Weaning Off “Wanting It All”

When it comes to the “having it all” debates, I feel as though we’re often ignoring what is sitting right in front of us.

Sure, we continue to raise a variety of legitimate points around work and family, including the nature of our partner relationships, parenting, income, and work environments.

But we’re missing an important point. The notion of what “all” comprises and whether or not we’d really want it if we understood what was actually involved.

What does “wanting it all” mean, really?

No, I’m not talking about not pursuing our professions or our dreams. I’m not talking about ignoring the fact that most women have no choice but to earn a living.

I’m talking about being reasonable. I’m talking about being realistic. I’m talking about understanding there are things we go after that we don’t necessarily “want,” and wanting isn’t the point if what we end up with is burn-out, illness, and little time to enjoy our lives.

Your “All?” My “All?”

Sure, I’ve written about having it all and doing it all, societal expectations that we are capable of having it all (winding up doing it all), but can we consider “wanting” from a place of knowledge?

How about relationships? The nitty-gritty of a healthy relationship – first finding one, and then its care and feeding – not so easy, is it?

What about having kids? Visions of cute babies aside, there are years of grueling, tedious, worrisome hours and days and nights – not the stuff of situation comedies.

And our work lives? The growing tendency to expect more (for less) of employees, not to mention the swelling numbers of freelancers and contractors who must constantly be looking for the next gig while performing in the current one.

Once we acknowledge and truly know the headaches, the compromises, the trade-offs involved in any version of “having it all,” do we actually want it? If having it all means so much stress we barely experience contentment or even a break, then isn’t “having it all” an oxymoron?

Here’s What I Want. Simple, Right?

Off the top of my head, here is a list of “wants” that would comprise my “all.”

  • I want to raise healthy, happy, “successful” children.
  • I want money in the bank so I don’t have to worry about bills.
  • I want to do work that I love – at least some of the time.
  • I want someone to love who will love me back.
  • I want that person to respect me, my values, what I do – and vice versa.
  • I want reading time.
  • I want my writing to sing.
  • I want my house clean (or cleaner).

Last but not least, though it always winds up at the bottom (in the role of impossible dream) – I want a little time to myself, for any number of pursuits that I don’t want to have to pinpoint, plan, and schedule – including some downtime.

Superwoman? Not So Much

That list? Do you note my priorities?

And the sequence of items aside, isn’t any such set of desirable states or outcomes effectively meaningless until you drill down into the complex details? Wouldn’t we have to reckon with the hard realities of what’s involved in raising “healthy, happy, successful” children? Don’t we need to make assumptions, take into account interdependencies, and also give a nod to luck?

So doesn’t that render “all” highly variable when we move away from the abstract? Isn’t it subject to change over time? Without narrowing down to reasonable expectations – is any version of “all” impossible to achieve without gobs of money or additional resources?

Suddenly, “all” feels like a stranglehold, constricting rather than freeing, and I’m thinking about the mythology of Superwoman and my reluctant realization that superhero status, even maintained for several years, comes with a hefty price tag in terms of quality of life.

A Look Back at the Blur

Allow me to digress for a moment. Last evening I came across a journal from more than a dozen years ago. Along with the usual motherly accounts of cute exchanges between my children, the content was chock full of indications of worry, fatigue, and stress. I was working in a grueling managerial position at the time for a very small firm, in start-up mode. 80 hour weeks were the norm; I frequently had my children in the office with me on the weekends, as they read or drew quietly and I went about my business.

May I add that I felt guilty constantly when it came to my kids?

My journal includes mentions of sitter worries, money worries, critical deadlines that meant losing sleep, the need to be in two places at once (and sometimes three), with frequent and anguished invocations to the gods to “please keep me awake, productive, and able to get through another day” – or possibly a week.

That refrain runs through years of journals that follow though I was no longer at that job. The strain of trying to “do it all” was readily visible. “Wanting it all” wasn’t even a consideration.

Project Eve, Our Confused State of Affairs

Project Eve’s recent article, “A Woman’s Paradox: The Unique Challenges of Women Who Want It All,” pulls together a number of statistics that are indicative of our conflicting feelings on “having it all.” And note the title’s emphasis on wanting it all – which should make us think.

As to the paradox –

Citing the speed with which American women are burning out, and at younger ages, Project Eve writes:

Compared to women, men are:
25% more likely to take breaks at work
7% more likely to take a walk
5% more likely to go out at lunch

The article also indicates

Men are twice as likely as women to advance at each career stage.

But there’s more, particularly concerning the paradox of pursuing our “wants.” When it comes to mothers in the workplace, there’s greater satisfaction, but there’s guilt – and also, burnout.

Real World Versus Wishful Thinking

It’s easy to say we want it all when “all” is nebulous and represented at the 30,000 foot view – the happy family and rewarding work life.

It’s easy to say we want it “all” when we have no experience of what is involved.

It’s easy to imagine marriage as a desirable state (and “happy marriage” as achievable) when you haven’t yet lived through marital ups and downs.

Likewise, our wishful thinking version of parenthood that is nothing like the reality, complete with the sitter who doesn’t show making you late to your own presentation, the child that vomits on your only clean jacket as you’re driving him to daycare and you’re late for work, the empty fridge and it’s midnight and you can’t put the kids in car seats at that hour, the scribbling on the back of an envelope as you try to figure out how to afford braces and summer camp, knowing braces are a must and without camp or an alternative you’re screwed when it comes to keeping your job.

Shall we mention the teen years, and their costs and constant worry?

We Live in a Country Where “All” is a False God, Unless…

Love? Family? Meaningful career? Outside interests? Time off to enjoy one’s life? Health and fitness? Pursuit of dreams?

When did we exchange the handful of female options – wife, mother, teacher, nurse, librarian, and so on – for anything and everything – and I really mean and everything?

If we target the Cliff Notes version of family and professional life with its pretty images of motherhood (as an example), then we deny the reality that more closely resembles many thousands of pages in volumes 1, 2, 3 and 4, complete with unruly passages and convoluted plot lines.

“All” is less appealing, at least to me. “All” is impossible without a system of extended family, communities that assist, partners that share responsibilities, and infrastructure that is supportive to everyone – male and female, and not just in the “official” workplace.

Wanting is Good; Fairy Tales Are Not

What if we tried to wean ourselves off the fairy tale version of wanting it all – which does not mean setting aside our skills, our need to contribute, our rightful entitlement to options, to fair pay, and yes – to sharing our lives with loved ones?

Is it possible for us – women especially – to adjust our vision of wanting it all?

Could we concede that not only employers, but government could make our “reasonable all” more accessible?

Returning to the statistics cited above that show men generally pay attention to more self-care in terms of time off and breaks, can we acknowledge the reasonableness in that? Might we also consider that the male “all” may not resemble the female version? Yes, these are generalizations of course, but what if we set aside our caretaker role when it comes to others, and apply a bit more of its steam to taking care of ourselves?

And yes, I fully realize that requires that we have options to pick up the slack, or that we accept a lesser level of caretaking of others – and that, in some circumstances, is not always an option.

Give It Your All

I have a small sign taped to my kitchen cabinets, one of several I put up a few months ago. The one I’d like to discuss reads “Give Your All.”

Those words were intended to remind me to focus – and do so more freely, when it comes to my writing. But I can only do that when my children aren’t under my roof, when the man in my life isn’t on vacation (and I’m not), expecting more from me than I can give, and when I’m not plagued by guilt about keeping too much of me for me – and not giving enough to others.

My “all” is and always will be divided. So is yours, though you may find it more or less the case based on your circumstances. So our “all” must be divided, unless we cut ourselves off from the rest of the world, or eliminate people and items from the “all” list.

The man in my life? His “all?” Or for that matter, my ex-husband’s “all?” The “all” of any of the men I’ve known?

It doesn’t look like mine and didn’t during the years in which their children were being raised. This reminds me that their “all” is different, and not necessarily too little. But mine is most definitely too much. As far as I’m concerned, as a woman living in this country, certainly during 20 or more parenting years, my “all” will always be too much.

My Family, Myself

And therein lies the dilemma. We do not live in a society that takes care of women with children. Women remain the caretakers of others. Who takes care of us? That’s the paradox I’m most worried about, and it’s personal, cultural, and structural.

Wanting it all?

I’d like to want something reasonable. Yet I look at my own list and understand that the first item alone is a major undertaking – raising healthy, happy, “successful” children – especially as a single/solo parent, leaving little when all is said and done. Hitting “money in the bank” which is the second in my list, much less doing work I love, sitting at number three?

Both are tough, given the parenting item, which is not a condemnation of parenthood by any means; it’s a recognition of the time, dollars, and work involved, especially when you’re outnumbered.

I have to ask myself if it’s reasonable to “want” so much all – in a nation where women still disproportionately feel its burdens.