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Advice / Succeeding at Work / Work-Life Balance

Why We Need to Redefine "Having it All"

No doubt you’ve read (or at least heard about) this month’s cover article “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All” in The Atlantic, by Anne-Marie Slaughter. It’s a good article, in that it’s a deeply important topic. More people should be talking honestly about the fact that it’s hard to balance a happy, fulfilled personal life with a respected professional life. But the article overlooks an important point: "Having it all” doesn’t mean the same thing for every woman.

According to Slaughter, “having it all” means holding a high-powered, high-level job in a busy government department in addition to parenting two teenage children and being a wife, while living in a different city than her family. When she realized how “unexpectedly hard it was to do the kind of job I wanted to do as a high government official and be the kind of parent I wanted to be,” she left Washington to return to her family and her professorship at Princeton, where she now teaches a “full course load, writes regular print and online columns on foreign policy, gives 40-50 speeches a year, appears regularly on TV and radio, and is working on a new academic book.”

This is her definition of not having it all—and, unfortunately, with it comes an implication that women who are unable to reach the highest rungs of their career don’t have it all, either.

We have to reframe this conversation. Slaughter’s version of “having it all” sounds exhausting to me—but that doesn’t mean that I’m not striving for everything I want, or that my version of “it all” is any less valid than hers. It means that I get to make choices about what priorities I value in the ways that matter to me.

I’m not suggesting that Slaughter doesn’t prioritize or value her family—clearly she does. But who says that success is marked by a powerful position, or by marriage or parenthood, or that “having it all” is the perfect balance of both? “Having it all” means something entirely different to a young, single professional in Manhattan than it does to a mother who works part-time in the suburbs. And it’s unfair to suggest that either of them doesn’t have—or isn’t seeking to have—it all.

Feminists worked hard so that women could have choices. So, why can’t each of us figure out what “having it all” means to us individually, to develop our own definitions of both personal and professional success, and to respect that in each other? In conversations like the ones Slaughter has started, we all too often jump to defining “having it all” as a particular combination of a successful job and successful parenthood, and we base all our conversations and arguments and points from there. But we need to take a step back.

Yes, we should aim high and strive for excellence. But thinking that we have to set our sights on Slaughter’s vision of “having it all”—or anyone else’s—is a trap that sets the bar for defining success far out of reach, and denies each of us the opportunity to define for ourselves what “all” it is that we want to strive for.

Photo courtesy of Ed Yourdon.