Why ‘Having It All’ Is A Dangerous Lie

5 min read

As soon as I started reading I felt a familiar rising anxiety. 

Here we go, I thought: we’re talking about ‘having it all’ again. But it was more than that. Not only were we talking about ‘having it all’, it was being normalised. Like diets. And crocs.  

The source of my frustrations was this article. Headlined: A Baby Boom in the C-Suite: How a new generation of leaders is redefining working motherhood, by Ann Shoket, it is yet another example of how women are sold the myth of the super woman. The fantasy that you can ‘have it all’. 

Can I have it all?

Baby boom in the C-Suite (Photo courtesy of Rent the Runway)

There are a few things that struck me.

First up, let’s talk about privilege. Unless you’re Beyonce and have a staff of nannies, chefs and a personal trainer at your disposal (and someone to take out the rubbish and do the dishes). Or your dad (let’s face it, it’s probably not your mum) is in venture capital. Or you went to a great prep school on the Upper East Side, you have basically zero chance of, as Ann writes:

“…legendarily (selling) her company LearnVest to Northwestern Mutual for $250 million on a Wednesday and had her first baby the following Sunday. She had another baby while she was in the C-suite of that giant company.”

It’s extreme privilege that allows you to even think about doing something like this. Even already-privileged women (university educated, professional careers) would find it hard to have a shot at this. They’re still trying to work out how whether they should bother trying to divide the labour in their households or just outsource the ironing. 

It’s extreme privilege that allows you to even think about doing something like this.

But you can’t be what you can’t see, right?

I agree that you “can’t be what you can’t see”. And yes, we need examples of women having big careers, doing big things. But we need to be more honest about what that actually requires. 

Secondly, from my observations in corporate and professional life and working with hundreds of women, it’s a certain kind of woman who is thatambitious: and she is usually aiming for perfection across the board. Often she is also a people-pleaser. That combination, with that drive, can be a recipe for breakdown, or at least chronic stress. That woman is not helped by reading a piece about how other women with far more resources are managing to “do it all”. It’s unrealistic. 

Again, from the article:

“Katia Beauchamp, 36, co-founder and CEO of Birchbox, spent 100 days last summer on bed rest with her fourth pregnancy, but closed a significant partnership with Walgreens as she was being rolled into the operating room for a high-risk delivery.” 

This should not be where the bar is set. For most of us, it’s never going to happen. And we need to be ok with that.

An entitled and aging argument

I am sick of hearing that we should have it all. It’s an entitled and aging argument and presupposes that it’s even possible. It’s not. We need to make decisions about our lives. We have 24 hours in day and 99.9 per cent of us (ok, more than that, my maths are bad) are not Beyonce. We need to stop running ourselves into the ground, walking around like chronically stressed, exhausted zombies, feeling guilty about the decisions we are making, like we’re cutting corners at work or at home (or both). And even if you do have the money to hire a nanny to look after your kids while you climb the corporate ladder, that’s not necessarily what everyone wants. As one friend said to me recently: “I actually want to raise and see my own kid, not meet them when they’re 18.”. 

Is it just me?

I did wonder if I was just getting old and grumpy, so I canvassed the opinions of a couple of respected friends. I received a range of responses.

“I eagerly started reading this article, hoping that it would impart some practical and relevant advice, as was implied by the headline. Disappointingly, it was as useless as the last article on a similar topic that I had read. It is a worrying trend in journalism that instead of documenting or highlighting the need for women to tap into their communities when their children are born, articles seek to highlight the activities of a very small percentage women who they portray to be achieving miracles, all by themselves. Now, the beginning of this article had promise, and started to open a conversation about motherhood and careers, but it lost a wheel somewhere and I can’t help but think the writer lost her nerve. I, for one, want to read an article that dives into the emotion of juggling a career and motherhood, not one that presents a very small percentage of the conversation”

I started reading this article thinking I would come away feeling empowered. Instead, it left me feeling like maybe I’m not quite doing enough, that I should somehow work harder in order to, like Ann writes; ‘achieve and succeed – in all areas’. Now, I’m as much for gender equality as any woman, and I most definitely think that becoming a mother shouldn’t mean having to end your career, however, do we really need to put more pressure on ourselves to do, have and be “everything”, all the time? Yes it can be great to have role models to look up to, but I think for a lot of us, when we see ‘women who lead big, messy, complicated, overwhelming, but satisfying lives – in all arenas’, and we try to emulate them, our end result isn’t ‘satisfying lives’, but rather burn-out and feelings of inadequacy and disappointment. I believe what we really need is an extra dose of compassion and self-love, regardless of how much we ‘achieve and succeed’”. 

And this:

“Not that long ago I had ambitions to be the General Counsel or a Vice President of a multi-national company. I had landed a few senior roles and got into the habit of working stupid hours, seven days a week, until one evening I found myself in the emergency ward, with most of my friendships in tatters and a family (at least my Dad) who thought they had ‘lost me for good’. My workload and, for example, the constant distraction of receiving emails every two minutes meant that I had zero capacity to consider anything else outside of work, like a life. Perhaps others are better at managing their time, but I’d wager that if I had a board, shareholders and hundreds of other stakeholders to report to, it’s unlikely I’d have time to ever clear my bean and think about much else, let alone prepare for motherhood. I can’t speak for others, but I’d be miserable if I was a CEO travelling the world and missing out on my son’s chubby little arms around my neck before bedtime. At least objectively, I’d ‘have it all’?”

So, it wasn’t just me. 

Michelle Obama’s advice on “having it all”

If we give up the idea we should, or can, or ought to, “have it all”, guess what? A world of genuine choice opens up. That might be scary, and it might require some real changes in priorities, but I suspect a large number of us might be happier if we could let “having it all”, or perfecting the art of balance, just go by the wayside. Like Michelle Obama said: “I tell women, that whole ‘you can have it all’ — nope, not at the same time; that’s a lie,” Obama said. “It’s not always enough to lean in because that s— doesn’t work.”

And if Obama says it can’t be done, maybe the rest of us need to pay attention.

How do you feel when you read success stories about women allegedly “having it all”? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

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  1. Lexi says

    Thank you for this thoughtful article. I feel the same way but the pressure to be everything to everyone is very high in this day and age. Taking time out to see your child grow up is really rewarding but it seems that that is not enough in today’s world. The pressure to be a corporate high flyer and a mum at the same time whilst maintaining your relationship, friendships, family and home is overwhelming.
    ‘Having it all, but not at the same time’ should be normalised.

    1. Lexi says

      Not to mention physical and mental health and fitness!

    2. Athanae says

      Hi Lexi, thanks for your comment. It’s really hard – I think – when we are surrounded by a group of people (even if it’s friends and family) doing a certain thing, living a certain way, with certain expectations. Do decide you want to do something differently is hard in that context. I always think at the end of the day I am the one who has to live with my life – nobody else. I’m glad you enjoyed the piece.

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