We hear it over and over again… “You can have it all.” But then we take a look at our lives and feel like we just can’t. Between pick ups, drop offs, bedtime routines, our paid 24/7 connected jobs, tantrums (both ours and children’s), finances, and so on – it’s no surprise that so many of us to fail to find that middle ground of having it all.
And we understand having it all doesn’t really mean having it all. For many of us, “having it all just” means:
- Taking a shower in peace each day
- Helping our kids with homework in the evenings
- Being present for our kids milestones (like first word, first day of school, prom night)
- Having a semi-rewarding career
- Sleeping at least 7 hours a night
But even this realistic version of having it all eludes us. This feeling isn’t unique: Anne-Marie Slaughter’s article in the Atlantic shows that even powerful dual career parents that really want to have it all may still not be able to, and in her more recent book she explores the “half truths” associated with having it all.
Over the past few years, I’ve kept a list of the characteristics and conditions that have enabled a number of women leaders pursue intensive careers and have a family.
- They had a life partner that took on lead parenting and allowed them to place their careers first. Some people have called this “marrying the right person” – but I agree with Anne Marie’s half truth that this is not going to be feasible for everyone. While many men (and women) are supportive of their partner’s careers, how many would be truly comfortable with completely giving up their career prospects so that you can chase yours? And, with everything people invest into their education and careers these days, is that expectation fair? Ursula Burns’s, the first African American women to be CEO of a Fortune 500 company (Xerox), number one piece of advice for ambitious women is to marry an older man so that they are in a life stage to take on more family responsibility since they’ve already run through their career aspirations.
- They were already in management or leadership when they had their first child. This is a hard pill to swallow – but if you’re not “the boss” by the time you have your first child, or at least your second, it’s going to be much harder. When you’re the boss you can set group norms, and have stronger control over your schedule.
- They have vast economic resources to assist with life needs outside of work. Significant resources ensure you have childcare available to you 24/7. They could also afford additional household help for everything from cleaning, to tutors, and even a dog walker.
- They were sponsored and mentored by men in their companies or organizations. Senior men took interest in these women and their careers. They helped them gain visibility and they vouched for their skills as new opportunities came along. Ursula Burns attributes much of her rise to mentorship.
- They had a degree of flexibility in their jobs that wasn’t available to 95% of white collar employees. They may have worked for companies that truly embraced flexible policies, or – since they were the boss – put policies in place that worked with their schedule. Case and point is Marissa Mayer’s in-office nursery. I don’t know if many junior level employees would have been granted the permission for this, even if they had the economic means.
- They were balanced in the long run (maybe) but not on a day to day basis. I don’t know about you, but the long run doesn’t seem like a good answer when it comes to the daily stress that can impact my health, time with my children, or all the family and personal memories that I have to miss out on.
Not every single woman in leadership out there has all six of these, but a good number of them have at least two – particularly #3 and #4 – if not more. And #6 feels like a cop out to me – we always hear about balance in the long run, but how does that help with the everyday? Long run balance just doesn’t seem to make sense on the nights that I’m missing out on my son’s recital or when I have to say no to a career defining opportunity because I don’t have childcare. And does this mean that “having it all” is actually unreachable for young mothers, single mothers, or anyone who “didn’t marry the right person”?
I even wonder if the women senior leaders who are our role models feel like they really “have it all”. I mean, if they did, why would they ever retire and do something else? But instead, we often hear them share wistful stories of challenges starting a family, or living in constant doubt of if they made the right decisions. Many seem schizophrenic – telling us to fervently pursue our career dreams, but simultaneously telling us to not miss out on life.
“Having it all” is subjective because no one has the same definition of having it all. So if you ever feel bad that someone else says that “you can have it all” or that “they have it all” – don’t. And for all you know, they may be relying really heavily on #6.