Monday, June 29, 2009

Can women "have it all"?

I have a feeling this blog post will be a bit controversial. A friend of mine has a theory - that women cannot "have it all." On one level, I think I am going to have to disagree with my friend, but it is possible that our disagreement is a question of semantics. As every good lawyer must ask, what does "having it all" really mean? I think that by some definitions, no one can have it all. But, by other definitions, anyone (including women) can certainly have it all.

Some may think that "having it all" means having the perfect job, working 9 million hours a week, having a family, being there full-time, being strong and independent while simultaneously being domestic, having plenty of money - you know, having everything 100%. By that definition, I do not believe ANYONE, male or female, can "have it all." As a matter of mathematic principle, it is impossible to give yourself 100% to more than one task. I think the question for me is whether a woman can strike a balance between work, home, love and self that allows her to enjoy all of these areas without feeling as if she is missing out or losing something. I think a woman who finds that balance does, indeed, "have it all."

Women often feel that there is societal pressure to choose - a high-powered career or a family? Women are made to feel that if they pursue their career, they are doing so to the detriment of their family. Frankly, if a single woman spends long hours at a job, then there is very little time available for dating and relationships. If a well-educated woman earns a high salary, many men are intimidated (and some even feel emasculated) and they fear having a relationship with a strong, financially independent and secure woman. Even more than that, if a woman works long hours or travels, it is difficult to juggle everything and schedule a date. It is also hard to find men who are willing to change things last-minute when work interferes. Ironically, there are many men out there in the same situation - while one would think these men would be understanding, these men are often the least willing to be flexible - they expect someone to bend to their demanding schedule and they have no interest in working around another person. Their time is tight, and they want to date a woman who is available and waiting on them.

I know that when I was single and dating, I often had challenges finding men who were comfortable with my job, my salary bracket, the fact that I owned my own house. More than one man said he felt that I did not need him. Indeed, these men were correct - I did not need any of them to live my life. My husband was the first man I met who did not have a problem with the fact that I did not "need" him. It did not bother him that I had my own career, that I had a graduate degree and he did not, or that some years I earn more money than he does. He appreciated my independence and intelligence, and he was proud of the work that I do. I learned that while such a relationship is hard to come by, it does exist.

It is easier for men to balance relationships and work - society puts lower expectations on men in terms of balancing work, home, love and self. In fact, society seems to teach men that if they put everything into work, whatever they have leftover to give to the other compartments is sufficient. Men can have demanding careers, get married, have children, and when they prioritize career over family, they are still said to "have it all." Some are able to find women with less demanding careers who are willing to accept whatever time is given - a pass that many men are unwilling to give to women with demanding careers. Nevertheless, in my opinion, men who pursue their careers to the extreme heights also have to make choices (albeit more socially acceptable choices) - they cannot hold jobs with long hours and stay in the rat race without missing out on family. But, somehow, an "absent father" (or one who is only present on weekends) is viewed by society as a good father - he is providing for his family. It is socially acceptable for him to put the hours into work, miss out on precious time with his wife and children, and still be viewed as a "good father." Yet, when a woman works the long hours, she is often viewed as a "bad mother" - neglecting her children and husband, and letting "someone else" raise her kids. Perhaps that is what my friend means when she says women cannot "have it all."

Somewhere along the way in my career, I made a choice - a choice about what I wanted for myself professionally. It was not a decision I made based on a desire to get married (which I did not have) or a desire to have children (which was far off in the future at that time), but it was a decision I made based on my desire to live my life and enjoy it. I knew I wanted to have a career, and I knew I wanted to earn a good salary, but I also knew I wanted to find balance in my life. At one point, I worked over 300 billable hours every month at a big law firm. In 2001, I decided to walk away from that life - not because I couldn't "have it all," but because I realized that I was on a career path that lacked the balance I was seeking. It was not a life I wanted for myself. I never felt that I walked away from my career, or that I could not continue to work in my trained profession. Instead, I went in search of a job that could be satisfying and challenging, but still allow me to live life - take vacation, enjoy a summer day at the pool, and ultimately, have time to spend with my loved ones. I am lucky that I found that job - I work enough hours to be occupied, well-compensated, busy (sometimes even overwhelmed) and thoroughly challenged by my profession. I would say (based on my salary and hours) that I work full-time, however, I absolutely have hours during the work week almost every week to devote to my personal life. When I left the world of corporations and law firms, I did take a pay cut - perhaps about 20-30% at the time (and perhaps a more significant difference now). I do not miss that money. When I was earning it, I never had time to enjoy it.

It is true that men less frequently make the choice for balance. It is also true that seeking balance is challenging as a woman - we are often not taken seriously when we say we want to do it all. We have this fear that if we drop our hours, or try to structure flexible schedule, or choose a job that allows for more personal time, we are wasting our education or giving up on our career paths to success. I beg to differ - I think it is time we (as a society) start to redefine success, both personally and professionally. I do believe, most days, that I "have it all." I am constantly striving to improve my balance between work, love, home and self, but I have each of those components in my life, in a proportion that suits me. It is not always easy to maintain that balance, and some days I find that some parts of my life encroach on others. The biggest challenge for me is figuring out how to maintain that balance, and I am hoping one day it will be less effort.

I have several female friends that "have it all," too. They have families and children and careers - I have friends who are neurologists, dentists, and managers. I suppose that each of us gives up a little to have everything, but I do not think that giving up a little of one thing to get a lot of something else you want is a failure to "have it all." We make choices in life - do we want 100% of one thing, or do we want a satisfying piece of everything. Kind of like eating at a buffet restaurant - do we want to eat one thing for dinner, or do w want to load up our plates with a variety from the buffet? We may feel overstuffed when all is said and done, but we will have our fill of everything we want. We each have 100% to fill, and when we fill our lives with the things that matter to us in appropriate measure, then we do truly "have it all."

Tell me, do you think women can "have it all?" What does "having it all" mean to you?


Kari said...

I think having it all means being happy with the balance you find in your own life, be it as a working mom, SAHM, or a workaholic without children. I think you can have it all if you follow your heart and make the choices that suit you.

Chele said...

I've never understood the concept of having it all. Life is about challenges in general from the time we are born.

Balance is important but really it's all about being happy with who you are and at peace with whichever direction you choose to take your life. I left a career to be SAHM so we could travel with my dh in his job. Others find all our lifestyle and the choices we've made crazy. There are many who have lives they enjoy but that I would hate.

The key is to find happiness in the here and now while you are reaching for your next goal or meeting your next challege and to be at peace with the end result.

Prather Family said...

Thanks for posting this! This is exactly what I needed to hear when I am returning to work next week and I am feeling guilty about leaving my girls at home. Now financially we can't afford for me to stay home at this time and I don't think I would be happy being a complete SAHM but after I finish my graduate degree I hope I can have it all and work less hours to be happy with my career and be home with my girls more. Thanks!!!