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Learning How to Have It All Without “Having It All at the Same Time” As a Woman

Learning How to Have It All Without “Having It All at the Same Time” As a Woman

| Center for Modern Therapy |

“I only have two hands.”

It’s a favorite sentence of many mothers, often said as a playful lament to the little ones who want Mom to help them find that misplaced toy or prepare a favorite snack while she’s doing laundry or tidying up the living room. 

It’s not an excuse to get out of giving the children the love and attention they crave, nor is it a concession that she is unable to meet their demands. Rather, she’s simply letting them know that her hands are busy with something else at the moment. Once they are free, she can help sort through cluttered toy boxes and serve apple slices and cheese sticks on those cherished colorful plates.

Mom can’t give everything her all at one time—the kids, the house, the dirty clothes—but she can attend to each one separately.

What’s more, she tends to be so forgiving of the hectic world around her and its ceaseless demands. When it comes to herself, though, she frets over everything she has yet to accomplish: the coveted promotion at work, the bare photo album set aside for the trek around the world, the love life smoldering with undying passion.

Truthfully, this unnamed mother is not alone. Like her, many women find it hard to let go of a certain well-meaning platitude that they’ve heard muttered about in reverence ever since they’d been invited to womanhood: the ambition of having it all.

This phrase first emerged in the 1980s and is credited to long-standing Cosmopolitan editor Helen Gurley Brown. Her now infamous self-help book boasts the phrase in its lengthy title: Having It All: Love, Success, Sex, Money, Even If You’re Starting With Nothing.

Ever since, women have chased those three words with fervor. While it is an admirable sentiment, it fails to take into account a few key things. In this article, I will dissect the idea of having it all more critically and offer some tips for approaching it with practicality in mind:

All: A Word That’s Black and White With No Grey

For one, having it all implies that things worth having—loving children, a doting partner, a safe home, a fulfilling career—retain their prestige only if they occur simultaneously, that it’s the juggling performance worthy of praise rather than a single achievement itself. Perhaps the prestige also lies in the word all: a compact but powerful word that seems to grant omnipotence and invincibility to she who wields it. 

Even if some don’t feel as though they have it all, many women have certainly been giving their all. At the end of 2020, one study revealed that women occupied more than half of all American jobs. A closer look at these numbers revealed some bleaker stats. For one, some of the most common jobs within the service industry are held overwhelmingly by women. These jobs also tend to be some of the lowest paying.

What’s more, women on average work part-time more than their male counterparts. The reason for this is self-explanatory: part-time work tends to be considerably more flexible. Flexibility is a must for most women with children. Daycare, after all, is expensive and can eat up as much as 10% of a family’s entire income.

For many women, this is a suitable arrangement. It makes sense for them and their families. All this is to say: sometimes all is not a whole at all but instead many fragments, and that is okay. All can be dissected into many.

One Woman’s Nothing, Another Woman’s All

In a compelling article published in The Muse,  HR executive Angela Smith analyzes an article published by Anne-Marie Slaughter in The Atlantic, entitled “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All.” One point that Smith emphasizes is Slaughter’s idea of all. Slaughter’s metrics for measuring her own achievements are quite lofty. They include not only thriving in her career as a prominent government worker but also teaching heavy course loads, writing columns, making lengthy appearances on TV and radio, AND caring for teenagers.

There is of course nothing wrong with these ambitions, and Smith acknowledges that. The problem arises when women assume that this version of all is the only admirable or valid one. For some women, all is managing to get to work every day, feed the kids something that passes as a nutritious dinner, and then get to bed at a decent time. Others may struggle with chronic health problems and as such see feeling okay in their own bodies and getting out of bed at all as an incredible feat. 

Bottom line: all of these criteria for all are highly personalized to meet each woman’s individualized needs. 

Embracing the Non-Linear Life

Sometimes, we want so badly for life to follow that well-worn script we’ve seen played out over and over: you start out a wide-eyed, eager child, shed your innocence and adopt many weighty ambitions, and then go through the motions that people expect accomplished adults to endure. Higher education, marriage, children, a meaningful career, a project into which you pour all of your passion and spare energy on the weekend. The all–it’s awaiting you on a gleaming pedestal. All you have to do is snatch it.

When you actually get there, though, you realize life doesn’t follow such a linear path after all. Parents grow older and require regular care. You fall in and out of love. You hold tight to one passion, only to realize later on that you should actually be chasing something completely different.

When we are told that we can have it all, we assume that that means that we have to have it all right now. Putting things off simply isn’t seen as an option; instead, we see it as some sign of inadequacy. Perhaps we should adjust our expectations: we aren’t putting anything off. We are simply putting things down so that we can keep our hands busy on something else. That simple change in language implies a sense of control, and we shouldn’t deny ourselves that. 

So when you feel pressured to take on that extra project at work, pick up a new hobby just because, or field countless prying questions from well-meaning family and friends, don’t be ashamed to tell them plainly: “I only have two hands—and one life.”
Seeking more guidance? Feel free to reach out to us at the Center for Modern Therapy today.