Why Women Still Can’t Have It All (At the same time)

Working motherI recently came across Anne-Marie Slaughter’s article, “Why Women Still Can’t Have it All” in The Atlantic. As a high-profile role model who once worked for Hilary Clinton as the director of policy planning, she was warned that she shouldn’t break ranks and admit that being a top professional and a mom was a constant struggle.

Slaughter admitted that previously, she had “been part, albeit unwittingly, of making millions of women feel that they are to blame if they cannot manage to rise up the ladder as fast as men and also have a family and an active home life (and be thin and beautiful to boot).”

I loved this article. It gets to the heart of so many of the challenges that we as women face. There is often a conflict when we try to be the best in our careers while wanting to be the best for our families.

Slaughter says that women who have managed to make it to the top while being mothers possess one or more of the following traits: they are superhuman, self-employed, or well-off. She points out that our current working culture makes it extremely difficult for women to reach the top. While men only have to be talented to reach the top, women have to be extremely talented and possess superhuman resolve and time management skills.

The question shouldn’t be why aren’t more women reaching the top but how can a woman even dream about reaching the top without being prepared to make enormous sacrifices or possess significant economic resources. Our current working model allows little flexibility for mothers and some women are forced to forgo having children all together. Slaughter points out examples of top professional women who have remained childless while almost all of the top men were able to still have a family.

As an eye surgeon, I fit two of Slaughter’s categories for people who should be able to have it all. I am self-employed and relatively well-off but even I find it a struggle to be on top of everything in my personal and professional life. It is challenging to be the best mom possible, perform world class eye surgery while offering excellent care to all my patients and juggling the other businesses I have launched.

Slaughter quotes Mary Matalin who said that “having control of your schedule is the only way that women who want a career and a family can make it work.” We must be in control of our own schedule to be able to mold and shape our lives into the rich tapestry that weaves all the important components of work and home life into a cohesive whole. This is easier when we are self-employed but still possible to do while working for another organization if they allow for flexibility.

How do we fit it all in? When my son was born, I took 15 months off my practice when most of my male colleagues only take two weeks of paternity leave. They bounce right back and nobody gives a second thought to whether they should be spending more time with their family.

I am lucky that I was able to take such an extended period of time off after my son’s birth. It was a bit of an internal conflict when I added up how much income I was missing out on but I knew that I would never have those moments back with my long-awaited newborn. I was able to make the choice that was best for me because of my self-employed status and economic status. I know most women do not have the luxury of this choice.

When women make the choice to stop or delay their ascent up the career ladder when it comes at too high of a cost to their family life, their choice should be accepted and not looked upon as an assault on our feministic ideals, or a failure. Does this mean they aren’t having it all? And what is having it all anyway? Maybe we need to change our definition of success.

In Slaughter’s case she left her demanding high profile political career and returned to her full-time job as a professor at Princeton while also writing and speaking. This career change allowed her to live in the same city as her sons during the week and be there for them. She still had a demanding, fulfilling and important job but there were detractors who still felt she had somehow failed herself and women in general. The idea that Slaughter was no longer a success story is a reflection of our society’s skewed version of success.

Let’s look at success in a different construct. Maybe success for me is being able to be there to care for my dying mother, to be there to hug my son when he needs me, to be the wife I always wanted to be and to be a woman that others would be proud to call a friend.

Maybe money, power, or fame are not personally important to you. You may feel more fulfilled doing work that charges you, that you feel makes a difference and work where you feel you are truly being paid what you are worth. Maybe this is where it is at? Yet society still hammers into us their definition. Can we truly feel successful without reaching the pinnacle of our profession or taking the job of leader?

Nowadays, parenting an energetic toddler and running a busy medical practice is a challenge. I work 3 days extremely busy days a week at my practice. On my “off” days I work on writing for my website and for the 50+ magazine I launched and try to fit in as much time as I can with my family.

Being able to have flexibility in my schedule is incredibly helpful. It would be even more challenging without that flexibility. As an employer of numerous women this article has impacted me by making me think about how I can be more flexible as an employer. Simply offering a greater flexibility in start and end times or days of work would help them to balance their own commitments.

It amazes me that so many women manage to pull it off when they are tied to a full, busy schedule during the week, have travel obligations and must conform to someone else’s rigid schedule. I think we all know that taking care of ourselves is usually the first thing to go out of the window in the face of such demands. Unfortunately, that’s the worst thing a woman can do because in order to be high-functioning we need to be taking care of ourselves.

It’s the old oxygen mask on the airplane story. How can we be there for our families, for our careers or for the things we have a passion for if we are totally drained? How can we be present in the moment, embrace and truly enjoy our lives if we are so stretched to the max there is little time to take a deep breath.

In the midst of our busy lives we need to take 5 minutes. At least a couple of times a day and ask ourselves, what is the most loving thing I can do for myself right now? Sometimes it will be take a couple deep breaths, or get up and walk around or grab a latte and write in your journal. Sometimes it will be to answer a long overdue email, make a call or hug your child. Be sure to act on your thoughts at least twice a day.

In attempting to have it all, never forget that if we don’t have love, joy, peace, tranquility and an ability to be truly present in our lives that we don’t have it all anyway. We really don’t have anything.

It is a hard one to turn away from our professional dreams and not reach our full potential professionally because we can’t do it. But I really think in a number of ways we can’t, at least not all at the same time. This article is honest and impactful. I commend Marie-Ann Slaughter for putting out there the truth that no one will talk about and also thank you Hillary Clinton for acknowledging the challenges.

I hope that Slaughter is correct and that with some changes to our working culture it will be possible in the future to have it all, all at the same time. For now, I think the motto remains that women can have it all, just not all at the same time.

The more high profile women that step forward and honestly say…this is hard, the more realistic the picture will be for the women beginning their careers. Then armed with all the information, the good, the bad and the ugly of parenting while pursuing your career goals and ambitions women can make the best informed decisions for themselves, their families and their lives. And more importantly not feel that they have any shortcomings when they do find it hard or if they honestly choose from the bottom of their hearts to be there, really be there for their children. Being real and opening this dialogue is a great service to women. Thank you Anne-Marie for your candor and realism.

Do you think it’s currently possible for women to have it all at the same time? What needs to change to help more women make it to the top?



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  • Mel Sherman

    As a future medical student, I think about how my life will change as a woman in medicine. I think about what it means to have it all and whether my definition of “having it all” will force me to limit my ultimate goals. I think it is sad that something as honorable as motherhood could also become a limitation to one’s career.

    Dr. Anderson, I really consider your response to Slaughter’s article to be, in all honesty, motivational. As a woman and physician, you seem driven to be present and involved with your family and your practice and I only hope that I can be half as “superhuman” when I reach such a point in my life. :)

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    DrCarolynA Reply:

    Hi Mel,

    Thanks for reading and your kind words. Being a women in medicine is a challenge but so rewarding at the same time. I wish you success in reaching your definition of “it all.” 

    Carolyn

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  • Allegracrystal

    Great article!  I have the same thoughts about what success really is.  Pressures on the woman to play so many roles is one that is of sociological consequence, in fact, I wrote a short essay on the topic for my sociology class.  I think it is possible for women to “have it all” at the same time, however, it really depends on a person’s individual idea of what having it all is, as you pointed out.  It’s really about whether a person FEELS like they have it all.  

    For women who either seem like they have it all or who may feel like they have it all, work flexibility is a huge help.  Another common denominator of the women I’ve known, who “seem” to have it all, have developed functioning support systems or were born into families that act as wonderful support systems that may help care for their child(ren) and who may participate in and approve of their efforts… usually by other non-working female family members. It really boils down to relationships, possibly emotional intelligence.  But, when you begin to get to know these women who seem have it all, you find out that they, like everyone else, have experienced opportunity costs and they too are constantly questioning where their time might be better spent. So in reality, no one can really have it all, because there are always opportunity costs.  This is why having it all depends on feeling that you have it all.   

    I think we can all picture the portrait of what “having it all” looks like for most people in the U.S. Well I never had it all at once, ever.  I felt bad because I couldn’t do it. What a waste of time, especially because I see that a lot of what many components of having it all is; superficial. I think it’s important for people to realize their limitations, let go of form and be happy with what they have when they have it and let go of nearly impossible standards. It’s important to not question your choices.

    I am in my mid 40’s now, one child is about to go off to college and the other in middle school.  This is the first time in many years that I’ve felt like I could comfortably spend the majority of my time developing a career.  Oh I pursued entrepreneurial endeavors over the last 17 years since I became a mother, but my relationships & children suffered and I always ended up back to a place where the majority of my time was with the kids.  Those experiences taught me valuable lessons, so regret would be too strong a word, but I can easily say now, that I wish I had enjoyed the ride with the kids just a little more and felt much less bad about my inability to “have it all”.  And now that I operate with this in mind, ironically, I am beginning to feel like I really have it all and it looks absolutely nothing like what I thought it was when I was in my mid 20’s. 

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    DrCarolynA Reply:

    Thank you for sharing your story. I’m happy you are starting to feel like you are having it all. I hope your story inspires other women to enjoy the stage of the life they are currently in.

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