I want it all….I want it all….
Forgive me. I am about to be quite sexist and centre this question on women. Only for the reason it is from this angle I have experience and because women are mostly where the question has been parried. There are also endocrinological (hormones) and psychological differences between men and women that skew the direction of discourse. But I am well aware, ‘can I have it all’ is relevant to men the world over too….before my other half rolls his eyes….
The question of having it all has been bandied around in the media for as long as I can remember. I see it arise in girlfriend banter and in women’s networks where the wrangling can be quite heated and is generally framed as ‘work-life balance’. But what do we mean by ‘having it all’? It’s underpinning are the tenets of perfectionism and recognition. Implicitly it is understood that at any point in time, we want to partake in all of the various elements of our life to the most, to the best of our ability and reap just rewards for doing so. Whether it is our career, family, friends, life, our children. By juggling competing priorities, demands on our time — never letting spinning plates fall we are infallible, a credit to all, a vision to be admired and happy….aren’t we?
But from where has this notion emerged? Why do many of us pander to this angst and normalise?
One cause for this behaviour is a deep-rooted cultural assumption about the position of a woman and man in and outside of the home. Societies have in the past (and it is still true of today to varying degrees across the world), designated tasks or jobs on the basis of biological sex. Although these assignments do vary dependent on where you look, broadly, women have tended to have taken on the less physical tasks — foraging, cooking for example and shouldered the expectation of being key carer for children. Men have generally undertaken hunting, fighting and eventually bread winning.
Fast forward and consider how technological innovation and raised life expectancy has helped to erode this separation of tasks and in fact made for a blurring of traditional roles. From power steering to bottled milk to modern food production to automation. Coalesced with changing attitudes around relationships and a woman’s capability, education we have fabricated a melting pot of adjustment. But here’s the thing. We can’t quite seem to depart from our anthropological tendencies. Debora Spar is author of a book ‘Wonder Women: Sex, Power, and the Quest for Perfection’. She says ‘We’ve had centuries of expectations of women’s roles, and they’re all around child-rearing, home-keeping and husband maintenance. We added to those expectations the opportunities for women to enter the workforce, but we never really, societally, rejiggered what women were supposed to do at home’. This is where in a world of increased possibilities, women continue to take on those invisible chores or as Gemma Hartley a US journalist coined it, ‘emotional labour without re-dressing the balance’.
Ironically according to an article in the Harvard Business Review — the feminist movement pushed for equality by ‘cloning the male competitive model’ but didn’t shift nearly as much it needed to the expectations around how we live our lives. And why not? Anne Marie Slaughter an American lawyer who famously stepped away (only partially if truth be told) from a high pressure career penned these words. ‘Women of my generation have clung to the feminist credo we were raised with, even as our ranks have been steadily thinned by unresolvable tensions between family and career, because we are determined not to drop the flag for the next generation’.
However we think of advancement, since childhood we are all bombarded with subliminal viewpoints which help create our mental models. We talk about ‘working mother’ but do not say ‘working father’; we say women are ‘naturally’ meant to be more attuned to our emotions; more organised; more nurturing. Better at managing the household or planning childcare. I’ve seen it from my upbringing which in addition to excelling in my studies, added traditional suppositions — learn to cook, marry a successful man, have beautiful sprogs. I don’t criticise my parents for this — it was how they were instructed too. Luckily I have an enlightened husband! But If we are not all these things, are we less ‘woman’ than the next? I’m embarrassed to admit if a woman announces she doesn’t know how to cook I think how strange — but laugh at the same from a man. Perhaps the next generation won’t perpetuate these expectations but I know I am not free of them.
But I don’t think this attitude can be fully placed at the feet of cultural norms. I watched a tv series called ‘I am…’. One episode presented a fictionalised account of a lady called Victoria. She is a woman who wants it all and wants everyone to know she can do it all. The high powered career, luxury house and flawless family. But the concealed quite sinister declaration was I can have and manage everything I turn my mind to faultlessly. I’m better than your average person. Look at me.
I found the episode uncomfortable watching because I could be Victoria. Dr Grange a sports psychologist in a podcast with Brene Brown, a Texan researcher calls this being ‘performative’. ‘You pay too much mental rent to be a performer at all times. Whether you’re at the school gates picking up your kid, worrying about what the other parents might think if you’re 10 minutes late, or whether you’re walking out on stage to give a huge presentation or you’re about to swim a 100-meter race in an Olympics, it’s the same stuff. It’s the same, How am I showing up as a performer?’
A friend of mine put it to me the other day, people like the two of us have a chip on our shoulder from some past life event; unseen trauma or an outcome based upbringing. This is the reason we constantly strive and want to have it all. Failure to achieve and maintain this nirvana state of balance and perfection is not an option. I thought it was an interesting take. That perhaps my behaviour did not come from a position of strength — but damage. Brene Brown, in her research on shame, defines shame for women as: a self-held expectation that we need to do it all and do it all well. Brown explains when we don’t do it all, we believe we have failed, and then shame swallows us into the abyss of unworthiness. This is what keeps us ‘performative’.
So perhaps we are living a myth and having it all really means as Glamour magazine put it ‘doing it all’. Perhaps it isn’t really that healthy a goal and we need to re-frame the idea of perfection and accept having it all is really about timing, trade offs and hard decisions. Madeleine Albright (a former US Secretary of State) had an interesting answer to my question. ‘I do think women can have it all, but not all at the same time. Our life comes in segments, and we have to understand that we can have it all if we’re not trying to do it all at once’.
What do you think?