Why Nobody Can Win the Having-It-All Race

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As a Harvard student, the author collapsed on a street corner with a bleeding ulcer. Here's what she's learned after years of second-guessing her self worth.

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Facebook Status Update, April 18, 2012 at 7:47am via Mobile: Just went through airport security line next to Madeleine Albright. Exchanged pleasantries. Still swooning.
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I read Madeleine Albright's autobiography when I was on maternity leave from my job as a law firm associate in 2005. I was accustomed to being valued for my brain, but lately other body parts had taken precedence: I had just delivered a 10-pound baby, and lactating made me feel uncannily like a dairy cow. I was struck by a line from Albright's preface: "I have often said that women's lives come in segments, dictated in part by biology." You can do it all, just not all at once, I reassured myself. To a compulsive planner, it felt like a welcome validation.

But even for those of us who have been lucky enough to attain some of the most coveted hallmarks of external achievement, these hallmarks don't guarantee happiness, and they shouldn't be the sole measure of "success." We are among the world's educational and socioeconomic elite, but the question of how to live a meaningful and rewarding life remains vivid for us, as illustrated by the outpouring of responses to Anne-Marie Slaughter's current Atlantic cover story. All of our stories are still being written. Here is a small part of mine.

* * *

When I was growing up, both of my parents tried to be role models for combining work and child-rearing. With joint custody of my younger brother and me, they each played the role of single parent in alternating years, as we moved back and forth between their homes in the U.S. and Canada. Despite switching between different countries and different school systems, I managed to earn top marks. The positive reinforcement I got for my academic prowess seemed more predictable, and more within my control, than other aspects of my life at the time.

I started Harvard at age 16. I could have graduated in three years with my AP credits, but fortunately I realized it wasn't a race to cross the finish line first. With my parents' support, I chose to spend my junior year taking classes and doing an internship in Paris. I performed with a community dance group, and I remember the choreographer telling me, "Il faut trouver ton déséquilibre. You need to find your disequilibrium." I needed to learn to let go. It was some of the best advice I've ever received, even though I'm still bad at following it.

When the year was almost over, I passed out on a Paris street corner. Luckily, I had the good sense to do this across from a medical clinic, and a friend literally carried me across the street. I had 3.8 grams of hemoglobin in my system (the average for women is 12-15.5 grams). After multiple tests, I was diagnosed with a type of bleeding ulcer named after a Parisian doctor, and I had surgery on Bastille Day.

The ulcer probably had more to do with a genetic fluke than with stress, but it seemed symbolic nonetheless. I wasn't trying to have it all, but I was certainly trying to do it all, driven at least in part by my desire for external approval. I am now the mother of a child who has inherited his parents' competitive genes, and I struggle with how to encourage him to achieve his personal best without letting his drive become all-consuming.

At the end of my senior year of college, I was distraught when, after giving some weak and somewhat contentious responses to questions from a famous professor during my final oral exam, I graduated from Harvard magna cum laude instead of summa cum laude. I berated myself for my oral exam performance and was preoccupied with its results -- even though I had written a prize-winning senior thesis, earned straight A's each year, and been admitted to Yale Law School. I had also been fortunate to win a Rhodes Scholarship to study at Oxford for a two-year master's program. (While at Oxford, I met Anne-Marie Slaughter during a conference in 1998; I literally chased her down to ask for her input on whether I should enroll for a third year to work towards my doctorate in international relations. She was generous with her advice then, as she is now.)

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Chimène Keitner

Chimène Keitner is a professor at the University of California Hastings College of the Law and the mother of two children.

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