Can Women Have it All – Really?

Recently, I had a fascinating conversation about the concept that women can have it all. Ever since the women’s movement of the 1970s, we have been told that we can have both professional fulfillment and a healthy family life. And we have been made to feel guilty – or ungrateful for the struggles of generations of women before us – if we choose a different way of life. But there is a choice to be made – for both men and women. Of course, both men and women should pursue fulfilling careers. But we should approach the decisions we make in life differently.

Both men and women who work 40 hours a week or more and spend most of their time in an office simply cannot spend as much time with their children as they likely feel is ideal. But there is a pressure that women are saddled with that men have largely escaped. Women, even today, are expected to be the primary caregiver for their children. And many prefer to be. And to be told that we can fill that role while also living up to the expectations of a demanding career just sets us up to feel like failures. Something needs to change.

First, I believe many men are choosing to become more involved in the lives of their children than fathers of previous generations. As they do so, they are beginning to understand the struggle with which women have been grappling for 40 years. This is promising, as it brings the conversation to the societal forefront.

There is certainly still significant sexism in the workplace and women are still constantly objectified by the media and brainwashed into believing in arbitrary conceptions of what it means to be a woman. These are serious problems that must be dealt with. However, the immediate need for women to prove themselves capable of professional success has abated somewhat. As a result, many women are considering in greater depth the totality of their lives and what kind of lifestyle they want to live. We are realizing that balance is important – there is, after all, more to life than work.

Women – and men – are realizing that seeing their children only for the brief time before school in the morning and before bed at night is not ideal parenting. We no longer want to depend on nannies to raise our children. And many of us can’t afford it.

So can we have it all? Yes and no. As Anne-Marie Slaughter, former director of policy planning under Hillary Clinton, argues, women can have it all, but not all at once. We should invest ourselves deeply in our careers until we feel the desire to have a family, and then cut back our hours or find a job that allows for more flexibility, Slaughter says. The same is true for men, too, of course, but in the past, no one questioned a man’s decision to put career before family. Recently, however, that decision has been questioned more by men and women.

In addition, choosing the right kind of career can have a major impact on a woman’s ability to achieve a satisfying work-life balance. Doing something entrepreneurial, or something that allows for partial amount of telecommuting or flexible hours can have a significant impact. As Slaughter writes, working 40 hours a week on someone else’s schedule simply does not allow for enough family time. What is important is the flexibility to at least largely plan one’s own schedule.

On a societal level, our priorities in life need to shift – for both men and women. It is not only the need to prove ourselves that has led to women being pressured to be superhuman. It is also our country’s workaholic tendencies. We get significantly less time off and maternity or paternity leave than other developed countries. When our culture finally begins to prioritize family and community, women will feel less pressure to do it all and employers will be more willing to seek solutions that allow for a reasonable work-life balance.



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Natalie Scerri
Natalie S.2 years ago

Thanks for the article. Even though you are not glossing over the problems, I think the statement about 40 hours is far removed from reality. First of all - especially in some careers -a 40-hour week is a minimum and expectations from employers are in the 50+ hours zone. Besides, very few of us are lucky enough to have a job on our doorstep, so one must add at least another 10 hours per week for travelling. Personally I don't believe that dual-career families can ever be truly successful in terms of child upbringing, even with the best time management skills and the co-operation of both parents because work demands take priority for the better part of the day.

Christopher M.
Christopher M.3 years ago

20 years ago my family sociology text complained about how women and families were treated by employers. Can you say You Reap What You Sow?

Christopher M.
Christopher M.3 years ago

No, there are 24 hours in a day and 7 days in a week. Energy, time, money are limits to what you can achieve.

Careers demand so much that kids are out of the question. Companies like mine last year (nameless) eschewed second jobs by employees- they want to own you. And they say parenthood is a job in itself. I think my generation gets the message. 43% of Gen X women and 32% of Gen X men have no kids.

Debra Griffin
Debra B.3 years ago

Most definitely
Just have to be willing to work for it

Roger M.
Past Member 3 years ago

Can anyone?

Uzma R.
Uzma R.3 years ago

Fabulous post!

Kathy K.
Kathy K.3 years ago

I don't think anyone can have it all. And trying is a bad idea.

Fiona H.
Fiona H.3 years ago

I've always been annoyed by the focus on "working mothers". Surely the discussion should be about working parents? Having a child could equally impact on a father's work/life balance and choices, it shouldn't be automatically assumed that it only impacts on the mother. When my kids were little we both worked full-time and made good use of nurseries and after-school / holiday clubs. However, for the past 6 years my husband has downshifted to a job in a school, which gives him the time to take total responsibility for running the house, including all the food shopping and cooking and being there for the kids, while I've focused more on my career (as the major breadwinner). In the future I'd like to downshift too, once we can afford the drop in income. So it's always a balance between what you'd like to do and what you can afford to do and that balance includes the father as well as the mother.

Kirsten B.
Kirsten B.3 years ago

This was an interesting piece, thank you.

However, a point which I felt needs to be stressed even more is "what is it the woman wants?" Are they feeling pressured into climbing the career ladder, or would they be happier in a part time administrative position? One real advantage of anglophone countries is that you can swap job / branch / expertise quickly and easily. This is not the case in a number of other countries. Women in anglophone countries have more opportunities to switch and slide into something which fulfills them better and is more suitable to their needs.

But first they need to be clear on what they truly want and need.

Marie W.
Marie W.3 years ago

Men can have it all- oops I forget they do not birth or nurse.