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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