Can Women Have It All? A New Model

Several months ago, I appeared on a national talk show to discuss the question, "Can women have it all?" As part of my prep for the show, I asked my family, friends, and followers on my social media outlets for their candid thoughts about this question. I received approximately 140 responses (both men and women), and as I looked over the answers, certain themes appeared. Whether people answered the question yes or no, their explanations were telling.

I have always felt a strong aversion to the question, "Can women have it all?" because it distills a complex combination of social, economic, and personal factors into a basic yes or no question. As a result, a deeper analysis is required, but few articles on the topic reach the right depth.

Here are the themes that I discovered:

Courage. Many women (myself included) express annoyance at the variety of questions they have to field about the choices they've made in their lives and in their careers. A sample of these questions includes:

  • What about that degree you worked so hard for? You're going to give it all up to raise a family?

  • When are you going to get married?
  • When are you going to have kids?
  • Why are you changing careers?
  • Why don't you want to have kids?
  • It takes a great level of courage and guts to answer questions such as these about highly personal life decisions. Society dictates a very specific path that women "should" take and when a woman doesn't fit that traditional mold, people wonder why.

    Help. When I discussed this topic with my doctor, she very plainly said, "Women need to lean on each other more." I agree. It's easy to become isolated in our own worlds of busyness, and we forget that it's not just OK, but necessary to reach out and ask for help.

    Adjustment. As life events happen, your definition of having it all may need to change -- and that's OK. Based on my own story and the stories of those I've coached, I notice three distinct "phases" many women experience between college graduation and into their 40s (and beyond):

    PHASE 1: Drive. You are ready to take on the world, work tons of hours, and pay your dues. Your personal life may take a backseat as you seek to establish your name.

    PHASE 2: Balance. You are still driven, but you've paid your dues and now want to see a little payoff. Maybe it's the ability to head out of the office a few hours early on a Friday or take an extra couple of days of vacation. Maybe it's having a more flexible work schedule or the ability to work from home. You may have a significant other and/or kids to consider.

    PHASE 3: Meaning/Legacy. The drive is still there, but now the "why" becomes something you can no longer ignore. Is your work serving some bigger purpose? Are you leaving a mark in your company or in the world? What is your work giving you?

    I stayed in the Drive Phase way too long and didn't consider balance or meaning/legacy until I burned out. I have coached women in all three phases, and the trick is to marry the phases as soon as possible. Too many people burn out before they step back and look for balance, meaning, and legacy.

    Reframing. Collectively, we need to examine, and potentially reframe, the beliefs we have about women at work, a woman's role as a partner/spouse, and a woman's role as a parent. Work styles, family dynamics and relationships take many forms today, and workplace policy is slowly lagging behind.

    Self-Defined. Ultimately, "having it all" needs to be self-defined. For me, it's about having choices (to start a business, get married, have kids, travel for a year, etc.). It looks completely different for the next person.

    Underlying these components is the mindset driving many women who think that they're failing if things aren't perfect. It took me years to realize how destructive the pursuit of perfection really is. Thinking you have to do things perfectly and/or be perfect is like carrying around a heavy weight on your back, and it absolutely crushes happiness. According to research professor Dr. Brene Brown, "Perfection is correlated with depression, anxiety, addiction, and life paralysis or missed opportunities. The fear of failing, making mistakes, not meeting people's expectations, and being criticized keeps us outside of the arena where healthy competition and striving unfolds."

    What would you add to this model?

    Paula Davis-Laack, JD MAPP, is the Founder and CEO of the Davis Laack Stress & Resilience Institute, which gives people concrete tools to manage stress, prevent burnout, and build resilience. Paula is the author of the e-book, 10 Things Happy People Do Differently.

    Paula has been a featured expert on the Steve Harvey TV show, Working Mother and Women's Health magazines and speaks regularly about stress and resilience. Paula is available for speaking engagements, training workshops, media commentary, and private life coaching. To learn more, contact Paula at or visit

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