I Don’t Want To Have It All

A new cover story in The Atlantic wonders “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All.” But why would anyone want to? “Having it all” sounds way too exhausting. posted on

A few weeks ago, I was having lunch with a friend who’s a top editor at a women’s magazine. She has two small children, and she’s finding it increasingly difficult to balance the hours and stress of her job with raising her kids. “I just don’t think I want to be an editor-in-chief,” she told me. “I never thought I’d be someone who said that — I spent my 20s working harder than anyone else so I could get where I am now. But now that I’m here, I see what I would need to do to become an editor-in-chief, and it just doesn’t appeal to me anymore.”

I thought of what she said — and some of the other, similar conversations I’ve been having lately with my friends, all of us professional women in our 20s and 30s — as I read Anne-Marie Slaughter’s cover story in the new issue of the Atlantic: “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All.” In the piece, Slaughter — who’s a professor of politics and international affairs at Princeton — discusses her own struggles with raising a family and having a high-powered job (she also was the director of policy planning in the State Department from 2009 to 2011), and concludes that some pretty major social changes need to happen in American society so that women (and men) can pursue a healthier balance between their families and their careers.

But Slaughter also seems to feel that women my age aren’t holding up our part of the bargain, that — like my women’s magazine editor friend — we’ve decided that “having it all” isn’t even that appealing, in part because we’ve seen the sacrifices that women Slaughter’s age have had to make in both their careers and their family lives.

As she writes:

Women of my generation have clung to the feminist credo we were raised with, even as our ranks have been steadily thinned by unresolvable tensions between family and career, because we are determined not to drop the flag for the next generation. But when many members of the younger generation have stopped listening, on the ground that glibly repeating ‘you can have it all’ is simply airbrushing reality, it is time to talk. I still strongly believe that women can ‘have it all (and that men can too). I believe that we can ‘have it all at the same time.’ But not today, not with the way America’s economy and society are currently structured.

But maybe nobody should be able to “have it all.” What, exactly, is “having it all,” anyway? Rising to the top of your profession and yet still being able to be home in time for dinner and make it to all the soccer games? That seems impossible, no matter how we restructure our economy and our society. Something, somewhere, is going to have to give; there are only so many hours in the day and only so many soccer games. That is not to say that our economy and our society couldn’t be structured to take work-life balance more into account — just that it seems dangerous to assume that somehow there is a magical solution that allows one to do both, perfectly.

There’s also an insidious, not-so-implicit assumption that part of “having it all” is having a family. What about men or women who don’t want children? Are they disqualified from the “having it all” sweepstakes?

I don’t know, exactly, where my career (or my personal life, for that matter) is headed. But I do know that “having it all” sounds really exhausting. So if not having it all means missing a few soccer games — or not becoming editor-in-chief — I think I’m okay with that.

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