Why Nobody Can Win the Having-It-All Race

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.

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.
A debate on career and family See full coverage

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.

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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.)

For those of us who might be described as "driven," what drives many of us is the desire to excel according to socially recognized criteria, such as graduating with highest honors or having the most prestigious job. These criteria, which can end up defining our sense of success and self-worth, are too often exclusively professionally focused and hierarchically defined. If "ambition" means seeking success along a single dimension, at the expense of other goals and values, it's no wonder that some members of today's educated elite (who have some degree of choice in the matter) seem to be disavowing the concept.

Instead of abandoning ambition, we should seek to redefine it. We need to engage in a renewed conversation about what it means to lead a successful life.

* * *

I sometimes lapse into glass-half-empty mode, bemoaning the professional opportunities I've foregone to nurture our family and live in Silicon Valley, the geographic center of my husband's hi-tech career. I've had two great jobs here (first in law practice, and now in teaching), and we're blessed with two amazing children. But being fully committed to both work and kids leaves room for little else -- too often, my health, my friendships, and my marriage get short shrift. The question for women and men of my generation might be less, "Why can't I do it all?" and more, "Am I living the kind of life I want to lead?" Which of course begs the question -- how do we each define that life?

Those of us who combine careers and parenting often feel that we're falling short in both.

It is natural to benchmark our progress against that of our peers, and it's no surprise that those of us who combine careers and parenting often feel that we're falling short in both: we compete in the workplace with people who focus almost exclusively on work, and we compare ourselves to parents (usually, but not always, mothers) who focus almost exclusively on their children.

We, in turn, tend to focus too much on what we haven't managed to do at the end of each day, rather than on what we have managed to do. It's the curse of being a perfectionist.

Maybe part of the problem is that we've been too narrow-minded in defining what it means to be successful. The selection criteria for the Rhodes Scholarships go beyond "outstanding intellect" and include "outstanding character, leadership, and commitment to service." The young scholars who attended Slaughter's talk at Rhodes House were there because they had already shown dedication to something beyond academic success. It should come as no surprise that they wanted to know how they could make the maximum possible contribution professionally and be dedicated caregivers as well.

I had previously resisted including my children on my resume out of a belief that it would risk objectifying them by turning them into another one of my "accomplishments," but I've come around to the view that normalizing family responsibilities as part of a successful professional life might be worth that risk. I hope that more of us with secure employment can be transparent about our "dual identities" as both professionals and caregivers. Unlike Superman, who had to hide the fact that he was also Clark Kent, we should take pride in our multiple roles and be valued for each of them.

* * *

I'll be commuting from San Francisco to Los Angeles for part of each week in the fall. It's a temporary arrangement while my husband and I figure out what comes next in our dual-career dance. As we muddle through, I need to remember that we don't live life in one dimension, and we shouldn't measure our success in one dimension either. As more and more icons "come out" about their struggles to excel professionally while being devoted caregivers, perhaps we can acknowledge more candidly that every choice has its costs and benefits, and that even "Super-people" muddle through on most days.