For as long as I’ve been practicing, I’ve heard women talk about wanting everything – a fulfilling career, thriving health, connected family, and most of all the ever elusive happiness.
And why shouldn’t we have all that? After all, they seem like the cornerstones of a satisfying life. The problem is, we often forget the key ingredient – balance. I believe that you absolutely can have all of those things, but you may need to shift your thinking on what each one means.
I have a friend who used to beat herself up constantly because she’d chosen to go back to school to advance her career. The classes met every other week on Friday nights and all day Saturday. Her children were quite young (3 and 5), and she worried that she was missing too much of their lives. So although she was working towards a fulfilling career, and her health was fine, she didn’t feel connected or happy. But as we talked, I reminded her that she had rearranged her work schedule to be home every afternoon, and spent quality time with her children then. She also dedicated Sundays to family time with her children and husband. When she began to focus on what she was doing, her mindset shifted. A few weeks later, she looked radiant as she told me how connected and satisfied she now felt with her life.
There’s an old saying “You can have it all — just not all at once.” I’m sorry, but I simply don’t agree. While you can’t have a job that requires 60 hours a week and expect to have connected relationships and good health, if you find the right balance you can incorporate all of these important elements into your life. And honestly, dedicating every waking hour to your family rarely brings the happiness women imagine it will – just think about how unfulfilled many of our grandmothers felt!
It used to be that you absolutely had to choose. Women who had children young delayed their careers – and never quite reached the pinnacle they were seeking. Those who waited to have children got a great start on their careers but had to pull back – sometimes at career-making stages. Women who chose not to have children at all put their energy into a career, travel, or their relationships. None of these women “had it all” by the impossible standards many women set. And I’m not saying you can either…what I am saying is that if we relax those standards, and define “having it all” by what matters to us as individuals, it’s possible.
In the past decade, work-life balance has become a hot topic. But there are still as many opinions out there as there are different ways to organize your life. The pandemic we’re still living through has shone a light on the issues women with young children face; working at home with children present is exceedingly difficult. But it’s also resulted in some creative ideas about achieving the balance we all desire.
So who is happiest?
This is an impossible question to answer, because we are all individuals who define happiness in our own unique ways. But I would argue that women who find the right balance are happier, healthier, and less stressed than those striving to meet some impossible standard.
There are certainly a lot of theories and opinions floating around out there about who is most balanced and happiest in their lives. But how can one person say that for someone else? Still, it’s easy to get caught up in the hype. A few years ago, Sheryl Sandberg wrote Lean In, a book which quickly became quite controversial.
In her book, Sandberg tells women to maintain their careers and professional dreams, and to be unafraid of aiming high even if children are on the horizon. She talks about her own instances of insecurity and self-doubt, and encourages women not to let themselves be paralyzed by these things. Her claim is that the higher up you are on the career ladder, the easier it is to have work-family balance.
On the other hand, in 2012 Anne-Marie Slaughter’s article in The Atlantic, “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All”, argued that a competitive career and children did not mix well in the current work climate. She said it was just too much to be a mother, have a solid relationship with their partner, and have a high-pressure career all at once.
My take on the whole situation is that there are no absolutes. Some women may well be able to achieve the balance they need, even with a high level professional career. Others may find themselves wanting to take a step back while raising their family. Honestly, only the woman involved can know what’s right for her.
One of my most recent discoveries is a little book written by self proclaimed “anti-guru” Sarah Knight in 2017 called You Do You. I love the premise of this book – that only you can decide what you need in your life. Society has so many ideas about what women should be doing…but “should” has no place in building a happy, healthy life you love.
Be attentive to the stress of having it all
I do want to caution women to really understand what stress can do to their health, and to pay close attention to how they are feeling. If health begins to fail, you may not be achieving the balance that will ultimately work for you. High pressure careers can come with constant stress (even when you love them), and so can having children! Add relationship bumps and unhealthy habits to the mix and you might soon find yourself with nothing left to give.
If it sounds overwhelming before you even start, it’s probably best to make some difficult choices about the priorities in your life before you begin your family. Or at the very least, have an exit strategy if you find yourself crumbling under the stress of it all.
I have personal experience in finding the right balance. When I was a young mother, I was also building a practice and in a very volatile relationship. I had to do some soul searching to find what would work in my own life. And I had to do it without worrying about what anyone else thought about it.
Sometimes that is the hardest part. We’re all so conditioned to care about what society deems right. But the truth is, only you can decide what is right for you.
Another thing to remember is that what is right can constantly shift and change. As you grow, what you want and need won’t remain stagnant. You may well change your mind about how important marriage, children, or climbing the career ladder is. And that is okay! That’s what growth and self-reflection are all about!
The choice belongs to you
What I want to make really clear is that you have a choice. Your life is your own, despite what is thrown in your path. You may not have control over everything – companies close unexpectedly; health crises can arise; you may not have the resources for the education you want. But there are always choices, even if they are small for now. It may be as simple as choosing to have a positive attitude and showing gratitude for what you DO have.
Most people are familiar with the Serenity Prayer. I particularly like the last line “And the wisdom to know the difference.” When you are clear on the things in your life that are within your power to change, you can thrive.
What Does Having It All Mean to YOU?
So, back to the original question… can women have it all? Can you maintain a career, family, good health and a stable relationship all at the same time? Again, I say an emphatic YES. But you have to know what that looks like for you. What makes your career satisfying? What are the most important aspects of your relationship with your children? How much time do you need to focus on your partner? How can you take care of yourself?
One thing I want to add is that we, as women, must support one another in whatever we each choose. Every woman’s choices and definition of balance are unique and require no judgment from us. Stay at home mom, career woman with a family, childless by choice, single parents – they’re all okay!
Remember that friend I mentioned in the beginning of this piece? She graduated with a 4.0 from her master’s degree program, has started her own business where she controls the schedule, has a very close bond with her children and spouse, and is happier than ever! She’s a shining example of having it all – by her definition.
There are so many roads we can take. And the only person who can determine that you’ve found the right balance is YOU!
Knight, Sarah. 2017. You Do You. New York, NY Little, Brown and Company.
Sandberg, Sheryl. 2013. Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead. New York, NY: Alfred A. Knopf.
Slaughter, Anne-Marie. 2012. Why Women Still Can’t Have it All. The Atlantic, July/August. URL: http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2012/07/why-women-still-cant-have-it-all/309020/ .
Reviewed by Dr. Mark Menolascino, MD