The Soapbox: Let’s Stop With This “Having It All” Crap

Hey guys? As a woman, and a feminist and a working person, I can honestly say I’ve never asked if I was going to “have it all.” But Anne Marie Slaughter’s Atlantic cover article about women’s continuing fight to win both the brass ring of family and work seems to have opened up this old chestnut of a debate, with women around the web asking how and when and if we can “have it all.” My response? Let’s shut this crappy concept down all together. The “can women have it all” question is reductive and frustrating — and it only serves to promote the idea that women are constantly going to be failing if they don’t somehow fulfill the work/family mandate.

After all, the construct of “having it all” perpetuates the myth that there is one ideal way to live, rather than understanding and allowing for multiple ideas of happiness. And in this “having it all” myth, a woman’s main responsibilities can be boiled down to feeding the capitalist mechanism (through working) and submitting to her essentialist role as a child-bearing female (having a family).

But here’s why that’s a losing battle: If your idea of success is winning a game that is inherently flawed (i.e. capitalism), you’re not really winning. The structures of capitalism are oriented around what’s best for the corporation — not what’s best for the worker. Our current economic structure is deeply pitted against workers developing a work/life balance — and increasingly so. Work days are longer, and more unending then they’ve ever been before. And technology aids in putting us in a scenario where work literally never stops. How many times have you left your job only to come home to check your work email? Our economy rewards those who work the longest, not necessarily the best. And feminism often feeds into this system by encouraging women to pursue positions of power in the corporate world, without questioning the implicit problems in the capitalist structure.

As feminist Lena Chen writes and I heartily agree:

Electing a bunch of privileged people (who just happen to be women) so that they can “wield power” over inevitably less privileged people is not exactly what I envision as “a society that works for everyone”. There are absolutely instrumental and practical reasons to desire a more diverse and representative governing body, but that in itself shouldn’t be the goal. There are things so much more important than symbolic equality.

Even Slaughter seems to accede to this, noting, “If women are ever to achieve real equality as leaders, then we have to stop accepting male behavior and male choices as the default and the ideal. We must insist on changing social policies and bending career tracks to accommodate our choices, too. “

But that’s hardly the only problem with the “having it all” conundrum.

The concept of “having it all” sets everyone — everyone — up to lose, because it assumes that there is only one definition of “womaned” success. And it also ascribes a false and unspoken dichotomy whereby “success” equals happiness. And let’s talk about happiness for a second, shall we? Nowhere in this dichotomy is it even expressly formulated that children and work and balancing the two will somehow make you happy.

It promotes an individualist notion of success, rather than one aiming for the greater good of all. Meaning: as long as we continue to ask ourselves if we are personally “having it all” we reinforce the structural and systemic elements in place that serve to oppress all women. Social change is not made in some simpering, sweaty bubble of self-improvement and self-flagellation — it’s cultivated through dialogues and movements that bring people together and cause them to question how the world has been inadequately meeting the needs of large portions of society. When women — and feminism — focus on this question of “having it all,” it’s usually at the expense of dialogues on larger issues of oppression.

Even having this discussion is immensely privileged. Most women who work and raise families do so because they have no other option. Being able to ask if “you’re having it all” comes from such a place of middle-class privilege it makes my head spin. It presumes that you have the choice not to work. That you have the choice to stay at home with your kids instead of going to the office if you simply can’t hack that dual pressures. And it presumes that you have a partner that is willing to A) pick up the slack if you choose motherhood over a career, and B) be emotionally and financially supportive of your desire to have both. The vast majority of working women aren’t Anne-Marie Slaughter — a highly educated, well-employed woman with an extremely supportive husband in academia — and she readily admits that. But for most of us, working is a necessity — and for those of us who want to have kids, there will be no debate about “having it all” — because it’s a foregone conclusion that work is part of our personal and financial equation.

It’s grounded in essentialist notions of womens’ roles as caregivers, mothers and emotional providers. Slaughter references the idea that women are socialized to believe in motherhood, but also seems to subscribe to the idea that women are just “naturally” oriented to sacrifice for their children.  Witness Slaughter discussing how parents decide who stays home with the children:

Many factors determine this choice, of course. Men are still socialized to believe that their primary family obligation is to be the breadwinner; women, to believe that their primary family obligation is to be the caregiver. But it may be more than that. When I described the choice between my children and my job to Senator Jeanne Shaheen, she said exactly what I felt: “There’s really no choice.” She wasn’t referring to social expectations, but to a maternal imperative felt so deeply that the “choice” is reflexive.

So, Slaughter argues, women really have no choice when it comes to making sacrifices for their families — it’s just an implicit part of a woman’s biological makeup. But this argument is exactly the same one that’s been used against women for centuries to deny women access and entry to traditionally male venues. And, as Audre Lorde said, “The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.”

Further, the “having it all” discussion believes in one proscribed way of living a fulfilling life. But for many women — and men — kids are simply not part of the picture. Are those of us who choose to eschew having children somehow “less than” our kidded up counterparts? And are we any less of a family if we choose to define our families as our friends and partners instead?

The question is set up to make women feel bad about their choices, because it presumes that you could “have it all” if only you were living your life in a more effective way. The “having it all” quest sets the majority of us — those of us who don’t have endless financial resources, support systems and currency within the capitalist structure — to fail.  There’s nothing like setting up a largely unreachable goal to completely obscure the real causes and sources of oppression — stuff like hegemonic systems rooted in patriarchal and outdated notions of gender and success.

So what’s the solution? Let’s stop asking ourselves whether we “have it all” and instead ask “Are we happy?” And can we be happy when there are so many women in the world who are suffering because of the perpetration of gender myths? The “have it all” debate only serves as a divisive and powerful form of subterfuge. If we can refocus feminism to address the structural problems with society — problems that make living and working untenable for virtually everyone — we may find that real, deep and lasting  change is possible.

[The Atlantic]