If there was ever a more undeservedly ubiquitous anthem of feminism than “having it all” I’m unaware of it. For some bizarre reason, “having it all” is this thing we’re all supposed to strive for — being a mom and having a great family, and a wonderful marriage, and a fulfilling job — all the while looking put-together, whipping up gluten-free meals, and attending 5:30am boot camp before work with a smile on our faces. Maybe to the feminists who came before us the idea that you could have a life that was a little less insular than being a helper to your kid(s) and husband was empowering because it was novel, most women couldn’t hope for something other than that (and plenty of them never wanted to in the first place). But we have options now, and I want to reject this idea that the outcome of choice should be “choose every single thing on the menu and enjoy them all equally.”
It’s infantilizing, isn’t it? That we still can’t choose what makes us happy. We might have more options than before but we’re bound by this notion that we still have to choose all of them. Author Courtney Martin offers up this gut-punch on the subject:
We are the girls with anxiety disorders, filled appointment books, five-year plans. We take ourselves very, very seriously. We are the peacemakers, the do-gooders, the givers, the savers. We are on time, overly prepared, well read, and witty, intellectually curious, always moving… We pride ourselves on getting as little sleep as possible and thrive on self-deprivation. We drink coffee, a lot of it. We are on birth control, Prozac, and multivitamins… We are relentless, judgmental with ourselves, and forgiving to others. We never want to be as passive-aggressive as our mothers, never want to marry men as uninspired as our fathers… We are the daughters of the feminists who said, “You can be anything,” and we heard, “You have to be everything.
Let’s be done with all that.
Let’s permit ourselves the luxury of being bad at some things so that we can be great at the things we care about most.
No one wants to have it all. We’re humans. We have preferences. We value some things more than others and enough with having to put on this charade of wanting and doing everything equally well. Balance is boring. Balance is for people who cannot (or will not) make up their minds. Balance is for people who will accept watered-down version dreams because they want to please everyone.
In many ways a life of “having it all” is one full of just as much servitude and unhappiness as the women who felt trapped and unfulfilled by the traditional roles they were forced into. It’s just as much about not listening to what you really want to do as before. It’s hedging your bets and making yourself un-intimidating by fitting into each and everyone’s opinion of what a woman should be — we’re pleasing feminists and traditionalists. And we’re running ourselves into the ground in order to do it.
I have a job that’s very fulfilling, so I’m okay not having a 6-figure STEM degree salary. I’m okay with having written a few books in my 20’s instead of having birthed a few kids. I have the things that are really important to me, and they came at the cost of things I valued less, that’s how life works. There’s another version of my life where I’m less happy creatively but I have a home full of people, it’s a tradeoff, the trick is to be okay with being less successful in one area in order to be more successful in another. Our soothsayer Oprah said it best, “you can have it all, you just can’t have it at the same time.” Trying to do otherwise is one big, fat, soul-sucking road to nowhere.
The more things you chase simultaneously, the thinner you spread yourself, and the less you have to give in each individual area. Why spend time and energy on things we don’t care about? It’s okay to be single-minded, in fact it’s necessary if you want to be really good at anything. It’s okay to say “I don’t care about having a career” or “I’m not interested in devoting my life to children, that’s not for me.” Chase what makes you excited — scary-feeling-in-your-stomach excited. Ignore the rest. Ignore the people who need you to want the rest so that they can understand your life.
In the wake of the massive Sony hack, pop-culture blog Fusion ran an article criticizing the race and gender wage gap the company’s leaked financial’s revealed — among the people becoming millionaires on Sony’s payroll, only one was a woman:
I think the old feminist response would be, we need to close this gap. We need more women to be at the top corporate leaders and earners. And women in this generation are more likely to say, why? What’s wrong with only having one woman leader at this company as long as women are able to get there if they choose it, if they are willing to pay the cost to get there?
And that’s exactly why more women aren’t choosing to be at the top. It’s expensive to be at the top, it costs you your whole life. If you want a big career like that, you can’t be at home with your kids or partner every night. You can’t write novels in your spare time and have that job. You can’t travel or train for marathons or do anything except center your life around building someone else’s dream. The price is too steep to do it just for the illusion of having it all. What’s a million dollar salary when that’s all you get to do with your life? When you could happily make a tenth of that and have time to pursue other interests, or a twentieth of it and be home for dinner every night with your kids? That’s what a lot of women freely choose to do. And that’s our choice to make.
Women don’t need to make up half of CEO positions just to make a checkmark on some box of whether we’re equal. We’re not obligated to reward our mothers’ feminism by having a life-consuming career if we don’t want it just like we aren’t obligated to have children we don’t want or husbands we aren’t passionate about. Choice is not obligation. We do not have to have it all to make other people happy. We can be enough without being everything.