The Soapbox: Why Do We Assume “Having It All” Means Being A Wife And Mother?

“Can women have it all,” has been asked hundreds of times over — it seems as though the media never tires of the question. They tell us that, because many women are not in a position to manage a career and a family (or that, at very least, it is extremely difficult to balance the two), feminism has failed us.

But why do we think “having it all” means getting married and having kids?

There’s a reason no one ever asks if men can “have it all” – namely, because we don’t assume that men need to procreate in order to be truly fulfilled. We don’t wonder if and how men will be able to manage their roles as “husbands,” “fathers,” and “career-men.” Not only do we not wonder, but even to ask that question sounds ridiculous, doesn’t it? That’s because we, as a culture, don’t question the notion that men can be perfectly content and fulfilled in their lives as childless bachelors.

The mere existence of the question is sexist, in and of itself. The problem isn’t about whether or not a woman may need to make choices about what to prioritize in her life – that is simply a reality — it’s that the choice itself is seen as a problem. As though, if a woman chooses her career (or whatever — her other relationships, her passions, her life) instead of having children, she is somehow missing out or giving up something – as though she will be left with this gaping, baby-sized hole inside of her.

The Cut published a list of 25 quotes from famous women on childlessness recently. One of my favorites is from Stevie Nicks, who said, in an interview with InStyle in March 2002:

“It’s like, ‘Do you want to be an artist and a writer, or a wife and a lover?’ With kids, your focus changes. I don’t want to go to PTA meetings.”

Me neither. I can think of a hundred things I’d rather do than go to a PTA meeting. That should be perfectly reasonable, but according to the “can women have it all” cultural narrative, this makes me a flawed woman – it makes me sad and unfulfilled. It makes me unnatural.

The thing is that I’ve always thought I wanted to “have it all,” but my version of “it all” didn’t look the way it was supposed to – I was just never all that interested in having kids. I thought maybe that would change as I got older – that my supposed “biological clock” would start ticking, but it didn’t. My ideal life simply doesn’t include babies. Caring for, cleaning, feeding, and disciplining children just doesn’t seem fun or interesting to me. In fact, it seems as though it would interfere with all the things I actually find fun and interesting. For me, “having it all” means something different. It includes writing, sleeping, wine, puppy dogs, friends, shoes, the ability to pay my rent, yoga, eating, singing, loving and fucking. That sounds like a lot of good stuff to me. But somehow, if I managed to spend much of my life doing all of those things, I still am not seen as having managed to “have it all.”

What’s funny is that, for the most part, I actually do feel fulfilled by my life. My dream, since I was a kid, was to be a writer. And I did it. Sure I’d like to be less broke, but I’m doing it.  I never was one of those girls we are told we all are – the ones who dreamed of their wedding days. I’ve never looked enviously at a mother, wishing I had her life. That narrative – the one all women are expected to relate to — erases me.

The point of feminism isn’t to ensure that women can be mothers, wives, and have careers – the point of feminism is to ensure that women are valued as human beings, whether or not they fulfill traditional female roles. The point is to destroy the stereotypes that say women are natural nurturers or that their primary purpose is to reproduce. The point is that women should be able to choose an unconventional path without feeling as though they have failed or are flawed in some way. Or that they are pitiable… Sad and empty inside because they missed their chance at true happiness by focusing on other things.

Despite the fact that I am absolutely certain that I want “it all,” my version of “having it all” is not one that society wants to wrap its head around. Maybe if we accepted the notion that being a wife and mother isn’t necessarily all that fulfilling and acknowledged that, like men, women have all sorts of other dreams and goals and passions that don’t involve baby-making, we could stop, at long last, asking the tiresome question: “Can women have it all?”