Do we 'have it all' wrong?

Photo by Phillip Toledano. The Atlantic Magazine, July/August 2012
Whether or not you've tuned into the recent debate prompted by The Atlantic's cover story, "Why Women Still Can't have it All," by Anne-Marie Slaughter, you are likely already familiar with this old debate: Have we reached a point as a society where women can be as successful as we want to be both in our personal and professional lives? As women, can we truly "have it all"? What surprised, disappointed, saddened and even angered many readers was the fact that Anne-Marie Slaughter, former and first woman director of policy planning at the U.S. Department of State under Hillary Clinton and tenured professor at Princeton, responded with a firm "nope."

According to Slaughter, even with the full support of a committed partner, "juggling high-level government work with the needs of two teenage boys was not possible." Once her two year term in DC was over, she rushed back home to Princeton where her family and tenured academic position were waiting. According to Slaughter, the reactions of her friends and colleagues ranged from sympathetic (oh, how unfortunate!) to condescending (maybe it's just you?). 
The typical young Generation X or Y young woman has been raised to think of her ideal future 'self' as an educated, successful career woman, with a life partner, children and a busy productive life well into retirement years. We are academics, entrepreneurs, artists, business women and we are daughters, sisters, mothers, aunties, godmothers, girlfriends, wives. We are raised to believe that these two categories need not overlap and limit each other. I'm sure many of us can at least imagine the feelings of guilt and even shame at not accomplishing what has now become a 'feminist' expectation of doing everything at once, 'having it all.' But is it so wrong to want to make compromises for a more balanced life? Does that make one old-fashioned, lazy, or unaccomplished? 

Part of what is to blame, Slaughter points out, is the so-called feminist mantra of trying to be everything and do everything, without compromise. She admits, "I’d been the one telling young women at my lectures that you can have it all and do it all, regardless of what field you are in. Which means I’d been part, albeit unwittingly, of making millions of women feel that they are to blame if they cannot manage to rise up the ladder as fast as men and also have a family and an active home life (and be thin and beautiful to boot)."   

Perhaps everything all the time, is not what it's cracked up to be? One of the most practical and sage pieces of advice I’ve received from one of the many professional women in my family is to plan to be ‘off balance on purpose’ in different areas and times of life. This means rather than striving to do it all, all of the time, be realistic and know what to prioritize when.

Don't get me wrong - I am not in complete agreement with Slaughter. For many women it is possible to juggle both career and family obligations. My own mother is a great example. As a high-level official within the U.S. Agency for International Development, she has managed to excel in her career and be there for me and my sister. But she was able to do so with the support of my wonderful father who, after his own career in finance and at USAID, took on the role of a stay-at-home-dad as he developed into a professional artist. While things are not always perfect in our household, my parents are my example of what a good partnership can accomplish. 

Obviously this is not the typical set-up among most couples. In her 2011 Barnard Commencement address, Sheryl Sandberg, former COO and first female member of the Board of Directors for Facebook (as of last week), noted that generally "men make far fewer compromises than women to balance professional success and personal fulfillment." She sited data stating that among heterosexual couples women do, on average, twice the amount of housework and three times the amount of childcare than their male partners. Ironically, Sandberg advised the audience of young women that "the most important career decision you're going to make is whether you have a life partner and who that partner is."

But what if we are asking ourselves the wrong question to begin with? What if instead of debating over the possibility of 'having it all' we should be discussing what 'having it all' really means? 

Oddly enough, some profound insights about life shared by Clay Christensen, a Harvard Business  scholar and an MBA favorite, may bring some clarity to this often obscure dialogue. Christensen, who has advises the leaders of many of the world's most successful companies, asks his students on the last day of class to answer a few thought-provoking questions, including: "First, how can I be sure that I’ll be happy in my career? Second, how can I be sure that my relationships with my spouse and my family become an enduring source of happiness?" These questions are, to me, much more salient than the vague notion of 'having it all,' and perhaps a better compass for success and happiness over the long-term.

In his article, "How Will You Measure Your Life?" Christensen employs six business insights and frameworks as guiding principles. He points out how people, like many companies, say they want to accomplish X and yet allocate all of their resources, including time and energy, to Y. He explains,"if you study the root causes of business disasters, over and over you’ll find this predisposition toward endeavors that offer immediate gratification. If you look at personal lives through that lens, you’ll see the same stunning and sobering pattern: people allocating fewer and fewer resources to the things they would have once said mattered most."

Clay Christensen. The guy with the answers?
In 2010 Christensen was diagnosed with cancer. He ends his article with simple words of advice: "I’ve concluded that the metric by which God will assess my life isn’t dollars but the individual people whose lives I’ve touched. I think that’s the way it will work for us all. Don’t worry about the level of individual prominence you have achieved; worry about the individuals you have helped become better people. This is my final recommendation: Think about the metric by which your life will be judged, and make a resolution to live every day so that in the end, your life will be judged a success."

While Christensen finds his own grounding in his Christian faith, I find his advice relevant in my own life, which is decidedly nonreligious. Plan your life as you would your baby start-up venture. Have a strategy and allocate your resources accordingly. Think long-term. Cultivate and maintain the relationships you need. Choose the right metrics for measuring your success and take time to evaluate yourself along those lines.

I think as women, we often get so caught up in trying to push boundaries, make statements, and live up to societal ideals and expectations, that we set aside these universal truths and quickly find ourselves lost, burnt-out, and falling far short of our potential happiness. Is 'having it all' really the 'end all be all' or do we have it all wrong?


Sydnie said...
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Sydnie said...

And this is why you are my sister!! You absolutely understand what is most important in life. NO we don't need to "have it all" nor do we have to "have it all" at one time. There are two additional points I want to make.

One: The feminism of our generation is one about choices. This means that not every woman wants every thing - every thing meaning career, life partner, children and friends. One size does not fit all, and while I personally may yearn to have all of these things at some point in my life, that is not true for all women. Further, each woman has the freedom to choose which, if any of these things she wants, and should not feel any shame for those decisions -- although family, societal and even religious pressures, may make them feel so.

Two: Your notes from Clay Christensen are dead on. No matter what aspects in your life you choose to pursue, you have the power to decide the parameters for its success and then follow through. Further, it is really the people and relationships you have cultivated, and those lives you have touched that matters most. At the end of the day it is WHO is around you that will help you through whatever ups and downs may come your way - and that is in fact what having IT all, really is.

Courtney said...

Thanks Syd! I agree that our generation of feminism is one of of choices. In Slaughter's defense (and to play devil's advocate), I believe she was saying that it is not yet possible for women who have made the choice to pursue both professional success in the top echelons and family life to really 'have it all.'

I'm not sure this is entirely true, but my post veers off into the question of whether or not that really matters.....you and I definitely align on this point. The people in one's life and the relationship one has with them matter more than one's 'accomplishments.' (a statement that may make some fore-mothers quiver in their offices and graves...)

It's funny that this seems to be an expectation and standard women hold men to, but then don't apply this sense of priority to themselves when given a chance to compete equally (or not) in the workplace.