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The Impossible
Having It All: What It Means and Why It’s a Myth
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Heather K Adams image
Heather K Adams,
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Storyteller

For women, "having it all" seems easy enough to define: it means having both a career and kids. But does that definition still offer the promise of potential it used to, or should we be focused on redefinition? To be blunt, is the concept of "having it all" helping us, or holding us back?

What "having it all" means, today.

The phrase, and the idea, first became popular in the 1980s, but since then its shades of meaning have shifted. At first, it was a reassurance, women telling ourselves we really can have a family and a career at the same time. We don't have to choose, and by choosing sacrifice key elements of our personal happiness and fulfillment. But today? Being able to do both has morphed into a pressure to do both.

While men also feel social pressure to have a career and start a family, it's not experienced at quite the same level. After all, being a "confirmed bachelor" doesn't carry the same social sting (or stigma) as being a "spinster," does it? And for women who do have children yet aren't also career-focused, there's still a degree of embarrassment she can suffer when someone asks, "What do you do?" and she answers, "I'm a mom."

By not doing both, either woman can very easily feel as if she's somehow not doing enough.

History and origins: The beginning of "having it all." 

"Having it all" began as an advertising tagline, a concept cooked up to sell an image, a lifestyle. It wasn't even aimed specifically at women, but rather at an affluent middle class with disposable income and a concern about keeping up with the Joneses.

But in the early 1980s, the phrase was used as the title of a book, a memoir by Cosmo editor Helen Gurley Brown. In it, she talked about how any woman could rise to the top even from the most impoverished background, as she did. It certainly wasn't a how-to for working moms, yet somehow the phrase and the image of CEO Mom became twined together.

An article in The New York Times Magazine explores the complicated legacy of Brown's book title more in depth, but in short that legacy is this: "having it all" might have helped women entering the workforce, at first, but even Brown herself didn't care for it. It felt smarmy, even pushy.

Why? 

Because with its roots in advertising, in pushing a product and an idea, "having it all" runs the risk of feeling like a command. Sure, we can have a job and be a mother, we can run a house and also an empire. But do we all really want to? For those that don't, they can feel as if they need to explain their decision at every turn. After all, why would anyone say no to the (female) American Dream?

Do you really have to have it all?

The pressure to have it all is alive and well on social media, which itself is nearly inescapable these days. Your high school friends, your gym buddies, even your neighbor down the block are all post-boasting right in your face. Even if they aren't, the captions under their "my messy life" photos are funnier than yours and don't have any typos. And you just know their bras always match their underwear. Meanwhile you're over here trying to find a pair of socks without any holes in them.

We all make choices. We all have to live with those choices. And the last thing we need is to feel pressured to look or seem a certain way, or worse, to make moves that don't feel right just to feel like we're doing what we're supposed to be doing. The woman who has a career and no kids, who is cool with that, shouldn't have to worry about people's reactions when she says so. Same for the mother who loves that she can stay home and be with her children. 

These choices shouldn't be the start-to-end definition of either woman. There's more to us than what we do for a living, and whether or not we've had kids. And we need to allow ourselves to really believe that.

What "having it all" really looks like:

Like the FOMO that builds when we get sucked into the black hole of scrolling (the scroll hole, if you will), the concept of having it all has a lot more to do with seeming than it does with being. It's easy to "have it all" and look happy on Instagram, after all. Just pop on a filter, find the right angle and the right breezy tone. Don't forget those hashtags.

But listen, you already know what having it all really looks like. It looks like life. Some days are awesome, other days you remove all sharp objects from your desk just in case you get the urge to stab someone. It doesn't mean your life is perfect, or even that you're really happy with it.

But the pressure to have it all makes us feel like we really should be happy, fulfilled, totally not wondering what would have happened if we'd moved into that van and traveled the country with our college boyfriend (sorry, Mark). It's all too easy, under that kind of pressure, to harass yourself, saying, "I've got the kids and the brass nameplate. What more could I want?"

What more could you want? How about a decent 401k and a toddler who doesn't stick everything he can grab directly up his nose? How about a teenager who isn't clearly trying to give you a heart attack, sending her skateboard down ramps you wouldn't even slide down on your butt? Or finding a decent health care package for your employees that doesn't cost a fortune? How about that? 

Face it, "having it all" is hard work. And getting there doesn't guarantee you'll feel successful. What we need to focus on is finding our own personal definitions of happiness, and not worry about fitting any kind of mold or image along the way.

Realistic alternatives: How to really have it all.

Worrying that you don't have it all, or that you do but you're not doing it as well as you should be, isn't a fear of missing out. It's a fear of not measuring up, not meeting expectations — it happens to the best of us. 

But here are three things the best of us know are more important than worrying about how we "should" be living.

1. Be honest

Maybe you don't want kids or a career. Maybe you want to backpack around the world and work as needed, write your memoirs and then die old and happy in a beach hammock with a fruity rum drink in your hand. If that honestly feels like the best life  for you, do it. We'll totally buy your book.

2. Be flexible

Your wants and needs will change throughout your life. So will your idea of what "happiness" means, to you. And that's OK. Don't think you have to figure out all your answers now, and don't assume that the answers you do find will always serve you best. Life changes, and you're allowed to too.

3. Be YOU

Don't worry about how your life might seem to someone else. They aren't you. Your happiness is your business. You can't live your life around someone else's idea of what happy "should" look like.

Final thought

Recognizing that we have control over our definitions of happiness and success is a major part of actually achieving those things. Today's use of the term "having it all" borders on the implication that if you're not stressed out, then you're not doing it right. 

That being busy and overwhelmed, on the verge of burning out, gives us some kind of bragging rights. And that's just wrong. That's not what being a mother, being a boss or being a woman is about. Ask anyone who raised a banner, who marched, who crawled her way up a corporate ladder. She'll tell you: that's not what we meant.

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Heather Adams is a writer and brand story consultant, as well as a photographer. She loves pen pals and collaborators - drop a line at artlifestory@gmail.com.

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