic. I feel like the article almost implied that women ought to give up seeking a balanced life across work and family. While challenging, I believe that there are many of us out there with strong enough convictions to be present in our children’s lives that we are able (with the help of flexible employers) to “have it all” much more successfully than those who have gone before us. I think for the most highly educated there are more options to balance work and family than ever before. It is those moms out there struggling to feed their families that we ought to be spending our time lamenting.

  16. Posted June 29, 2012 at 12:03 pm | Permalink

    Finally got a chance to get through the article. It was a challenge, given the state of my head!
    I thought the first half was long and slow — and I noticed in some of the comments on the article that a lot of people stopped reading early (I almost did). It’s too bad, because I think Slaughter eventually goes on to make some good points about life expectancy, seeing careers as steps, rather than trajectories, and creating a national cultural that places greater value on balance, happiness, and family time. I wish she had gotten there sooner :)

  17. Posted July 4, 2012 at 10:52 am | Permalink

    Lindsey —

    Though I follow you on twitter, I discovered your blog after reading your comment on my Q&A with Priscilla Gilman. So, so happy that I did. Your blog is quite lovely — a place where one could get lost, especially when the first flower you see is a hydrangea.

    For what it’s worth, here’s my response to Anne-Marie Slaughter on Maria Shriver’s blog — Why I Still Dream of Having it All.

    http://mariashriver.com/blog/2012/06/why-i-still-dream-about-having-it-all-whitney-johnson

    Glad to have discovered you!

    My best,
    Whitney