The Pressure to "Have It All" and the Need to Redefine Success

In 1963 Betty Friedan articulated "the problem with no name" as the pressure women experienced to feel fulfilled only by their roles as wives and mothers. I contend that nearly 50 years later we have a new problem with no name, the pressure to feel fulfilled only by "having it all."

And what does all mean? It is an ambitious list. It means not only to have a challenging career but also to get to the top of your game professionally. (Anne-Marie Slaughter's back-up job was returning to a tenured role at Princeton.) It requires being a devoted mother and ensuring your children are successful. It demands being attractive and fit as we recently saw with the Wisconsin television journalist Jennifer Livingston who was criticized for being a poor role model because she was overweight. It means staying in touch with an ever lengthening list of professional and personal friends.

No wonder we feel so stressed all the time. The pervasive sense is that we should be able to have it all as educated, modern American women. The should keeps us stuck and makes so many amazing and talented women feel awful asking themselves, What's wrong with me? Why can't I do it all? Aren't I supposed to be able to have it all?

For several decades women have felt the stress of combining careers with raising children. As men feel the desire, and in some cases the societal pressure to be more involved with their children, their experience of work-life stress has skyrocketed. The Families and Work Institute's report The New Male Mystique describes the conflict: "The ideal man today is not only a good employee working long hours to be a successful breadwinner, but is also an involved and nurturing husband/ partner, father and son." The Boston College Center for Work & Family's 2011 report The New Dad: Caring, Committed and Conflicted aptly characterizes men's struggle.

I used to think that men could have it all, great work and advancement as well as the wonderful aspects of family life, with a spouse at home to manage the day-to-day complexity. But I was mistaken. Many men have paid a steep price for their professional success in terms of their relationships with their family as well as the quality of their health and well-being.

The reality is despite our love affair with multi-tasking as a way to manufacture time, each of us of gets the same 24 hours in a day. Many experience greater energy by playing multiple roles -- professional and parent -- because they feel complimentary. But energy too has its limits.

Women's new problem with no name is born of outsized expectations at work and at home. And men trying to walk that path are confronting the same difficulties. Nobody has it all in the way we currently define it. For all of us, life requires tradeoffs and choices.

In conducting research for my book The Libra Solution, I heard many hopeful stories of women and men finding deep fulfillment through their approach to work-life management, one characterized by a strong partnership in managing child and home care and a drive for moderation. This gender-flexible approach enabled men more room to develop their nurturing capacities and women more room to pursue their career goals.

We need to redefine success in more human terms rather than the fantasy of women -- or men -- that have it all. Real success -- the true definition of having it all -- is getting clarity on what success means for you and putting your energies there.

Lisa Levey is an organizational consultant on women's advancement and work-life management and has consulted to dozens of the "Working Mother Best Companies for Women." She is the author of The Libra Solution: Shedding Excess and Redefining Success at Work and at Home focused on a work-life approach offering greater sustainability and equality for professional women and men. This entry is part of the National Work and Family Month Blogfest.