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Is ‘Having it all’ just a myth?

Last summer, Anne-Marie Slaughter rattled psyches with a manifesto in The Atlantic that described how the American workplace is inhospitable to high-powered working mothers. It was titled “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All,” and it struck a chord because it contained the ultimate spoiler alert: You can be a careerist, or you can be a present parent, but the world isn’t designed to accommodate both.

Implicit in the headline is the suggestion that even though women don’t have it all yet, well, we deserve to. This week, The Atlantic followed up with a story noting which male demographic “has it all.” (Shocker: It’s men with stay-at-home wives.)

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But who told us that we deserved to “have it all” in the first place — especially if the pursuit is so polarizing? Blame it on our elders: Slaughter plucked a nerve for women raised by a generation who rightfully wanted their daughters to have more career options than they did. We could become astronauts, or president!

However, while we were told we could be those things, few had the foresight to explain that we’d need to make sacrifices, too. As one woman put it to me: “We were told we could be anything — but nobody told us that we couldn’t be everything.”

It’s a tough reality to accept, and studies on working mothers only complicate things. One recent work from the University of Akron and Pennsylvania State University found that working mothers enjoy better physical and mental health than mothers who don’t work outside the home. Fantastic, except when you consider another recent study from North Carolina State, which said that kids of working moms have a 200 percent increase in risk of asthma, hospitalizations, and injury.

And so, 40-plus years into the feminist movement, isn’t it time to stop conflating “all,” a word so tantalizing and fruitless, with “fulfillment”?

“I think ‘having it all’ is kind of passe. It’s dangerous,” says Samantha McGarry, 45, a Framingham mother of two who works in public relations. “You have to realize that you have to give up stuff and make it work, and most days, it probably won’t work completely. You’ll have a great day at work but forget the school bake sale.”

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Dangerous indeed: The more we fetishize the marquee “all,” the more we embrace a notion whose subtext is that we, unlike previous generations, actually deserve it all — a formula for disappointment, because no generation is perfectly blessed. Our great-grandmothers wanted the right to vote; now working moms want the right to do a conference call from soccer practice. Every generation has its struggles, and what looks like compromise in 2013 could be seen as progress in another light.

Why is this hard to accept? Possibly because, in the 1970s and ’80s, to acknowledge sacrifice could be perceived as downright anti-feminist.

“I wish someone had told me that, yes, you can be an astronaut. But guess what — if you want kids, you’ll probably have better hours and more time with them as a teacher or science professor,” says Dana Gitell, a 36-year-old marketing specialist and Roslindale mother of two. Still, she says, “I can see how it probably seemed wrong to our baby boomer parents to make any reference to what a young girl’s limitations might be.”

One woman, who asked not to be named because she fears being labeled politically incorrect, worked at a college counseling center and regrets telling her female students that they could have it all.

In the past, she says, “This is what I would pass on: ‘Go to school, get the internships, focus on what your interests are’ — and it seemed so simple to me! — ‘when you want kids, find a day care.’ It seems so naive now. I hate to say [the word] cynical, but we need to be more realistic.”

Realistic is not the same as defeatist. Slaughter argued for a more enlightened workplace, which any industrious person should appreciate. However, her recommendations, such as greater acceptance of telecommuting and paid maternity and paternity leaves, are seismic shifts that could take years to be fully embraced by employers. Until corporate America catches up with our emotional and practical needs, how can we set forth a Slaughter-like blueprint for our own psyches?

On a philosophical level, one option is to appreciate the fact that working mothers today have more choices than ever before. It’s the modern pursuit of “it all’’ that makes us feel stuck.

“I wouldn’t say it’s just the elite [who worry about ‘having it all’], but it’s the more educated, upper-middle-class angst,” says Jennifer Sabatini Fraone, 43, associate director of marketing at Boston College’s Center for Work and Family.

On the other hand, “Women who have to work to make ends meet, they certainly feel the struggle of balancing. They have been forced to do it for longer and have had to make compromises. Women of my generation, and slightly younger, feel that we can’t compromise. . . . We have to ‘do it all.’ But having choices means you have to also make some decisions and set priorities for your own life.”

Close up shot of baby blocks and bottle on books. In background are the hands of a mother working on her computer

iStock

This is hard to remember when “having it all” looms large as feminism’s gold star, as if there really is a woman out there who’s cracked the code and is successfully pinballing from board room to soccer practice without breaking a sweat. Doesn’t such a message only undermine female solidarity?

Fraone cites the so-called Mommy Wars as feeding into the problem: “We’re constantly trying to prove to ourselves and to our peers that we’ve made the best choice. What has happened is that we’ve lost perspective of what we really want and what our own personal values are. . . . We need to step back and make a frank self-assessment: Where do I really want to be in five years and how do I get there? Is my world meaningful?”

Abandoning “it all” for contentment isn’t an affront to feminist pioneers. It could be empowering to redefine personal success for the modern age, with all its thorns — and to expand the notion of “all” beyond the career-marriage-kids triumvirate along the way.

Julie Jakubiec, 31, a recruiting executive for Rapid7, tweeted that she couldn’t be included in this story because she’s single. I responded that I wanted to talk precisely because she didn’t have it “all” as defined by the masses and was just fine with it.

“I used to define it all as having a family and being married with kids, plus a thriving career,” she told me later. “Now I don’t factor the marriage and kids into it. When you feel happy and content, that’s having it all,” she says.

Elisabeth Kranz, 34, works full time, and her husband is a stay-at-home dad. They didn’t plan it that way, but financial realities and career paths prevailed. Kranz is proud of her choices.

“We need to take ownership. That may be a sacrifice somewhere along the line. You constantly have to be checking in with yourself, not with what people think you should be. ”

And so it could benefit those of us fortunate enough to design our own destinies to appreciate that, even though we live with options, we shouldn’t paralyze ourselves in pursuit of “all” of them. No, most of us still cannot run corporations while also running the school field trip while running marathons, too. But we also cannot become so entrapped by the quest for everything that we lose appreciation for the little things, even if it’s just a warm home at the end of a long day, whether we share it with kids or dogs or an untended filing cabinet.

And, as ever, it might be wise to look to the women who came before for perspective. A friend whose immigrant grandmother grew up during the Depression was once told that, as a working mother in the 1940s, she was one of the original feminists.

“Feminist?” she said, with a laugh. “I didn’t have time to be a ‘feminist.’ I was too busy going to work.”

Kara Baskin blogs at www.
boston.com/community/moms/blogs/24_hour_workday
and can be reached on Twitter @kcbaskin.

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