The Myth of Having It All

Posted on Jul 25, 2012

As I spend time in my office with clients, I am invited behind the curtains of their lives. During sessions, the concept of “having it all” is rarely far from the surface. It is reflected in the constant presence of commentary on life balance in the mainstream media. The most recent cover story of The Atlantic is a perspective by Anne-Marie Slaughter from her well-earned and distinguished place teaching in the Ivy League and serving on the world political stage. She bravely illustrates the myth of having it all, but the backlash to her sentiment lives in our American culture.

You don’t have it all? What?! You’re kidding. Everybody wants it all. Not some. Not most. All. As in, ALL all. That makes sense, right? To want it all. That’s what the cultural mainstream illustrates. That not only can we have it all, but we should want it all, especially women.

I still remember growing up in the 1980s seeing the commercials for a perfume called Enjoli, “the 8-hour perfume.” If you’re over thirtysomething, you may remember this one too. The sexily dressed woman, who apparently smelled awesome, dancing around to the lyrics, “I can bring home the bacon, fry it up in a pan and never let you forget you’re a man, because I’m a woman…”

So there she was, the woman who “had it all.” Enjoli Sister’s in control. She makes the money and cooks it too. She looks sexy. Her relationship is perfect. She has children and her husband cooks for them. Enjoli Sister is a “24-hour woman.” Yes indeed, that is what it takes: 24/7 to have it all and you’ll only have to reapply your Enjoli three times.

I’d like to have coffee with Enjoli Sister now to see how fulfilling her relationship is, to hear about what she did with the children while she was bringing home the bacon. I’d love to hear how she worked out who cleaned the house, did the laundry, grocery shopped and picked up the kiddos from school when she was at the office.

The Enjoli commercial hints at compromise with her partner on the domestic duties. Maybe her partner did the lion’s share. Maybe they worked out a system to split it up. Regardless, the image she portrays is it is all effortless.

Enjoli Sister made me think she had it all. She was the myth personified.

When I saw her, I didn’t see choices. I didn’t see challenges. I didn’t see frustration and angst. Enjoli Sister was having it all and it looked easy and fun. Knowing what I know now I realize she smelled like a counterfeit hundred dollar bill.

It is possible to skillfully strike compromise and constantly negotiate the balance, but that is work and takes effort. I don’t know how they worked it out to have her look so energized and saucy. But what I do know is, despite how she wants it to look, Enjoli Sister absolutely had to make choices and compromise.

As feminist as we want to be, the reality is no human being can have it all.  That’s like walking into a birthday party and demanding that you get to eat the whole cake and then all the ice cream too.

Truly have it all and you will suffer.

You can support people in the workplace with better family leave and equal pay while simultaneously recognizing that every person needs to arrive at their own unique balance. You can validate the choice of a parent to stay home while simultaneously advocating for a living wage for people who don’t have the same financial flexibility to make that choice. You can model the belief that prioritizing fun and passion can be an all-consuming career or one that just pays the bills or something in between.

Having it all is a myth…it really isn’t actually having it all. It is having what you choose to have.

The infinite numbers of ways people organize their lives are all valid options and all require discerning choice. Even the people who joyfully proclaim they have it all have to acknowledge that there was compromise along the way. And their having-it-all and your having-it-all can look totally different.

It is time to acknowledge that the myth of having it all is just that, a myth. It’s the Holy Grail or Xanadu. Having it all is orchestrating our own choices according to our priorities and what we truly want. Shying away from the challenges of compromise and negotiation and kidding ourselves that someday we’ll arrive in this mythical place just distracts us from living the journey and making wise, mindful choices.

The beautiful symphony of life exists in our mindful choices. When you hold down every key simultaneously, it just makes noise. It is in the discretion and timing of the composer that the masterpiece is created.