Ever since Anne-Marie Slaughter’s article Why Women Still Can’t Have It All appeared in The Atlantic last year, women have been more fired up than ever about what Having It All really means.
First, let’s define what Slaughter means by “having it all.” She’s referring to that constant juggling act of having a thriving and high-powered professional career outside the home and a loving, supportive husband and children at home. Again, by that definition, I agree with her. But here’s what rattled my cage about her article: Slaughter’s definition of having it all assumes that all women want the same thing.
And it’s not just Slaughter. With all of the advances to women’s rights in the 20th and 21st centuries, including our new normal of out earning men, it seems as though society and the author has decided that women all want and choose the same life path. First comes career, then comes love, then comes baby.
Correct me if I’m wrong, but last time I checked, the only thing a one-size-fits-all approach applies to across all women of the world is tampons and maxi pads. And even then, I wonder.
Never having been a one-size-fits-all kind of woman (like the majority of women I know, including those with husbands, children and careers), I made the conscious choice years ago — long before I’d met my husband — not to have children. I also made the conscious choice to rock a red wedding dress when I got married because the idea of walking down the aisle in white felt like it’d been done to death.
My reason for not wanting children? When I looked at my girlfriends who had children with their husbands, what was reflected back to me did not in any way align with my life vision or values.
I did not want to share my husband with a child. I did not want a good portion of my disposable income to go to feeding, clothing and educating a child for the next 18-plus years. I did not want to give up sleep, sex, travel, my ambition, a clean house or my personal freedom. Many have called me selfish. I call it the new woman’s right to choose.
Just as we, as a culture, will never all agree on a pro-choice or pro-life position, we shouldn’t expect that all women should want or need a one-size-fits-all approach to what defines having it all. Our profession, relationship status, and number of dependents does not and should not constitute what fulfills us. Having it all is a state of mind, not a status symbol.
Single women can have it all. Once upon a time, I did. As a single 30-year-old woman, I left a dream job where I got to write about Barbie for a living to pursue my new dream of writing my first book It’s A Breakup, Not A Breakdown.
I remember my last day of work. Several of my coworkers stopped by my cubicle to wish me well. Many of them, all married, some with children, confessed how much they envied me and my freedom to leave a job to pursue a dream. The message I got from these hushed conversations was that with marriage and children came duty and obligation. And that didn’t mesh with my vision of having it all.
As time went on, my definition of having it all evolved to include a husband. On our second date, I remember telling my husband over Mexican food and margaritas that I never wanted children because the idea of being financially and emotionally responsible for another human being just didn’t feel like my idea of having it all. I knew he was the one for me when he smiled, nodded his head, and said, “Exactly!”
For the first seven years of our relationship, my husband and I both proceeded to have it all. We built successful businesses, I wrote three books, we traveled the world, enjoyed a rockin’ sex life, and relished our financial and personal freedom.
Until along came baby. While this part of the story deserves an article all its own (I’m working on it), here are the important facts. Six months ago, my husband and I became temporary, full-time foster parents to our then 14-month-old-niece. At 40, I’d never changed a diaper, burped a baby or sang a lullaby. And while all of that has changed now, let me be clear: Having this child come into my life and my house does not feel like having it all. In fact, I feel like I have less now than I did before.
True, my situation is slightly unusual (although the new conversations I’m having with people at parties reveals just how startlingly common my husband’s and my situation is — again a story for another time). We didn’t want or plan on becoming parents. But how many people out there have found themselves in a similar situation — an unplanned pregnancy, a family crisis where a child requires rescuing, etc.?
I’m not positive, but I’m pretty sure there are plenty of women (and men) out there who have children who will agree with me. Having children does not feel like having it all. And while my husband and I have the good fortune of being able to give the child back in a few months when my sister-inlaw and her baby daddy resolve their legal issues, most people who feel the way we do are stuck being parents and feeling like they’re not having it all… for life.
I’m not advocating people abandon their children. I’m simply suggesting that we broaden our definition of what it means to have it all. Having it all isn’t about checking all the boxes on the page (wife, mother, career woman). It’s about choosing and checking only the boxes you want to experience in this life and celebrating those choices because they are your own.
Don’t get me wrong; I’m not oblivious to the blessings and joys that being a parent, even temporarily, has brought into my life. There’s nothing sweeter than a child lighting up when you walk in the room, or wrapping her arm around your neck as you carry her down the stairs, or leaning in to you as you sing her to sleep.
I’m humbled by the deepened intimacy caring for a child has created between my husband and myself, and for the new things we’ve discovered about each other along this journey. I had no idea what a talented artist my husband was until he started drawing with my niece. And he had no idea about the childhood songs I wrote and made my family perform on command that I now sing to my niece on a daily basis (it’s awesome to hear him singing those same original songs to her while I’m in the other room working.)
I get it. Those moments are priceless. And I’m grateful for having had the opportunity to experience them. But while I’ve adapted to less sleep, paying out the nose for a nanny, and getting used to my sex life and travel schedule being on hold indefinitely, I am now more clear than ever that for me, having it all does not include a wee one.
Again, this isn’t about my choices being right or wrong. It’s about the fact that they are my choices. Just as they are every woman’s choice.
Whether you’re single, in a relationship, married with children, every woman has the opportunity to have it all by celebrating exactly where she is in life and relishing the power of her choices.
And instead of judging each other’s choices or condemning another woman who has made different choices as being incapable of having it all, wouldn’t we all be better off to broaden our definition of having it all and celebrate what that looks like for each and every woman we know? To me, this is the new woman’s right to choose. And while we may never agree, I would hope we can adopt the new definition of having it all and honor each other’s choices for the complex and unique women of the world we are.