It’s Time To Retire the Myth of Having It All

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Here’s a question to toss out at your next girls’ Zoom brunch: Can women have it all?

Most of us who grew up in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s remember that Enjoli commercial, right? “I can bring home the bacon/ Fry it up in a pan/ And never, ever let you forget you’re a man.” That was one of the great messages of second-wave feminism: that women could have a high-powered career and the man and the family and look great while making it all look effortless.

Thirty years on, in some ways, we could say “Mission Accomplished.” Women now make up 50% of the US workforce. Women are the primary source of income for around 40% of US households. Over 30% of doctors and lawyers are women, and we fill about 30% of high-level corporate positions. At the same time, we still get married and still have babies and buy houses and all the other things we did back before we first heard that silly jingle.

And that really is the problem: we internalized a bunch of new expectations for ourselves without retiring the old expectations. Too often, for too many of us, the result has been a perpetual sense of exhaustion and inadequacy.

Women have the same 24 hours in a day as men, but often pack a lot more into it. Men are contributing more to the grunt work and the caregiving aspects of family life than ever before, but working women still do the majority of the housework — a phenomenon dubbed the “second shift”. A 2019 study found that working women devote more hours to their children than the stay-at-home moms of the 1960s and twice as much time as fathers. Women also end up spending more of their time caring for elderly relatives than men. 

Women are far more likely to suffer financially and professionally when they have to take time off to care for sick kids or ailing parents. One study estimated that over the course of her working life, a woman loses an average of $325,000 in wages and Social Security benefits. And those are the women who manage to stay in the workforce; the lack of good, affordable childcare drives many women out of the job market entirely while their kids are young, and when they do get back into the workforce, they can’t ever catch up for the wages they’ve lost.    

So, that all sounds pretty grim. What, exactly, can we do about it?

We can harness our personal and political power.

While we usually frame family work-life balance as an issue of personal responsibility — or worse, a personal failure — it’s actually a societal problem and it requires societal solutions.

This means we need to hold the feet of our local and national politicians to the fire and require them to craft and fund legislation that helps families thrive.

Raising the minimum wage, expanding Medicaid and assuring access to contraception would give working class and lower middle-class families much-needed support. The majority of working families, no matter what their income level, would also benefit from access to quality, subsidized child care. As the population ages, we could also use expanded options for affordable eldercare. Mandating businesses to expand telework options could also help women maintain their earning power while caring for their families. At the very least, we need to follow the model of most European countries and require significant paid maternity and paternity leave.

On the personal level, we have to accept that the can-we-have-it-all question is toxic.

“I hate the phrase ‘having it all’,” Debora Spar, author of Wonder Women: Sex, Power, and the Quest for Perfection and president of Barnard College, said in an interview. “I don’t know who created it, but we need to banish it from our vocabulary. It sets an expectation that is fundamentally impossible. Nobody has it all. If the standard is ‘all’, then we’re all going to fall below it.”

We have to change our expectations for ourselves. We can succeed in our careers if we want, we can be good moms and wives and daughters if we want, we can set ambitious goals and have fulfilling lives if we want, but we have to embrace the fact that it’s going to be messy and chaotic at times…and that’s ok.

Once we put down the myth that we can do it all, once we lay down the burden of feeling like we need to be Superwoman, we open up new possibilities for ourselves. And possibly sleep a little better at night.

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