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Stop Asking If Women Can Have It All

I have a young daughter and my message to her will always be that she can be whatever she wants to be. But I would be doing her a disservice, not to mention setting her up for failure, if I told her that she can "have it all."
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Origami fortune teller in cupped hands concept for work life balance choices
Origami fortune teller in cupped hands concept for work life balance choices

Last week, it was widely reported that Indra Nooyi, the CEO of PepsiCo, was asked if women can have it all and she said "no." My reaction: shocker.

Somewhere during our society's journey to achieve gender equality, this lie began that "women can have it all." We can have promising careers and equally fulfilling family lives. Bring home the bacon and then happily cook it for our grateful families. Sometimes I wonder why this myth was generated -- was it to lure women who were happy being homemakers into the workforce by telling them their family life would not suffer? Or was it to comfort men who may have been worried that a working wife would mean that the house and family would not receive the same attention they once enjoyed? Regardless, surely, if a man can have career and a home life, a woman can have an ambitious career and a glowing personal life, right?

No. Why? Because there is no such a thing as having it all.

Whenever I have heard the phrase "having it all" used for a man, it has been to show that the man has a career and a family, with no regard to how successfully he's managing either one. And yet, for women, "having it all" is used as a constant reminder of how we must achieve balance between the two, that we must earn our standing in the work place and put in all the hours and energy required to succeed there but also be a good wife and mother. And if we become too successful in our careers, there is always someone not too far away questioning whether all is well on the home front. Recently, journalist Christian Amanpour asked Senator Hillary Clinton, "The ultimate hard choice? Grandmother or the possibility of being the first female president of the United States of America?" Senator Clinton replied, quite appropriately, "There have been a lot of grandfathers who have done it." (Insert applause!) And Matt Lauer asked GM CEO Mary Barra if, given the pressures that come with her position, she could be a good CEO and a good mom. I mean, seriously?!

Yes, the intent behind these questions is sexist because male leaders do not have to answer them. But maybe the reason men are not asked these questions is because society does not expect men "to have it all." We do not expect men to excel at work and to also be at every family event and know every detail about their children's lives. That's what wives and moms are for. And yes, I'm generalizing and there are amazing fathers in our world that are just as nurturing and present as many mothers are. But think about the female leaders in male-dominated fields and you will find example after example of people questioning, "how does she do it?" often wondering who's taking care of the kids if the woman is working as hard as she is or implying that someone at home may be suffering because she has achieved as much as she has at work.

Women are not only a relevant and prominent part of the overworked (not to mention, underpaid) American workforce, but many are also the head of their households. With all the time we are spending at our jobs, "work-life balance" is actually work-life seesaw. Yet, the problem is that we as women expect too much of ourselves and when we cannot achieve everything in our minds' ideal, instead of realizing that our expectations are unrealistic, we beat ourselves up for being less than enough. Men know what their limitations are and accept it, at least more readily than women. If a man has a good career and a happy and healthy family, he probably thinks he has it all and is grateful for it. Women know this consciously too, but we still second-guess ourselves up for not doing even more. During the same interview, Senator Clinton said that it was a "personal hard decision" to decide whether to run for presidency in light of her impending role as a grandmother. Do you think President Bill Clinton would say the same if it was him considering the presidency? And Matt Lauer's question to CEO Barra stemmed from her statement in another interview in which she said she felt bad for missing her son's junior prom. How many male CEOs have you heard say something like that?

I have a young daughter and my message to her will always be that she can be whatever she wants to be. But I would be doing her a disservice, not to mention setting her up for failure, if I told her that she can "have it all." At least not the way society defines it for women. What she can do, and what each of us should do for ourselves, is focus on what level of "balance" would make her happy. Instead of trying to live up to society's expectations of what we should be doing, women need to decide what we want and then go after it, without apologies. What makes us happy is all that is important.

For me, my current priorities are being a wife and mother who is home in time for dinner on most nights and can make it to (most) of my daughter's school activities and also being a successful, practicing attorney. And my situation varies from many of my friends, but I am proud of each of them for their own decisions and accomplishments because I know that each of us works hard for the lives we have. The way I see it, my working-mother friends who have climbed up corporate and legal ladders have put in the hours and effort and have been acknowledged for their work in typically male-dominated hierarchies; these women serve as good role models for little girls, while still having time (however minimal) and contributing to the happiness of their family and friends.

My stay-at-home moms have decided to put their careers on hold so they can care for their children and focus their energy and time on their family. And my friends who feel like they have just enough time at work and with their families without making much headway in either are in fact doing intellectually stimulating work, contributing to their families financially, and still have time for bedtime stories and weekend naps with their little ones. Who is society to say that any of these women is not doing an amazing job as a mother and/or career woman? Yet, undoubtedly, I'm sure that each of these women, at some point, has worried about the career and/or personal sacrifices she has had to make to achieve her goals and has wondered if it's worth it. Because society keeps telling us we should be doing more. I wish Senator Clinton had responded to the question by saying, "You know, if I am the president of the United States, grandmother or not, there are some family events I will miss and I accept that." Career and family life will not always be 50-50, let alone 100-100.

Once you decide what it is that you want to achieve, cut yourself some slack and accept that you may have to compromise on certain things to achieve that bigger picture. I work full-time and I have a toddler; I cannot compare myself to someone who has chosen to forego a family life to focus on her career; nor should I compare myself to a stay-at-home mom who enjoys the luxury (and exhaustion) of being with her children full-time. If I want to be a working mom, I have to accept that I cannot make slow-cooked oatmeal with fresh fruit every morning for my daughter and that sometimes frozen waffles will have to do; I have to accept that I may not always have time to take my daughter on a bike ride in the evening and instead playing with a bubble gun on our balcony for five minutes will be just as good. I also have to accept that I may have to work after my daughter goes to bed at night; I accept that I need to hire a cleaning person to help keep my home tidy; I accept that pre-cut frozen vegetables are a God-send. Admittedly, I have days when I wish for a greater balance or wish that I could somehow have it all. But that is not realistic, and rationally speaking, I know that if I don't accept these things about my circumstances, I will bury myself in constant comparison to others who (in my mind) are doing more or better than me.

And along with accepting what we cannot do, we should also accept that we need help from others because we cannot do it alone -- it takes a village, remember? Build around yourself the village that will help you manage your career and family life. My "village" includes my husband who shares with me the housework and the parenting (as any good partner should), my girlfriends who guide me through parenting issues and are my sanctuary when I need some "me" time, my colleagues who place a premium on quality work but also value work-life balance and are willing to step in for me when I need to take a day off to attend to a sick child, and my daughter's daycare teachers who keep her stimulated, entertained and taken care of while mommy's at work. My village allows me to be a good wife, mother, friend and attorney, though not always in that order or all at the same time.

So journalists and interviewers, stop asking us working mothers if we can have it all! Working mothers have a tough job and deserve acknowledgement for that hard work, rather than being attacked or discouraged for not "having it all." If we allow society to set the standard for us, we are keeping ourselves from enjoying the lives we have. So do not let society or tradition or culture or anything other than your current circumstances and abilities define what you can do in your life. Accept that you cannot be both Olivia Pope and Mrs. Beaver; may be aim to be more like Mrs. Cosby (she was both a career woman and a mother). Decide for yourself what you want and then enjoy it!

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