What Is the REAL Problem? Having it All or Doing it All?

I’d like to say I’ve been contemplating this one for years. You know. That tricky issue of “having it all” and how to make it work.

But it wouldn’t be true.

Contemplating anything for years would assume (a) mental capacity to do so, (b) sufficient sleep for aforementioned mental capacity, and (c) time to kill, or more specifically, time to think about implausible scenarios.

Most working mothers? (And that would be all of us.) We’re mired in (d) none of the above.

Dare I add –  these days all I contemplate is the changing state of my softening neck, and its potential impact on my (imaginary) dating future.

The Personal Parenting Pact

Sure, sure. There’s the blur of months that comes with a newborn. We expect that.  But what about the (unwritten) blur of years that follows? The mother’s manic manipulation of a 24-hour period? Her inane insistence on tricking the laws of physics (the 30-hour day)? Defiance in the face of postpartum biology (huffing and puffing on the StairMaster)?

Oh. And let’s not forget that once they’re screaming toddlers and questioning second graders, we’re on a path to Zen to get our “happy” back, through the bickering, the chasing, the driving, the growing expenses.

One way or another, who among us hasn’t bought into the notion that we can have it all, if we can just figure out the right formula for doing so?

The Myth of Having it All

And possibly, we could have it all. If we make ample use of phrases like “You can have it all, just not all at the same time” – which is precisely what Emma Thompson was quoted as saying in the press, and is a line we’ve heard over and over again.

But truthfully – who among us doesn’t think, somehow, that we really could have it all – all at the same time – if we can manage better, schedule better, sleep a little less? That the inability to have it all is somehow our fault? Our ineptitude? Our attitude?

Frankly, I think we need to shift the conversation. And the burden of responsibility. Isn’t it really an issue of doing it all rather than having it all? And isn’t doing it all – on our own – a physical impossibility?

The Parenting Package

The more I talk to (and read) anything from the maternal side of the parental equation, I am struck by the constancy of “Mom” saddled with double duty, Mom managing maternal guilt, and Mom shrinking under the woeful weight of inadequacy. In her own view.

Many write eloquently about the tug-of-war they’re living – wanting to stay in the workforce, dealing with a long commute, feeling as though every aspect of life – marriage, parenting, career – is compromised by an inability to provide peak performance in each area. One woman I read recently said simply:

I can’t juggle what I used to.

And while there are reasons for this that remain individual to each of us, don’t millions of mothers say these words, as we blame ourselves for running out of steam when it comes to “doing it all?”

Don’t we feel this way at least some of the time – whether we work part-time, full-time, in the home, outside the home, or the full time job of parenting our sons and daughters?

I repeat an assertion I’ve stated previously: parenting is a profession, or at the very least, involves a workload, skill set, and importance that ought to liken it to one whether compensated in dollars or not. In complicated times, this is more true than ever.

Parenting is Work, Loving is Work

I will make a distinction between a one-child family and more than one, just for a moment. Yes, a digression. The only mothers I’ve observed who aren’t half nuts have one child. Two parents to manage a single child? I’ve watched in awe. And envy.

That said, I’m delighted with my sons, but parenting is physical as well as emotional work. And time. Every day. And then there’s loving – the man or woman who is your partner. Loving is a commitment – and yes, it takes effort. Attentiveness is essential. So is a little bit of romance.

Ideally, fathers and mothers share the workload. Or, divide it up in ways that feel fair to both involved, according to them, still allowing for earning a living.

Gone is an economy (and lifestyle) in which most households can operate on a single income. For some, that’s part of the problem. For others, it’s the fact that as women, we’re accustomed to earning our way, we’ve invested in our careers, we love what we do. Compromising the sense of self that is derived from earning power and “contributing” takes a terrible toll. Even if we love being mothers.

Doing it All

Might I wax retro momentarily, and suggest there’s a reason it takes two to tango? Doesn’t it follow that raising children might require more than a single set of hands? And more than one point of view?

Wasn’t there a time when parenting was more communal? Great Aunt Edie would babysit, Aunt Louise helped out with the cooking, and Grandma came to stay for a week so Mom and Dad could get away to the Poconos – and did so without guilt?

Notice – in my scenario – it’s the women whose “job” it was to pitch in with domestic tasks.

(And in those same days-gone-by, the men were fixing things, tinkering in the garage, bringing home the bacon, and yes, having a drink or two in front of the fire.)

And then there is our familial landscape in times of divorce. If you’re going solo, you’d better have a helluva support team lined up – friends, family, co-workers. Or kiss a decade or two goodbye – at least – kiss the illusion of what they will be goodbye. There’s joy to be had, and struggle. Tough choices, and narrowing windows. The question of having it all – or doing it all – isn’t even in the picture.

It’s “get it done any way you can.”

Work-Life (Im)balance

I admit that working a corporate job when my children were little was my salvation. I adored them of course, but it was exhausting being 40-something and dealing with two rambunctious boys. Those hours in the office, about 10 minutes away, offered relief. More physical than anything else, particularly as I knew my kids were in a safe and stimulating day care environment. Because at the time, I could afford to provide that for them.

Did I feel conflicted splitting my role in corporate life with that of Chief Cook and Bottle Washer?


Did I still try to please a traveling husband when he came home?

That, too.

Did I succeed?

It takes two for a marriage to work, and two for it to end. But when divorce came, I would’ve been sunk without the conviction that I could manage, and the reality of having kept a foothold in the work-for-pay world. And doing it all really was doing it all.

Superwoman is a Comic Character

Granted, the past years of a rotten economy have dealt a nasty blow to this household, like millions of others. Money stress worsens everything. Help is unaffordable. Statistically, women earn less than men. With or without double duty (working at home in the parenting role and working for pay in some other), doing it all is a virtual impossibility.

Or at least – expecting to do it all well – and isn’t that the problem?

We slog through. Much of our day is mechanical, much is hazy, much is the stuff of getting by. Much of the same can be said of motherhood, period.

May I remind you that Superwoman is a comic character?

Single Father Formula?

So what about the single fathers out there? Those with primary custody who are also carrying a significant load?

I suggest there is likely a woman in the picture – if not a romantic partner, family or friends who pitch in. I wonder if they even think about having it all. Or are they plowing ahead doing everything they can, and not castigating themselves because it doesn’t seem like enough? Is there a lesson (for the women) in that?

And I must say, I admire this when I encounter it – fathers raising their children – in part because there is less angst and less self-deprecation. Yet  might that be because their bodies don’t age like a woman’s, their sexual marketability will not end at 40 or 45, and they’re still making time for the occasional beer with the buds or night out on the town – and sans guilt?

Is a man “doing it all” really doing it all? Or is his view of doing it all different?

And do the men who parent more actively quibble and compete over who is doing what, not to mention who is the better sort of father?

Doing it Together, Doing it Differently

For me, it was never about “having it all.” Certainly not consciously. It was about doing the best I could, with whatever came my way.

Wouldn’t it be lovely if we considered alternatives to carrying the onus of “having it all” or even “doing it all” – as women? What if we accepted that conflict was inevitable, and “doing it together” makes more sense? You know. Individuals interchanging roles as they see fit, without labeling, mythologizing, aggrandizing, or diminishing the value and effort in any of it.

And without grading ourselves or our performance, to some imaginary and unachievable standard.