Can we really have it all?

March 22, 2013 by

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The other day, I got to attend a talk by Anne-Marie Slaughter, former Director of Policy Planning in the U.S. State Department (she worked for Hilary Clinton) and current Professor of Politics and International Studies at Princeton University. She chose to leave the State Department and go back to working at Princeton because her kids needed her and that was most important. At Princeton, she could largely set her own schedule and that was more compatible with family.

So, after her experience, she published this article, basically explaining why women can’t have it all. They can’t have a glorious career and have a family and do everything well and be happy and not have a nervous breakdown. They can’t do all this at once because our society doesn’t give them the support they need to be able to cope with it all.

Lots of women were pretty angry. They said that Slaughter is setting back the women’s cause by saying that women can’t do everything men can do. Women have fought for so long to be treated equally and now a woman is speaking out and saying it’s not true? Not to mention that it’s such a discouraging message to young women just starting out…

But I think Slaughter is right. It’s better to tell women the truth, tell them that it’s hard to have a career and a family and that they will probably have to choose at some point. It’s better to tell them that when it comes to childcare, women and men are not treated the same. Somehow, whether a future father will be able to handle a baby and a job is never a question. I vote for the truth, because, as hundreds of women have already expressed, I would have preferred to know how things really were. My choices would have been informed and I would have understood the choices that were available to me better. As it happened, I wasn’t expecting to have to make a choice at all and, in effect, like so many other women around me, felt like a failure because I didn’t manage to do both the career thing and the family thing, be everything to everyone.

Make no mistake, this is powerful societal guilt! A whole generation of women fought hard so that I can live like I live, so that I can do whatever I want. I can vote, I can work in any career I choose, I am not my husband’s property, etc. I am so much more than a mother and a wife. So what’s wrong with me? Why can’t I handle having it all?

I finally realize that the fault isn’t mine. It lies with the expectations society has of me, which influence what I expect from myself. It lies with how we have structured our world and how we are conditioned to look at it. And it can be conquered, changed.

Does this mean that we can’t have it all, ever? I agree with Slaughter, absolutely not. Her solutions are better family leave possibilities, better daycare, deep flexibility at work and changing the mindsets we widely hold.


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The family leave possibilities that we need are obvious. In Europe we have loads more choices than people in the States do, but the situation is far from perfect. It should be possible to have longer maternity leave , paternity leave should be normal, we need leave possibilities to cover school holidays and when kids get sick. And there can’t be any judgement attached to taking family leave. Slaughter says that “If family comes first, work does not come second” and this is so important. Men especially seem to get a lot of judgement of their ‘manliness’ when they ask for family leave.

The need for accessible, affordable, high quality daycare is obvious. Mommies and Daddies can’t go to work if there is no daycare.

Deep flexibility is a tough one – though, according to Slaughter, Americans are doing well in their attitudes towards it, it’s just their laws that need to catch up. Here in Europe, it’s just the opposite. We have pretty good laws, but we haven’t had a shift in our beliefs yet and as a society are relatively conservative. Allowing one in ten employees to work from home every Wednesday is not deep flexibility. Moving to a results-based working environment and  not keeping track of hours worked or time in the office, as long as high-quality work is produced, that’s what we need.

And our mindsets, all those years of conditioning, need to change. Equality isn’t just a women’s issue and it won’t happen as long as it remains a women’s issue. Women and men alike need to comfortable being both breadwinners and caregivers. As Slaughter points out, why do we only talk about ‘working mothers’, not ‘working fathers’? Why do so many women say that they don’t want a husband who stays at home? Why is the macho man image still so prevalent if so many of use are shouting out about equality? Why is it that women judge other women’s  choices more harshly than men do? Why are our corporations and institutions modeled on the parent/child relationship, where we have to ‘ask’ our ‘superiors’ for ‘permission’ to do things and where we are not trusted to just get the work done?


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I know that this isn’t true for everyone and I understand that there are jobs that don’t mesh with a flexible lifestyle. I also know people who don’t want flexibility because it blurs the line between work and private life and they don’t want that. But this ‘having it all’ thing is true for many of us and if we think about it and talk about it then maybe we can make the world better for us and for our kids. I fully expect to work flexibly for the rest of my life and to have the time I need to raise my son like I want to raise him. I’m hoping that believing in it will make it true. And I would love to think that my son will be free to spend as much time as he wants to or needs to with his family because he’ll be working in a system flexible enough to allow for that and living in a society that doesn’t judge him for his choices.

There is so much to say about this subject and I have pages and pages of notes from this talk, but have to make a selection of ideas. This post is long enough. But if you want to discuss any of these things – or any related issues – some more then let me know, maybe we can do that somehow. For me, the conversation Slaughter started is so very important, as it shows me and other women like me that we’re not alone and gives us hope that if we band together we can change things.

So, let’s change things, one conversation at a time.


  1. Uniflame

    I never understood how women do it in the first place. I made a choice not to be run be societies expectations. As long as I and those who are closest to me are happy with who I am and what I do, I don't really care about the rest.

    • Joanna @ CreateYourWorld

      That's a really good attitude. I'm getting there, though sometimes I'm still surprised at how deeply engrained society expectations are in me!

  2. Kim (Sophisticated Dorkiness)

    This is such a complicated and interesting question. I read Slaughter's article when it first came out, and I found myself agreeing with her. I don't have kids yet, but I know in my heart that if/when I do, the way I live now won't be compatible. I won't have the same flexibility to drop my personal life to do something for work (at least not initially with a small kid). I won't be able to keep up my same hobbies and still be a good parent. It's hard to accept that, since there is this idea that women should be able to have it all. But I don't know if you can... at least not at the same time, or if that's what's best for anyone. Good post, it gave me lots to think about!

    • Joanna @ CreateYourWorld

      I think you can keep hobbies and do a lot of the same stuff as long as there are structures set up to support you and your partner contributes equally. Both my husband and I kept our music activities and it works fine. The only problem there is seeing each other, that's a whole different discussion!

  3. another jennifer

    This is a question I struggle with at times. I feel like I have it all, being able to work for myself from home and send my kids to a wonderful daycare, but then I wonder how life would be different if women really did have true equality. We've come so far, yet we have so much further to go. So much to think about. So much to do!

    • Joanna @ CreateYourWorld

      Asking those 'what if' questions is a good start. What if we really were treated equally? What if we expected the same from both men and women in terms of responsibility for raising children? How would we act? What language would we use? I guess we wouldn't just talk about working mothers anymore...

  4. Sheila (Book Journey)

    Great post. I try so hard to balance career, family, friends, volunteer work, community, and working out and I find myself failing miserably and my head swimming with what I need to do next.

    • Joanna @ CreateYourWorld

      I know the feeling! I'm trying out some time management techniques, otherwise I tend to drive myself crazy... I guess the main thing is to let go of the guilt if you don't manage to do everything. When I manage to do that - and I don't always - things get better inside my head. Also, talking to friends helps. Just knowing that you're not the only crazy one is great!

  5. Trish

    I feel very conflicted about the work/family balance because on the other side of the token, I don't want to feel like I am going against the cause of women or feminism by choosing to be at home with my kids rather than seeking a high-powered career. I've heard women talk about how the gender differences between men and women are all societal, and I do agree with that to an extent, but I truly and honestly believe that deep down men and women are wired differently. Sure society exacerbates or perpetuates this, but for all of the love and care that my husband provides to my daughter (and many days I believe that HE is the better parent and steps up more often than I do/can), there is something about maternal instinct that I just don't feel is the same for fathers.

    Anyway, I would love a world in which we could have everything but I think it will always come down to prioritizing. Even if my work/mother balance was equal, where does that leave the spouse and personal balance? Can we have absolute work/mother/wife/self balance? I'm not convinced. I think it will always come down to a choice of some sort. I know. I do nothing for the feminist cause. 😉

    • Joanna @ CreateYourWorld

      I do think that there's something special about maternal instinct, but, as you say, that doesn't mean that mom and dad can't equally take care of the kids. As for balance, I think that if societal structures are there then we can be free to figure out a balance that works for each of us, so that we can fit in whatever we want to fit in. I don't balance is necessarily everything equally.
      Anyway, I think we're basically on the same page. :-)

  6. Nikki Steele

    Such a timely post with so much buzz going on about it right now. I recently heard a talk where the woman called for flexibility rather than balance, knowing that balance in itself with our many demands is unreal. There's also the Lean In book and movement that I've been paying attention to, just to see what ideas come out of it. It's definitely a sticky situation with no real right answers, rather a lot of different ones. Thanks much for adding your ideas in with this post.

    • Joanna @ CreateYourWorld

      Yes, I think that flexibility is a better concept to talk about and it's what rebuilding my life in the past months has been all about. I really think that as long as the structures are there and flexible solutions are made available to everyone, then we can each choose what works for us. Everyone has different needs. I'll look into the Lean In book, I haven't really paid attention to it.

  7. Lana Wimmer

    I felt like you really spoke truth in this message. I've secretly harbored guilt for years, feeling unsuccessful that I don't have the illustrious career and that I'm not contributing to our family income and yet I have four kids and we move every 2-3 years for my husband's job, so yeah, I've been a little busy (you could say) keeping us all stable. Still I feel that pressure. But lately I've started to rethink, not my choices, but how I feel about my choices. I've done the absolute best I could and made my kids number one. Now that my son is graduating from High School I can see my efforts have paid off, it's worth it. I can't have it all but you know what? I have the most important family!

    • Joanna Hennon

      That's exactly it Lana, we need to make the choices that are right for us and honor what we care about. It's not fair to any of us that we end up expecting ourselves to do everything. Making a choice is not weakness, it's just honoring our own truth. Thank you for stopping by! And congrats on your son's graduation, I'm sure it will be a beautiful milestone for your whole family!

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