As “All” As It Gets: Confessions of Someone Who Thinks She Has it All

The new Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer is pregnant, and not planning on taking maternity leave. This has stirred renewed conversation about “having it all,” and women’s lives.

I’ve written before in defense of having it all as a noble and achievable dream. The most-read Atlantic article of all time asserts the opposite. “Why Women Still Can’t Have it All,” is its title.  A Washington Post blog describes, however, that by most indicia, the author, Anne-Marie Slaughter, did and does “have it all.” She resigned from a State department post to spend time with her teenaged sons—and to take a job at Princeton, which isn’t exactly flipping burgers at the Chuckle Hut.

I’m not sure what definition of “all” Slaughter has in mind. Apparently, being well educated, having an influential, powerful career in the State Department, having two children, a sinecure teaching at one of the most illustrious universities in the country, and a publication in the Atlantic is not all, by that definition.

I guess my standards are too low. Because when I look at my own life and the lives of my close friends, I think, hell, yes, many of us do indeed have it all, or “as all as it gets.” The heavy lifting of the feminists who came before me paid off.

I have a lovely child and husband, I was able to attend an intellectually scintillating elite college and to complete a Ph.D. at Yale and, after graduate school, I found meaningful work that jibed with my ambitions and political convictions, and didn’t require that I swing heavy objects to break rocks, or stand on my feet all day.  I’ve been able to change careers, bring in a paycheck, publish books and essays, find a path as a writer, have exciting relationships, and raise my son mostly full time until he entered preschool at age 3.  I’ve laughed a lot, and eaten plenty of nice noodle salads at parties and had tasty bottles of red wine along the way.

My husband and I weren’t well off in these formative years. I never had a nanny, nor did I have a housekeeper, chauffer or personal shopper. I had a babysitter who helped me for four hours a day, four days a week, and I have a supportive husband who’s an active, engaged parent.

Other girlfriends have similar stories. One from college is closer to Mayer’s story. She’s the successful head of a well-known entity, married, has children, and actually does have full-time nannies, a driving service and fancy things like that. Another girlfriend has an esteemed career as a judge, two successful, happy children, an exciting social life, a stellar record as a community activist, and a spouse. A college classmate, an attractive blonde, got a Ph.D. at MIT and is a rocket scientist—literally—with children.

In my mind, I have it all, where “all” means:  a career that suits my passions and interests and that I wouldn’t give up; a healthy family; smart, funny and interesting friends; fulfilling relationships; a good amount of leisure time; opportunities to travel, have hobbies, read great books, go to happy, tipsy parties, and eat nachos while watching football on Sunday; a nice house that we own in a neighborhood that we like; a small vacation cottage, and a financial cushion.

That seems like ALL to me. What more all do we want?

There’s a persistent tendency to spin what amount to feminist success stories like this—and there are plenty of them—as failures, or mythology. Years ago, for example, a glass half-full story that half of high-achieving career women also had families and children was spun as a glass half-empty story about how remorseful the other half was instead. Perhaps this is how women themselves experience things. They have consequential, multi-faceted lives, but it feels like a failure, for complicated reasons unknown.

It reminds me of a Matt Groening cartoon, when he was drawing rabbits and not yet famous for The Simpsons. In one cartoon, a baby rabbit is cautioned that nothing ever works out in life. In subsequent frames, the baby rabbit grows up, graduates, falls in love, has children, has a fulfilling career, makes money, enjoys himself, dances—and, in the last frame, quite elderly, lies peacefully on his deathbed. At which point the first rabbit hovers over him and says, “You see, I told you. Nothing ever works out.”

My goddaughter is just starting college. Maybe she’ll have it all and maybe she won’t. But whether or not that big, gaudy dream works out for her, the one thing that no one should do is pre-emptively short-sheet the dream and plan to not have whatever “all” it is that they personally want to seek.

Young women talking about their futures often resort to a grim vocabulary. Life will be about “juggling,” “struggling,” “managing,” and pursuit of a having it all dream that’s been downsized to “balance.”

We shouldn’t forget that there’s supposed to be some joy, passion, laughs, achievement, and fruitful challenge in life, too.

I write in my book that there’s a lot to be said for not worrying prematurely about how impossible everything is, or what others will think, and just doing things in an organic, half-assed way and see how it works out. It’s best just to follow your muse. As Grace Paley said, women need “a good hard greed” to get the lives they want.

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Yale scientists restore brain function to 32 clinically dead pigs

Researchers hope the technology will further our understanding of the brain, but lawmakers may not be ready for the ethical challenges.

Still from John Stephenson's 1999 rendition of Animal Farm.
Surprising Science
  • Researchers at the Yale School of Medicine successfully restored some functions to pig brains that had been dead for hours.
  • They hope the technology will advance our understanding of the brain, potentially developing new treatments for debilitating diseases and disorders.
  • The research raises many ethical questions and puts to the test our current understanding of death.

The image of an undead brain coming back to live again is the stuff of science fiction. Not just any science fiction, specifically B-grade sci fi. What instantly springs to mind is the black-and-white horrors of films like Fiend Without a Face. Bad acting. Plastic monstrosities. Visible strings. And a spinal cord that, for some reason, is also a tentacle?

But like any good science fiction, it's only a matter of time before some manner of it seeps into our reality. This week's Nature published the findings of researchers who managed to restore function to pigs' brains that were clinically dead. At least, what we once thought of as dead.

What's dead may never die, it seems

The researchers did not hail from House Greyjoy — "What is dead may never die" — but came largely from the Yale School of Medicine. They connected 32 pig brains to a system called BrainEx. BrainEx is an artificial perfusion system — that is, a system that takes over the functions normally regulated by the organ. Think a dialysis machine for the mind. The pigs had been killed four hours earlier at a U.S. Department of Agriculture slaughterhouse; their brains completely removed from the skulls.

BrainEx pumped an experiment solution into the brain that essentially mimic blood flow. It brought oxygen and nutrients to the tissues, giving brain cells the resources to begin many normal functions. The cells began consuming and metabolizing sugars. The brains' immune systems kicked in. Neuron samples could carry an electrical signal. Some brain cells even responded to drugs.

The researchers have managed to keep some brains alive for up to 36 hours, and currently do not know if BrainEx can have sustained the brains longer. "It is conceivable we are just preventing the inevitable, and the brain won't be able to recover," said Nenad Sestan, Yale neuroscientist and the lead researcher.

As a control, other brains received either a fake solution or no solution at all. None revived brain activity and deteriorated as normal.

The researchers hope the technology can enhance our ability to study the brain and its cellular functions. One of the main avenues of such studies would be brain disorders and diseases. This could point the way to developing new of treatments for the likes of brain injuries, Alzheimer's, Huntington's, and neurodegenerative conditions.

"This is an extraordinary and very promising breakthrough for neuroscience. It immediately offers a much better model for studying the human brain, which is extraordinarily important, given the vast amount of human suffering from diseases of the mind [and] brain," Nita Farahany, the bioethicists at the Duke University School of Law who wrote the study's commentary, told National Geographic.

An ethical gray matter

Before anyone gets an Island of Dr. Moreau vibe, it's worth noting that the brains did not approach neural activity anywhere near consciousness.

The BrainEx solution contained chemicals that prevented neurons from firing. To be extra cautious, the researchers also monitored the brains for any such activity and were prepared to administer an anesthetic should they have seen signs of consciousness.

Even so, the research signals a massive debate to come regarding medical ethics and our definition of death.

Most countries define death, clinically speaking, as the irreversible loss of brain or circulatory function. This definition was already at odds with some folk- and value-centric understandings, but where do we go if it becomes possible to reverse clinical death with artificial perfusion?

"This is wild," Jonathan Moreno, a bioethicist at the University of Pennsylvania, told the New York Times. "If ever there was an issue that merited big public deliberation on the ethics of science and medicine, this is one."

One possible consequence involves organ donations. Some European countries require emergency responders to use a process that preserves organs when they cannot resuscitate a person. They continue to pump blood throughout the body, but use a "thoracic aortic occlusion balloon" to prevent that blood from reaching the brain.

The system is already controversial because it raises concerns about what caused the patient's death. But what happens when brain death becomes readily reversible? Stuart Younger, a bioethicist at Case Western Reserve University, told Nature that if BrainEx were to become widely available, it could shrink the pool of eligible donors.

"There's a potential conflict here between the interests of potential donors — who might not even be donors — and people who are waiting for organs," he said.

It will be a while before such experiments go anywhere near human subjects. A more immediate ethical question relates to how such experiments harm animal subjects.

Ethical review boards evaluate research protocols and can reject any that causes undue pain, suffering, or distress. Since dead animals feel no pain, suffer no trauma, they are typically approved as subjects. But how do such boards make a judgement regarding the suffering of a "cellularly active" brain? The distress of a partially alive brain?

The dilemma is unprecedented.

Setting new boundaries

Another science fiction story that comes to mind when discussing this story is, of course, Frankenstein. As Farahany told National Geographic: "It is definitely has [sic] a good science-fiction element to it, and it is restoring cellular function where we previously thought impossible. But to have Frankenstein, you need some degree of consciousness, some 'there' there. [The researchers] did not recover any form of consciousness in this study, and it is still unclear if we ever could. But we are one step closer to that possibility."

She's right. The researchers undertook their research for the betterment of humanity, and we may one day reap some unimaginable medical benefits from it. The ethical questions, however, remain as unsettling as the stories they remind us of.