The Problem with Having It All

This is the first of a series of reflections I’m writing based on Ann Marie Slaughter’s Atlantic Monthly story Why Women Still Can’t Have It All

When I was a kid, I read a Parade magazine interview with either Barbara Walters or Margaret Thatcher—can’t remember which one just that she was an older White woman with big hair—who said something like, “You can either have a great marriage and a great relationship with your kids, or a great marriage and a great career, or a great career and a great relationship with your kids, but you can’t have all 3.”

Really?  I thought.  Bummer.

Because even as a kid, I wanted it all—marriage, family, career—and it just seemed wrong that there was no way to be great in all 3 at the same time.

Dr. Ann Marie Slaughter has purposefully re-ignited this debate in her Atlantic Monthly cover story Why Women Still Can’t Have It All, and she has succeeded.  It’s a long article, but worth reading.

There have been a slew of thoughtful (and sometimes rabid responses) to her article, ones I especially appreciated include:

These responses point out how men have never “had it all,” that it’s impossible to “have it all,” and that the standards of “having it all” are questionable in the first place (do we really want our leaders working 100 hour weeks, neglecting their kids, and passing that those values to the larger culture?).

I can get all twisted inside in this debate because inevitably I start thinking what Barbara Walters or Margaret Thatcher so presciently said those years ago, “I’m failing at all 3—wife, motherhood and career.” I’m so far from greatness in all arenas.

Yet on a spiritual level, it’s intrinsically bankrupt to hunger and thirst to “have it all” and “be great” precisely because they’re the wrong goals and the wrong methods.

Instead of “having it all,” God wants us to “get a life.”   Even better, God wants to give life to us.  We just have to follow.

There’s nothing wrong with marriage, kids or work.  Nor is there anything wrong with wanting to be great.  But God’s paradox is that as we lose our lives, we’ll save them, and the road to greatness involves being the servant of all.

Maggie (or Barbara) may have said I’ll never achieve greatness as a mom, wife and worker as I try to do them all at the same time, but perhaps as I give up on grasping for greatness and focus on serving and receiving, I’ll get the better deal.

You might also enjoy some of my other thoughts on gender and/or work:

Annie, Shoot your Gun Already!

Toilet Paper Distribution, or how Equality and Justice aren’t the Same Thing

Boy Parts vs. Girl Parts–More on Gender and Justice

3 Reasons I Work for Money

My Theology of Parenting or Why I Gave Up Being God

  • Serena

    Hey! Good article (yours and Ms Slaughter’s). I’ve been frustrated with the tone of responses to it tho, especially the comeback that she’s just an over-privileged rich white woman who doesn’t understand the struggles of many. I think she was simply trying to address the widespread feminist assumption from last century that women should expect to participate in a career as fully as men. (I don’t think she was suggesting that that career would necessarily be elite). And she’s right, that day has largely not arrived, and may never. From my read, she wants to talk about structural obstacles, and the emotional obstacle inside women. Both great points. But everyone seems to want to critique her for expecting too much. Well, I dunno, it’s what we were all told. And while few men probably “have it all”, many more of them seem to be able to manage a level of success in all 3 areas. Her suggestions around greater workplace flexibility are certainly relevant — and school hours that coordinate with work hours, and quality available childcare. I remember reading once that the Right wants personal/moral solutions to policy problems, the Left wants structural solutions to policy problems, and the answer usually lies in the middle. We may have exhausted the personal/moral solutions to this particular issue (ie women trying their hardest to make it work), and it may be time to pay more attention to the structural issues! (I’m writing this while feeding a baby with one hand…:-))

    • Kathy Tuan-Maclean

      Serena, thanks for synthesizing Slaughter’s foci on structural and emotional obstacles. As always, brilliant analysis! And blessings on you while you do (and write) excellent things while feeding a baby!

  • Andrea Ferrell

    Makes me think of MLK Jr’s ““Not everybody can be famous but everybody can be great because greatness is determined by service…”


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