Saturday, June 30, 2012

The It Factor

Lately, there has been so much talk about having it all that I wonder exactly what "having it all" means. Having a roof overhead and enough to eat may be all one person desires while another person may want much more. When I was a little girl, I wanted to be a brain surgeon, a pilot or the president of the United States, or possibly all of them while fronting an all-girl band. My idea of having it all has evolved radically since those days. Now, it has much more to do with being true to myself and having time for a creative outlet.

The recent debate about "having it all" was triggered by a story in the Atlantic by Anne-Marie Slaughter, sensationally titled "Why Women Still Can't Have It All." The cover shot shows a woman toting a baby in a briefcase. I disagree with the title, not only because it should have read "and if they can't, then neither can men" but because the phrase "having it all" is so imprecise. How are we to know if we can or can't have it all, when we're not even really sure what "it" is? If the titular "It" refers to having a baby, what does that say about women who cannot or choose not to have children? Does that somehow make them incapable of having a complete life?  Indeed, having it all is a subjective measure of success that is as much shaped by an individual's interests and aptitude as it is by socio-economic level, ethnicity, culture and yes, gender. 

Slaughter's use of the term "having it all" really refers to a mythical state of being where one is fully dedicated to a career while at the same time being an available, nurturing and supportive family member. Although this often seems to be a predominantly female concern, some men also express concern over being able to balance the two, and while there are many things that our society could do to help people achieve these goals, like encouraging employers to provide better childcare options or allowing people to work from home, the goals themselves may be flawed.

Without Hermione Granger's magic charm which allowed her to be in two places at once, most of us find that there are times when you have to make a choice. But which choice to make? I have several friends who are perfectly happy and feel completely fulfilled without children. I'm currently a stay-at-home mom and although I worked as a teacher for many years, I am very happy to stay home and feel fortunate that at this point in my life, I can be available when my child needs me.

I suppose having had a job I loved while at the same time being a mom,  it may have appeared that I had it all - but I never really did. It was always a struggle to be a dedicated teacher, available to my students, parents and fellow teachers as much as I wanted to be, knowing that I also wanted to be a hands-on parent. I wanted to cook dinners, join the PTA and go to school events. There were always compromises and choices to be made and someone got short-changed from time to time. All the pots couldn't be on the front burner all the time; some had to be moved back, even if only temporarily. The thing is some dishes benefit from a slow simmer with an occasional stir and patience, while others require a hot flame for a brief time. I made choices on a day to day, case by case basis.  It was a difficult time. My most successful years were the ones when I took half-time leave and I was able to split my time between work and my toddler. Of course, there were also financial implications to that decision but I won't go into those here because the whole debate hinges on the assumption that one has a choice.

I agree with an important point that Slaughter makes when she urges us to redefine the arc of a successful career path by embracing its peaks, dips and plateaus. Maybe the secret to having it all is looking at your life and seeing that you have enough time to be many things, but excelling at something requires focus, time management and wherever possible, allies. Trying to do too many things at once is never advisable, but giving up on your dreams is just not an option. Having long term goals while simultaneously adopting a willingness to change and adapt to whatever comes your way will ultimately serve better than trying to follow a rigid career and child rearing trajectory.

Perhaps success is not about having it all but about making the most of what we have, here and now. I would like to propose a new definition of success: the ability to live life on one's own terms, free of externally imposed and arbitrary standards. I propose we reject media-created images of "having it all" as false and designed to enslave us in the pursuit of a mythical consumer happily-ever-after.


Matt "Max" Van said...

I'm a guy, so maybe it doesn't quite work the same, but, for me the "it" has to do with time, and the "all" has to do with past present and future. I've always got my past- memories, photos, blog posts, and so on. If I'm doing well, I have my present, as well- I can truly be present with my family, at work, or out on the town, without carrying over stresses from a day ago, or whatever, and not stressing over what I have to do, tomorrow. But the dream is being able to have a string of tomorrows that are stress free, and happy. When I hear about "having it all" that's the sort of thing I think about. In general, though, I'm happy enough to just have right now.

melississippi said...

I heard that the author did not choose the title or the photo on the cover (that was the editor) which made me appreciate the article a little more. It definitely is something to think about!