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You Can’t Have It All

One of the most common phrases I hear from well-intentioned working moms trying to empower other working moms is “You can have it all.” While this phrase is supposed to be encouraging, making women feel like they can be great moms, wives, friends, employees, etc., all at the same time, I feel like it can do more harm than good. Let me explain.

First of all, I do think it is possible to have a great career, a great marriage, and a good amount of time with your kids—if you can afford a good childcare situation. So many of the women selling the “You can have it all” message have nannies, which might diminish their working mom guilt by enabling them to be productive at work (whether that work is at home or in an office) while also checking in with their kids whenever they want/need. For instance, having a nanny can make it easier on breastfeeding moms who work at home to step away from their desk, feed their baby quickly, pass the baby back to the nanny, and continue working. But there is an extreme amount of privilege in this work-life arrangement, as nannies and other forms of in-home childcare are incredibly expensive.

The second reason I feel that the message of “You can have it all” is problematic is because it can encourage women to overextend themselves in their attempts to be “successful” at these various identities: mom, wife, worker, yogi—you name it. As Jim Stovall writes, “Time, energy, and money are all finite resources…. You can pick two out of three, but you can’t have them all.”

Time is arguably the most precious resource, especially as a mom. Children grow up really fast, and there’s only so much time in a day that we have available to spend with them. No matter how much money we have, we cannot tack on an extra hour to the day. (Wouldn’t that be nice, though?) But because there is a finite number of hours in the day, we have to make a conscious decision about how to use our time.

If you are working 8 hours a day (add in, say, 40 minutes for a commute—1 hour after doing school/daycare drop-off and pickup), and going to yoga 1 hour a day (add in perhaps 30 minutes for drive time and 30 minutes for showering), and making homemade meals (~1.5 hours), and getting the recommended minimum of 7 hours of sleep per night, that leaves only 4.5 hours in the day, most of which will be occupied by chores (packing lunches, doing dishes, etc.), errands, and other small tasks. Many women I know (including myself) are trying to run themselves ragged making homemade baby food and nutritious homemade meals; being rockstar employees, good friends, involved citizens, and present partners; exercising; and crafting a put-together public persona. But at the end of the day, we find ourselves stressed out from frenetically shifting between these different identities and tasks, not able to give enough time to each one to feel (notice I didn't write be) “successful” at any one of them.

That is why I think it’s time that we STOP. Stop trying to be everything at once. Stop trying to make women feel like we should be able to be successful at negotiating all the different roles that we, as moms, simultaneously occupy. It creates so much unnecessary pressure, not to mention perpetuates an unhealthy and unrealistic attitude that in many ways is sexist: it is part and parcel of the attitude that women should be able to handle everything, including all the invisible labor we perform, while looking polished and relaxed doing it. Think those picture-perfect multi-tasking housewives of mid-century advertising are no more? Think again. They are just wearing athleisure now and have been overloaded with even more tasks and expectations.

At the end of his article, Stovall writes: “As you go through your day today, realize that you can’t have it all, so get what matters most to you.” There is privilege in this statement, as some women have no choice but to work multiple jobs to provide for their families. But for those of us who have some measure of control over our work-life arrangement, we need to work on more effectively prioritizing, realizing that (1) we can’t have all of everything, (2) having some of everything is probably going to stress us out, and (3) living with that kind of stress and pressure is not going to make for a happy mom or a healthy home environment.

What are your thoughts on moms “having it all”? How does the statement “You can have it all” make you feel? Share in the comments below!


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