Who gets to “have it all”? And do they, really?

Diane Keaton shows a toddler flash cards in Baby Boom. imdb

Within the first five minutes of the 1987 movie Baby Boomabout female advertising executive J.C. Wiatt — a partner at the firm, Fritz, delivers this piece of advice after telling J.C. he wants her to be a partner:

You know that normally I don’t think of you as a woman. But in this case, I do have to look at you as a woman-slash-partner. What if you and Steven decide to get married somewhere down the line? What if he expects a wife? Do you understand the sacrifices you’re going to have to make? I mean, a man can be a success and still have a personal life. A full personal life. My wife is there for me whenever I need her. I mean, she raises the kid, she…eh…decorates, she…(laughs)…I don’t know what the hell she does. But she takes care of things. I guess what I’m saying is, I’m lucky. I can have it all.

J.C. tells him not to worry, says she doesn’t want it all.

If you’ve seen the movie, you know that J.C. soon inherits a baby, falls in love with the baby, adopts the baby, and decides being a mother and working reasonable hours in Vermont (at a baby food company she created out of boredom, no less) is more important than working 70–80 hours in New York City.

At one point during the movie, when she’s still with the firm and trying very hard (and failing) to meet her work demands, Fritz gets frustrated when J.C. argues that she should be kept on a major account, and he flips the speech he gave earlier:

I told you, you can’t have it all. Nobody can. Not me, not anybody. Look, I don’t even know how many grandchildren I have, okay?

Despite that common-sense truth uttered over 25 years ago, this having-it-all business remained a hot topic well into 2012, when Ann-Marie Slaughter wrote an article for The Atlantic titled Why Women Still Can’t Have it All. In it, she admits that working as the first woman director of policy planning at the State Department was just too demanding of her time. She was a mother. She missed her son. She couldn’t stop thinking about all the things she was missing in his life. So, she quit.

This quitting, to her, meant she was no longer currently having-it-all.

The having-it-all discussion came up again with Facebook executive Sheryl Sandberg’s book Lean In, a discussion of female leadership in the workplace, and again in early 2020 in a Hollins Magazine article titled, Can Women Have It All?

Again, we were asking ourselves, “Can we have it all?”

We have to stop asking.

No one, as wise old Fritz says, can have it ALL (typically defined as being a full time worker, full time parent, effective spouse, and full time social butterfly — and doing it all very gracefully and effortlessly).

What’s more, it’s greedy, unrealistic, and obnoxious to expect that it can “all” be had.

We all have to get over ourselves.

I don’t know if it’s a uniquely American thing to feel entitled to have everything, but we’re exceedingly good at demanding it.

We see two options and weigh the pros and cons. We choose the option we deem better for us.

Five minutes later, we’re miffed that the option we chose doesn’t also include the stuff from the option we didn’t choose, and we complain. We should be able to have both.

Why? Because we want it. We don’t want to have to choose. Choosing means giving something up. (Even if it’s something we never had to begin with. If we can’t have it, we’re somehow “giving it up” by not acquiring or possessing it.)

But what if we eliminate “having it all” from our vocabulary? What if we remove some of the pressure, strip away the “I WILL HAVE EVERYTHING” entitlement and be more realistic? What if instead of “having it all” we say “finding personal fulfillment”?

What made Slaughter happy at the time was to work less and spend more time with her kid. What made her happy later was to spend less time with her kid and go back to working extra hours (she returned to Washington). In both cases, she was doing what was important to her, what would satisfy her.

“Having it all” is too connotative, too weighty. We all know that in the world of women it means “having a successful career while being a super-mom to a family.” Which is why when successful women are discovered to not have children, the automatic assumption is, “Oh, she couldn’t handle having it all. She had to sacrifice having children for her career.”

Or, conversely, if a woman who does have children chooses to take care of them more hours than she works outside the home, the assumption is that she “sacrificed” her career for her children (ah, the cross a good woman must bear…tsk).

Slaughter experienced this when she first left Washington, as she writes in her Atlantic article:

I routinely got reactions from other women my age or older that ranged from disappointed (“It’s such a pity that you had to leave Washington”) to condescending (“I wouldn’t generalize from your experience. I’ve never had to compromise, and my kids turned out great”). The first set of reactions, with the underlying assumption that my choice was somehow sad or unfortunate, was irksome enough. But it was the second set of reactions — those implying that my parenting and/or my commitment to my profession were somehow substandard — that triggered a blind fury.

It isn’t women’s liberation, the desire to work, or feminism that has put undue pressure on women; it’s the expectation we — men and women both — have that we can, must, and will have all of everything.

If you want to work full time and parent full time, you have issues understanding the limitations of time, energy, and matter.

No one can have everything.

But if we all just do what makes us truly happy while recognizing that we’re not little princes and princesses whose every demand will be met, we can have something much more important.

Kristen Tsetsi is the author of the novels THE AGE OF THE CHILD and PRETTY MUCH TRUE

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Kristen Tsetsi

Kristen Tsetsi

Author of the post-Roe v. Wade novel THE AGE OF THE CHILD. “Read it. Make your friends read it.” — Haley Boehning