Why There's No Such Thing as 'Having It All'—and There Never Will Be

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Women can't have everything they want all of the time. Neither can men. Who ever thought otherwise?

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MANDY GODBEHEAR/Shutterstock

I may get Slaughtered (pun intended) for this post, but somebody has to state two basic facts:

(1) Nobody, male or female, married or single, young or old, tall or short, educated or not, pretty or plain, wealthy or poor, with kids or without, can have it all -- neither in the very narrow way Slaughter defines "it," nor in the broader context of life.

(2) Recognizing this makes people happier! In fact, the people who accept this don't lie awake at night wondering why they've been handed the keys to the palace but the gilded moldings just aren't sparkly enough.

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How does a smart woman like Slaughter still believe in the childlike notion that people (of either gender) can have whatever they want whenever they want it, regardless of life's intrinsic constraints? Imagine if this article had been written by a kindergartner:

"But I want to go to my gymnastics class and I want to go Rosie's birthday party and they're both on Saturday morning!" rails the 5-year-old journalist. "Why can't girls have it all? This is so unfair! Somebody has to make it possible for socially ambitious girls like me to be at gymnastics and Rosie's party! The solution is to accommodate me by moving Rosie's party or the time of my gymnastics class. I want justice, because no girl should ever have to feel trapped like this!"

Well, any reasonable adult would explain that the world does not revolve around one particular person; that the child can't be two places at the same time; that she must choose one activity or the other; and that, in so choosing, she gains one opportunity but forfeits another.

This isn't because the child is a girl. This isn't a feminist issue. This is Life 101, something all people learn as kids -- until they grow up to be a high-level government official who has to choose between one six-figure job near her kids and one far away, and can't accept life's inherent limitations.

Everybody makes choices, and every choice has a cost. Don't blame others for those consequences.

Like a kindergartner, Slaughter seems to think that she -- and women in general -- should somehow be exempt from universal realities that have nothing to do with gender inequality and everything to do with the fact that you can't defy the laws of physics. Forget biological clocks. Time and space do not magically expand because you'd like to be two places at once or do more things than can fit into a 24-hour period or even a life span. Somebody might want -- and have the talent -- to be an Olympic gymnast, a Nobel-winning mathematician, and a professional ballerina, but there are age and health and time limitations involved. There isn't a policy in the world that could change the fact that if you choose to be in Washington five days a week , you can't also be at home tucking in your children and dealing with their issues back in Princeton.

Did Slaughter, despite her intelligence, somehow imagine that she could be an involved, engaged parent while living in another city for two years? Did her inability to anticipate the fact that she might miss her children and they might miss her make this the fault of feminism, or just a case of not completely thinking through one's decision? Where is her responsibility in this, and what does this have to do with inequality?

Life involves dozens of choices on a daily basis. Some are big and some are about which toilet paper to buy -- less soft and more economical is a trade-off for plush and expensive. The secret to happiness? Pick one, and don't complain that it's too rough or expensive. If you don't like your choice, it's a free country, and you can change course -- as Slaughter did when she decided to come home to Princeton and turn down the very generous option her bosses offered of working only four days a week in Washington. (How many middle-class women get those kinds of accommodations? How many men do?)

Rather than accept the very basic childhood lesson that choosing one option might impact the feasibility of another, Slaughter blames the government, men, society, feminism, cultural attitudes, the workplace and other externals. If you choose Harvard because you like Cambridge better than New Haven, you have to give up Yale and your love of its drama department. If you order the salmon entrée at your favorite restaurant, you have to forgo ordering the steak entrée that night. If you choose to have kids, you have to give up a certain amount of your freedom for the next 18 years. Not just career freedom, but marital, economic and social freedom as well. Order up what you want -- Harvard, the wild salmon, the kids -- but know that there's no such option out there called "having it both ways."

IT'S JUST AS TRUE FOR MEN

It's interesting that men -- who, as Hanna Rosin writes in her forthcoming book, The End of Men, nowadays have far fewer choices than women -- don't seem to ruminate over life's inherent limitations in the same way. Would a man be taken seriously if he wrote a 15,000-word article stating that he's entitled to both marriage and the freedom to have sex with any woman he wants? Or would he be told to grow up and get real? In today's society, he can choose marriage and the compromises that come with it -- sexual commitment, financial commitment, emotional commitment, along with a bevy of childcare and Mr. Fix-It commitments -- or he can choose to remain single and maintain his freedom but give up the joy that marriage and raising kids might bring him. He might dearly desire both situations, but he can only have one.

Men know that you can't be the married guy and the single guy at the same time. Slaughter, on the other hand, wants to be in a high-powered job and also at home making pancakes and doing school pick-up in another city. And merely because she wants this so badly (gymnastics or Rosie's party: I want both!), she believes she deserves it. Why? If her job requires her to be present with colleagues and she wants more time with her kids, she could simply consult from home, make a lot of money, and still influence policy, rather than take an in-house position.

Voila! 15,000-word dilemma solved.

If her greatest passion were to be an astronaut, would she ask to work from home, too? Or would she say, "I'm not willing to be in space for months on end, so I'll take a scientist position on Earth instead"? If she wanted to be a surgeon, would she also ask to work from home -- have the hospital set up an operating room in her guest house to accommodate her desire to see her kids? No, she would either choose to be a surgeon and work those hours at the cost of seeing her family less, or she would pick a medical specialty like dermatology or radiology that allows the stability and flexibility she seeks. (Many female physicians choose these fields specifically because they afford decent and predictable hours.)

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Lori Gottlieb is the author of Marry Him: The Case for Settling for Mr. Good Enough.

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