Salvaging “Having it All” from the Dust Bin of History

To be sure, our incompatible ideas of “work” and the workplace are a huge part of the problem. But so is the informal, perfectionist view that parenthood is something that swallows you up whole.

These days, I find myself trying to rehabilitate the Having it All dream. I guess I miss it. My generation turned on it--although not without reason. To try to have career, family, marriage, and friends is to battle against institutions that still imagine a “worker” as a middle-aged man with a stay-at-home wife in the suburbs who tends to the children full time, says scholar Joan Williams. It’s just not reality, and we tire of banging our heads against obstinate life circumstances. It’s easier to do one or the other.

And apparently, that’s exactly what Generation X women have started to do. Recent, and ongoing, research by the Center for Work-Life Policy finds that Generation X women are choosing career over children, and remaining childfree. They’re thinking either/or, not all, about marriage and family. I’d add that their counterparts have been “opting out” and choosing the opposite side of the either/or divide. They’re becoming stay-at-home moms in lieu of career.

For whatever else these trends are, and for whatever exigencies, frustrations and hassles inspire them, the either/or bind looks like a spontaneous regression to a pre-feminist state. In the 1930s and 1940s there were career women—not many, but some. They almost uniformly chose career over family, while the vast majority of their peers chose marriage and family over any career possibilities they might have tried to make for themselves against tremendously steep odds.

Workplaces aren’t hospitable to Having it All, but another problem comes down to standards today. My hunch is that as difficult as “Attitude Adjustment” can be, the standards question is at least easier to solve than the family-incompatible workplace question.

In my book I summarize some of the research on why women opt not to have children. The most revealing set of answers, in addition to, “we don’t make enough money to have kids”—as if only the affluent can be good parents—emphasizes the worry that they’re “too selfish” to have children, or would want to put other things first. Others worried that they couldn’t do a “good job” of parenthood, although by what criteria, the research doesn’t elaborate.

It hints at a view that once you’re a parent, you’re only a parent. No other adult priorities or prerogatives survive, and you’re lashed to the role of Just Parent for decades. No wonder that rates of childfree marriages are on the rise, and that Gen Xers are deciding not to procreate. As parenthood comes to seem a near-impossible or an all time-consuming task, rational agents simply will not do it

To be sure, our incompatible ideas of “work” and the workplace are a huge part of the problem. But so is the informal, perfectionist view that parenthood is something that swallows you up whole.

My parents’ generation was more nonchalant. They never believed that parenthood was the only thing they were supposed to devote themselves to as grown-ups, so they didn’t worry as much about being “selfish” for doing other things (including work, and having a work ethic, which, oddly, gets construed almost as a kind of “selfishness” in playground criticisms of career-oriented moms!).

Their generation also had more parental fatalism than we do.

They didn’t believe that they controlled their children’s outcomes. Kids had souls and personalities of their own, and their lives would unfold as they would, whether or not parents micro-managed them. Finally, the parental standard that I recall comes from my elementary school social studies unit, about what “humans need to survive.” And the answer was, “food, clothing, and shelter.” Wary parents might succeed brilliantly as “good-enough” parents--psychoanalyst DW Winnicott’s term from the 1950s—who provided this troika. Few will succeed as perfect ones.

Maybe we can “have it all” with a more cultivated nonchalance—and by the eminently humane, sane, parental standard that you provide children with “food, clothing, shelter”--and love--and you don’t beat on them. It’s probably a healthier standard for parents and children, alike.

So I was encouraged to come across new sociological research that affirms this point. It finds that moms who accept their limitations, and know that they can’t be perfect, or have it all, in a larger sense actually do manage to have it all, and experience lower rates of depression than their peers.  They can have their version of a perfect life—the two pillars of “work and love,” as Freud saw it—because they’ve accepted that they can’t have the perfect life perfectly.

Poet Jack Gilbert writes, anything worth doing is worth doing badly. Or, if not “badly,” which sounds like too low a standard, then at least mediocre-ly, which is where most all of us are going to fall on the spectrum of parenthood, anyway, just by statistical reality. It’s the meaning of “average,” and there’s no shame in it. The majority of us will be neither wretched nor awesome at parenting.

In any case, the new hero in my Save Having it All campaign is the Ann Arbor high school student, Brianna Amat. She had quite the night this week. She was elected homecoming queen—after she scored the winning field goal in a crucial high school game.

Now that’s Having it All. 


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