Wednesday, July 25, 2012

All of it. Wanting it and having it, for each of us is our own. And whether or not we got all we imagined, that our dreams and our realities were ours was good. Because that's all there was.

Sally Ride

I’m sensitive about the notion of “having it all.”  Who isn’t?

Why Women Still Can't Have It All by Anne-Marie Slaughter is a great read. And I'm grateful that she wrote it. It illuminates how misleading and anachronistic “having it all” sounds anymore to so many of us. And it reveals how potentially damaging it is if we continue to cling to this ideal, unexamined.

Here I've tried to compose my thoughts since reading Slaughter's piece, in a reasonably small space and in a reasonably coherent manner.


If we’re going to take down “having it all” we should define it, first.

Having it all - Describes the lifestyle in which a human being is a parent while having a successful career.

There are two major assumptions implicit in “having it all”:

1. A much higher frequency of men “have it all” compared to women.

2. The gender gap in “having it all” is due to the combination of gender (culture) and sex (biology) inequality.

Sounds simple enough. But it’s actually not that simple. Nobody said that you thought it was, but I wanted to put it out there before I articulate my main problem with it, which is:

On the one hand we like to define “having it all” as the same for both men and women. We've put it on a pedestal as something that men can have far more often than women.

Yet on the other hand, as Slaughter points out, women's conception of “having it all” is actually more intense than what men who "have it all" have. And this different, suped-up model of "having it all” as a woman is why “having it all” is harder for women to achieve than men.

Criteria for "successful career," however defined, can be equal for both men and women, but on the parenting ticket, things can be far from equal. Being a good mother takes more, physically and immediately, out of a woman than being a good father takes out of a man.

Don’t point your hackles at me! That’s what the articles says and that’s what we all understand, men and women alike, no matter how much we squirm when we read it or hear it. No matter how much or how little we've been professionally trained in biology and ecology, we know this because we live it. Mothers must be more devoted to their children to be good mothers than fathers must be to be good fathers. That’s accepted as fact. And our cultural expectations reflect that. I have no idea if this "fact" is quantitatively supported anywhere, but that doesn’t actually matter. Showing, scientifically, that good mothers invest more of their physical selves than bad mothers and showing that good mothers invest more of their physical selves than good fathers is a redundant exercise isn’t it?

“Having it all” for a woman involves more on the parenting end of the equation, so it means going beyond most of the men who “have it all.” This, therefore, means that women don’t actually want to “have it all” in the traditional sense, in the masculine sense, anymore. Many women may go for that now and they may have gone for that in the past because they wanted to then too, or because they had to in order to have a shot at career success. And all of that brought us, thankfully, to here. But here is different now as a result. Now women like Slaughter and those she describes want to “have it all” woman-style. And I think that’s one of Slaughter’s main points. “Having it all” for a woman is harder to achieve for inescapable fundamental parenting reasons. "Having it all" for women or for the men who parent like women, is only, as she points out, for the super-lucky, the super-rich and the super-human.

So now that we've established that the "having it all" that women want isn't about equality, it's actually beyond that. Then we can be honest about what "having it all" means. It means dreaming big. Perhaps, the biggest.

And if you can achieve your career goals and also be a good parent and these two things are the two biggest things you want out of life and you feel like you’re "having it all" then let's celebrate! And more power to you! Men and women, both! But while some of us continue to shoot for “having it all’ because that’s a fine dream, and while we can support those who have this fine dream, others of us can move onto something else that may be just as challenging to make a commonplace reality but that's a bit more flexible of a dream at the same time. It's a dream of choice. The one-size-fits-all dream that when dreamt by one is easier dreamt by others. We can dream of “having all the choices, within reason and means.” This perspective can certainly be a path to “having it all” but it’s also a path to building your life outside of being a [insert job title here] or outside of being a parent. Or outside of being either, or both, or neither.

“Having it all” is an unrealistic goal for the majority of human beings on earth. Even those who appear to “have it all” are surging ahead. People are relentless star-shooters. People do amazing things! But what’s important to talk about now, at this moment in human history, is how “having it all’ is not the only dream and it's certainly not a dream shared by many of us anymore. Not only do many of us see "having it all" as close to impossible to achieve but it's not necessary for everyone to achieve either: Promotion alone is great. Procreation alone is great. Plus, there are other equally valid stars to shoot for besides promotion and procreation. There are equally valid answers to "what do you do?" that don't involve your job or your family.

Some of those alternate answers sound remarkably like the stars (big and small) that we encourage kids to shoot for. And we can keep encouraging them to shoot for the stars, while also helping them see how seemingly infinite yet actually precious and few those stars for shooting at really are.

I haven't read one yet, but I hope there’s an inspiring essay out there that explains to young women or girls what I'm betting their parents and teachers rarely do: That they’ll have to choose. It's either having babies or landing the first manned and womanned spacecraft on Mars. It's probably not going to be both. (Note: Human reproduction and interplanetary travel do not mix. At least not that I know of, yet.) However, revealing this simple fact of life--that women cannot easily grow up to be both astronauts and mothers and that women who want both will probably have to choose one or the other--has to come with the acknowledgment of how mysterious "choice" really is. Like how most of the time the choices aren’t really presented to us. Often they're made by others. And most of the time life just unfolds, step by step. And then the choices are gone and there are new, unpredicted ones, far removed from babies and space travel. But, existential issues aside, maybe the message earlier in life needs to be Girls: It's highly unlikely that you'll, both, have babies and fly to Mars. So plan accordingly.

Those are the cold hard facts for the vast majority of us non-supers. And if it’s up to us to choose to shoot for “having it all” or to have a family or to fly to Mars or to run a business or to run twenty-six mega-marathons, because you can’t do them all. Then if we face those facts, it's clearer than ever how much we deserve the opportunities to choose. If we’re limited in how many stars we can shoot for in this one life, we should be allowed to choose which stars those will be. So it’s our job to make sure we all, all human beings, have those choices, if nothing but to protect and enable the chances to make our own.

And maybe, as I said, the choices are an illusion, that life unfolds and we get what we get because of each step of the way, adding up. I can certainly feel that I’m where I am due to choices, that I’m driving my life, but at the same time, life's always driving me.

I can hardly imagine a scenario in which I'm not striving to be a tenured professor. I got this Ph.D. afterall. I got this tenure-track job. This is what I have to do. I have to be successful, at least try my hardest. And after that I have to try to get full professor. And I have to try to get fancy awards and write fancy books and make a fancy name for myself. It's expected that I at least try, but mostly it's expected that I just do. I'm very lucky to have these expectations on me even if they do take choices away from me, because they greatly help me in my making choices, in my star-shooting.

And as for the other half of "having it all"... I have a hard time understanding how to have a baby being so far from my own mother (a curse of the incredible luck of getting a tenure-track job), having no close girlfriends in my new hometown, having huge expectations by my university to do research in Kenya (or to do something else monumental) in order to get tenure, and having to wait to go up for tenure until I’m 38 which is past my reproductive prime and if I wait that long to try to procreate I might miss my glorious chance at being part of the unbroken thread of life. And then, seventeen years later, I will have missed my glorious chance to relearn calculus.

Do I regret any of my life that brought me to this? Not a single thing. (Well, except one: That hundreds of sterile, disease-free men didn't seduce me before I met Kevin.)

I love my life. I love Kevin. I love being a professor. Will I "have it all" someday? Depends. Is that the point? Not even close. But it's certainly there. Pressuring me. And it's not all culture's fault. It's not all feminism's fault. It's the plain and simple fact that there's only so much wonderful stuff I can try and that I can do before I die. And I'd like to try and do it all. Who doesn't?

It feels like so many people are here with me. We're somewhat, or even greatly, relieved of the pressure to “have it all” and are less burdened by the baggage that comes with that pressure. Instead, it feels like more of us value “having all the choices, within reason and means” than this old fashioned pipe dream to be both a loving attentive mother and a CEO, as if every woman wants to be at least one of those things! And maybe that's just us secular folks who don't believe in the afterlife, and maybe that's just us pragmatic folks who've had the American Dream discredited and even killed before our very eyes, and maybe that's just the cold hard reality of the economy shifting our goalposts for us, but it's also thanks to the struggles and victories of those women and men who came before us. Those who wanted to "have it all" and wanted us to too. They probably didn't know it, but they tried to "have it all" so we don't have to.

Choice, and valuing it, and supporting changes that enable it, seem to be on the rise, along with all the magnificent spoils. Only problem is, there are so many people making those choices, valuing a much larger definition of "having it all," carving out very personal definitions of "having it all," that there are so many people to be jealous of! Especially for those of us too far along on our lives to jump ship and even attempt to emulate them. There are just so many amazing people to celebrate and be sickeningly envious of. For starters, those assholes who will go to Mars one day.

Thinking of my mom who didn't "have it all" because she had me, and also Sally Ride who didn't "have it all" because she didn't reproduce, yet both are remarkable human beings.


... to the inspiring dialogue with my friends, especially Ellen Quillen, on Facebook about Slaughter's piece.


Ken Weiss said...

Another terrifically thoughtful Hollygram!

There is a problem, however. It's that you raise so many cogent points how can one react sufficiently in a Comment?

It is so ironic, for someone like me, to see these issues recycling and being revisited even within my own adult lifetime.

The 'evolutionary' argument about gender differences and what is 'right' etc. always lurks behind the scene if not on center stage. Social and hence political pressures get organized.

Naturally, women or men with a given attitude or whatever will use whatever arguments they feel will defend their position, and that's a rather normal human way of feeling OK about one's own life as well as pressuring others to be similar.

Capitalistic ideas of growth, 'productivity' (in the more, more, more and faster, faster, faster), competitiveness, and so on also play a role in how our country works in this regard as in so many others. We're urban, not rural, we need jobs rather than having set daily chores, we work within industries rather than on our own subsistence.

All of these things entangle roles and ideas about them, and of course the need to have opportunity and not be denied access to a livelihood.

It is those lucky people who have the strength of character to be themselves who can perhaps at least most escape the pressures to be what somebody else wants you to be, or to resist societal factors that impede that.

Anonymous said...

You rock. I hope you get as much of "it all" as possible.

Rebecca said...

In life, as in evolution, most things are trade-offs!

Holly Dunsworth said...

Or they are as they are, up to a limit. (Funny how seeing evolution for what it is can be as subjective as seeing life for what is is!)

Holly Dunsworth said...

Thanks so much Patrick and Ken. You guys rock too.

Anonymous said...

'Mothers must be more devoted to their children to be good mothers than fathers must be to be good fathers.'

If you take a broad view of what constitutes 'devotion' or 'investing more of their physical selves', I think the gap between male and females shrinks significantly.

If a man picks up another shift at work or busts his ass for that promotion because he knows he's got a rugrat to take care of, is this not a physical investment? Is this not devotion?

Holly Dunsworth said...

Of course. It's doubled up as career investment towards success too though. So, pound for pound, all things being equal, it's not a fair comparison. Moms don't get hours nursing their baby toward tenure and promotion. I'm not trying to be glib. I'm just tired. And I'm not trying to downplay the importance of men and fathers! It's just the bare facts of mammalian reproduction with cultural expectations on top of that. Moms have a heavier burden.

Holly Dunsworth said...

Remember, we're talking about all this within the context of "having it all" so to pluck something else from above out: "Being a good mother takes more, physically and immediately, out of a woman than being a good father takes out of a man."

Beth Green said...

Holly, What an insightful (and relieving!) read.

I agree with the notion that to be a good mother it 'takes more physically and IMMEDIATELY out of a woman that being a good father takes out of a man' - 100%! In fact my husband often says that he sees that our child is much more demanding of me than he is of him. They interact differently. When it comes to appeasing our son, somehow, my husband has it easier and he'd be the first to admit it.

Is our child simply more forgiving of his father? Does he expect less from him? Has my guilt of being a "working mother" led me to create a monster by giving into his every whim? Perhaps all of these are true. In any case, it seems that culture and biology are both quite strongly affecting our individual relationships with him. The same child has a very different disposition, depending on who he is with. Somedays, the difference can be quite remarkable.

Holly Dunsworth said...

Hi Beth! Sounds fun! :) :) Thanks so much for your comment and thoughts. I wish we could be chatting together in San Fran about this today!