Having It All—and Hating It

Some women prioritize career. Others prioritize their kids. It's those who try to juggle both who often feel they aren’t succeeding at either.

Katie Martin / The Atlantic

This is the second story in a seven-part series looking at women’s ambitions in the years following college.

Nearly 35 years ago, Helen Gurley Brown published Having It All: Love, Success, Sex, Money, Even If You’re Starting With Nothing, a landmark bestseller in a pre-Oprah world about living your best life. In the ’80s, this was a go-girl message about putting on that power suit, and having great sex while doing it. Becoming a mother always complicated the equation: Picture Diane Keaton from 1987’s Baby Boom, a type-A management consultant in a smart suit awkwardly balancing an inherited toddler on her hip, as if to ask, “What do I do with this?”

Today, it’s perhaps even more complicated: Work can no longer be left at the office; parenting is competitive and all-encompassing (one study found that working mothers today spend six hours more per week on childcare than stay-at-home mothers in the 1970s); marriage is expected to be both financially and emotionally satisfying; social media beckons its users compare every element of their lives to everyone else’s in a very public space, and then feel inadequate about not filling their feeds with smiling, well-appointed children nibbling perfectly composed, locally-sourced dinners. Having it all, as unattainable as it may have always been, is beyond the realm of possibility.

Of the women we interviewed for this project, our Highest Achievers (women who are C-Suite-adjacent or recognized in their fields) have ascended to that level in part because they’re cool with not having it all: For them, being a physically present parent was not their number-one priority. Some don’t have kids, others have husbands who are the caregivers-in-chief, and others manage by outsourcing to nannies for carpools and making lunches. Instead, the women still chasing the having-it-all dream are the group we’re calling the Scale Backers—13 women who dialed down high-powered careers to simultaneously be full-time mothers and workers. And in the process of downsizing, they became, ironically, the most stressed-out of our subjects, attempting to do everything well, but feeling like they excelled at none of it.

One woman, formerly a partner in a prominent Washington, D.C., law firm, fled to a government job to spend more hours with her family. She now fundraises for her children’s school, participates in two book clubs, and is nevertheless still the primary earner for her family. Though her life is full, she misses the heady feeling she used to get from being in a power position in the legal arena. “For the first time since graduating from law school, I have a personal life, but it’s that holy grail of having a fulfilling career and a fulfilling personal life. I don’t know if it’s possible.”

A legal director of a women’s advocacy organization in Minneapolis has consciously not pursued professional promotion so that she can remain close to extended family, spend time with her children (for whom she rises at 5 a.m. to make lunches on homemade bread) and run trail marathons on weekends. While our Opt Out group has left the primary earning to their spouses, and our High Achievers have hired the help they need to run their lives, the Scale Backers insist on having one (super-flexed) leg in every realm—leaving many of them hobbling through their days.

Prior to having kids, all held jobs that afforded some level of satisfaction and achievement; after children, they also wanted to be physically “present” mothers. In order to manage this, they transitioned their jobs into more flexible arrangements. One corporate lawyer eschewed the partner track for an in-house counsel job with more forgiving hours; now she works from home two days a week. “I can pick up the kids and feel like I’m doing the mommy thing.”

The majority of these women have stayed in the same jobs for over a decade, in part to maintain the flexibility that employment loyalty can offer. A project director on an infectious disease study also hasn't sought promotion or a new position because yes, she enjoys the work, but also because she works from home—where she can take a break at 3 p.m. to have a snack with her kids, an hour she may repay either at 6 a.m. before the kids wake, or after 9 p.m. as they slumber. As her research project comes to its natural end, she seeks her next position, ideally one that isn't five full days in an office: “How can I find a job that gives me growth, but I’m not pushed over the edge by it?”

A January 2013 study by the American Sociological Association backed the idea that flexible work environments make for happier, healthier, more productive workers. But even our subjects with flexible or work-from-home jobs, while grateful for the arrangement, still seemed to operate from a baseline of frazzled. For our Scale Backers with kids, the days start early, end late, and are crammed full of both work and childrearing. Weekdays begin by readying the children for school (“lunches, lunches, lunches!” was one refrain); embarking on their own work day until the proverbial bell rings, signaling time to clock out and meet the children; shuttling kids to myriad after-school activities; getting home to start dinner, homework, and bedtime, and falling exhausted into bed themselves.

And what awaits them in bed is often their laptop, with unfinished to-dos. Arlie Russell Hochschild's “second shift” of housework paved the way for a third shift—one that often extends through 11 p.m., answering emails and signing permission slips for school while catching up on House of Cards. For some women this third shift starts the second they awaken (to “get a jumpstart on their workday”), and runs through evening. “At 10:30 at night, I’m still finishing kitchen work,” remarked a Kansas City middle-school teacher who pursued a career that would hew to her young children’s schedules. “I can’t get into bed until everything’s ready to go.” Another woman, a team athlete while at Northwestern and now a healthcare-industry sales rep, sets her alarm at 4:10 to work out in her home gym, something she doesn’t have time for in her workday, which starts at 7 a.m. and ends at 3, often bleeding into the afternoons. “I take my laptop to [my kids’] swim practice. [But] I get the work done! My performance is there and my numbers are the highest in the department.”

Having it all has always been exhausting, but our interviewees are attempting it not because they’re aspiring to be CEO, but under the illusion of work-life balance. Our interviewees aren’t alone—a 2015 Pew Research Center study found that 56 percent of working parents say that juggling careers and parenting is difficult, and 41 percent of the working mothers said that being a parent has made it difficult to advance professionally. Having it all today means answering emails from the playground, abruptly ending a conference call to deliver a forgotten lunch, and giving both work and your kids short shrift. Sighs the nonprofit lawyer, tired from fighting full-time for women’s rights while also racing to meet the school bus twice a week: “You aspire to be amazing in both realms, but you're really half-assed. I feel like I’m missing all these little moments, like a violin recital or whatever. But the reality is, no, I’m there for 95 percent of it.” She feels guilt about shortchanging both her kids and her work, and vows that when her kids are older, she’ll fully devote herself to her job to compensate for the flexibility she has now.

And yet, when asked what might make their lives easier, most of these subjects demurred, saying they wouldn’t change a thing. Every one of them described her life, complete with compromises and chaos, as a good life. Most seemed pleased at how their lives had turned out 25 years after college, despite sacrifices for both their career and their children. And many women admitted that part of what they liked about attempting to juggle it all is the sense of engineering their own destiny in every avenue. As the nonprofit lawyer put it: “I could ask [my husband] to make more of the doctors’ appointments, but I kind of want the control. I like getting the kids on the bus every day. I love the routine. The fact is, I call a lot of the shots.”

Read the next piece in this series here.