What's wrong with wanting to have it all?






Anne-Marie Slaughter is the kind of woman I have always aspired to be. She’s had a phenomenal career: from Dean of the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs at Princeton to director of policy planning at the US State Department, working directly with Hillary Clinton. It’s the stuff my geeky political West Wing-esque dreams are made of.

Slaughter has a husband whom she loves and who loves her in return. She has raised two sons. She’s well respected in her community and is widely reported to be kind and funny and be nurturing of young female talent.

So when a woman with those sort of swoon-worthy credentials says that she’s been selling women of my generation a bullshit line and that we can’t actually have it all – I was just a little bit gutted.

Slaughter has penned an essay for American magazine The Atlantic that is set to be one of the most shared articles in history. (Clocking in at a little over 12,000 words, it is by no means an easy or light read but it justifies the time if you have it.) In it she explains her decision to quit the world of politics and policy in order to spend more time with her family.

In the essay Slaughter says:

I routinely got reactions from other women my age or older that ranged from disappointed (“It’s such a pity that you had to leave Washington”) to condescending (“I wouldn’t generalize from your experience. I’ve never had to compromise, and my kids turned out great”).

Anne-Marie Slaughter

The first set of reactions, with the underlying assumption that my choice was somehow sad or unfortunate, was irksome enough. But it was the second set of reactions—those implying that my parenting and/or my commitment to my profession were somehow substandard—that triggered a blind fury.

Suddenly, finally, the penny dropped. All my life, I’d been on the other side of this exchange. I’d been the woman smiling the faintly superior smile while another woman told me she had decided to take some time out or pursue a less competitive career track so that she could spend more time with her family…

Ouch. Cue glass shattering around me. You see, I do that.

I’m one of those women who is all smiles and nods and is fiercely supportive of my friends’ choices to pull back from their previously career-driven lifestyles to have children. But I’m judging them. There is a small part of me that is smugly assuring myself that I’ll be different, I’ll strike that perfect balance and I won’t ever compromise the things I want to achieve, in order to have a family. Nor will I give up the perfect husband, two kids, a puppy and a white picket fence dream (actually no fence, don’t like fences).


Now, just a second, hold your smirks – I know that’s what you’re doing, I can feel it. When I talk this way, my own mother gets this knowing look behind her eyes and I bet she’s thinking “at least it’s going to be a little bit fun saying ‘I told you so’ when it all goes to shit for my absurdly naive eldest daughter.”

Virginia Haussegger

The debate about women ‘having it all’ is not new. And the debate about what ‘all’ actually is – isn’t new either.

I recall nodding along to every chapter of Virginia Haussegger’s great book “Wonder Woman – the myth of having it all’ and thinking “gosh I’m lucky to live in a generation where I know all about biological clocks. I’ll make sure not to forget about those.”

But what really makes the Atlantic essay so remarkable and why it resonated with me, is Slaughter’s admission that she felt extreme pressure to pretend she was coping (when she wasn’t) because she didn’t want to let down the sisterhood.

Slaughter says:

“Women of my generation have clung to the feminist credo we were raised with, even as our ranks have been steadily thinned by unresolvable tensions between family and career, because we are determined not to drop the flag for the next generation…

I’d been the one telling young women at my lectures that you can have it all and do it all, regardless of what field you are in. Which means I’d been part, albeit unwittingly, of making millions of women feel that they are to blame if they cannot manage to rise up the ladder as fast as men and also have a family and an active home life (and be thin and beautiful to boot).

Reading that, it’s hard not to wonder, if Slaughter can’t have it all, how the hell can I?

But having had a moment longer to dwell on the issue, I don’t think outrage and despair are necessarily the next logical steps in the thought process.

I ask you, what is wrong with having something to aspire to? We’re all madly pursuing happiness in our lives, right? I know I am. I cannot imagine I will ever get to a point in my life, where I can stand back and survey the scenery and conclude – yep, happiness achieved. Box ticked. Well done me. But that doesn’t mean happiness is not a valid aim. And that doesn’t mean I can’t try.


Here are some Australian and American feminists who we admire. [NB: Post continues below gallery]

Slaughter says we’re setting girls and young women up to fail. I’m not so sure that we are. I think we’re setting them up to dream big and there is absolutely nothing wrong with that.

The problems come when we airbrush reality to the point where women assume that the ‘dream’ is actually the norm. So when they don’t achieve it, they assume they’ve failed. And that is something that needs to change.

As women, we have a tendency to want to show our best selves. We brush over how difficult elements of life can really be. We don’t talk about the hard parts. When someone asks me how I am, I will unfailingly respond with “I’m great, you?” Even when I’m not great. Even when I’m drowning.

I don’t think having it ‘all’ is possible. But that doesn’t make the phrase defunct. It makes it an aspiration rather than a reality. And it’s an aspiration I’m going to chase as hard and as fast as I can.

I just hope I’ve got honest women like Anne-Marie Slaughter around me, when I inevitably don’t quite get there.

Women who will pick me up, dust me off and feed me wine.

Women who will admit that they too are not perfect.

And that it’s okay that I’m not either.

Do you think that women can ‘have it all’? Have you experienced times in your life where you’ve had to choose to prioritise your career over your family, or vice versa?