Friday, September 16, 2011

You Can't Have It All

A few days ago, a supposedly progressive and liberal acquaintance posted a little rant on Facebook about feminism. The gist of it was that feminists are hypocritical and judgmental because they want all women to be doctors or lawyers and look down on those who choose instead to be mothers and nurturers. She went on to say that feminism has fed us a pack of lies by trying to tell us we can “have it all” – be mothers AND career women, have families AND a life outside the home – but that in reality, one side of your life will suffer. Mostly the family side.

Obviously, there’s a lot to critique in this kind of blanket statement. For example, I know plenty of feminist ladies who find a balance between being a mother and being an independent person; that not all mothers have a choice between staying at home and having a job; that feminists regularly rally for the rights of mothers (better maternity leave, equal pay for equal work, and breastfeeding laws, to name just a few); and that encouraging women to pursue a career that can support themselves and their families is just plain logical (marriage isn’t always forever).

But I’m going to ignore all of that for a moment and talk instead about this idea of “having it all.” I actually agree with my acquaintance on this point. I don’t think it’s possible to have it all. I do not, however, blame feminism for fooling me into thinking I could have everything I ever wanted.The fact is that every choice we, men and women, make in life means there is another choice we turned down; that every path we take leads, in some sense, to regret for the road not taken.

This is the whole point of growing up – making hard choices and living with both the rewards and the consequences. 99% of the time you cannot be both a stay-at-home mother andthe CEO of a giant corporation. You can’t commit to a monogamous relationship and sleep with whomever you want. You can’t eat vegan cupcakes for breakfast every day and PR at every race. You can’t adopt two giant dogs and live in the best apartment or house. I can’t stay in Nacogdoches with all my friends and pursue an MFA from the program of my dreams. Such is the nature of life.

Every choice comes with regret. It’s natural, it’s normal and it doesn’t make sense to hem and haw about how somebody lied to you. The solution isn’t to have less choices, but to take responsibility for the ones you make. To celebrate the things that your choices have brought you and come to terms with whatever it is you have lost or missed along the way. We can’t have it all, but we can choose what we have. That, to me, is the joy of being an independent and fulfilled human being, and that’s the gift that feminism gave to women who didn’t have those choices before.

This was the gist of my response on Facebook, but obviously it was much shorter and less eloquent. Still, I think I got my point across. What would you have said in this situation? I usually avoid political confrontations on Facebook, as they often lead to me unfriending people in fits of rage, but when it’s someone bad mouthing feminists I can’t help but jump in.


  1. I do get your point about the inability to have it all, though I do occasionally get bouts of have-it-all-itis and want my cupcakes, PRs, a tenure-track job for both my spouse and me, a kitty, a baby, $80 bottles of wine, and endless supply of cute and ethically made clothes and boots. I don't think feminism is to blame.  Men have had this syndrome for years. I do sometimes think it's rooted in ideas about class - especially in this country.  I see people of my generation and especially those a decade or so younger than I who have a huge sense of entitlement that I don't think is warranted.

    Sorry my thoughts aren't very articulate, but I've only had a few sips of coffee this morning....

  2. I have to say, I do somewhat agree with your friend (though I didn't read the rant so I don't know entirely). Balance between different parts in life rarely works where it is always perfectly in balance. No one can have it all; something will suffer at one point or another. Sometimes the job, sometimes the family, sometimes you, sometimes something you didn't know you needed to balance. While these are choices, that does not mean they are meant with ardent decision. Sometimes it is the absence of choice (the "I'll read you a story tomorrow, honey" or the "Drats, I haven't sent that e-mail to my boss yet - I forget about it because of the kids' soccer match") that makes those choices for us. While I agree with you that feminism is the celebration of use having those decisions when so many other women have not, we all suffer in the same way from the absence of choice. In our cases, it is frequently trying to have it all and losing out while in the case of women 100's of years ago it was the absence of them having a choice at all that did it. 

    Good topic but I need more coffee now. 

  3. Feminism wasn't about giving you everything you want, it was about giving you the choice and the freedom to not be limited to a sphere of what was deemed "appropriate" for your gender. You can't have it all, that's not a failure of feminism, it's called being an adult. Happiness lies in the balance of having the life that balances your priorities. Sure, I'm never going to be a famous designer, but I'm a good designer, and my clients are happy. Sure, I'm probably not going to be able to afford three kids, but I have a great dog and maybe I'll have a kid some day. If you choose to spend your time thinking of what you don't have, that's on you.

  4. I do not think it is the fault of feminism that we can not have it all. I have to agree with the thoughts that is a condition of being an adult. I would love to stay lazy and just have great jobs appear in front of me and to drop twenty pounds with no effort on my part. However, that is not how the real world operates. We are all constrained by things like limited time, limited funds, limited abilities and the list goes on and on. I think one of the good things about feminism is fighting for their to be more options. It is important that women have all the same options and paths that men have had for years. But just like men can not do it all, we can not either. And the battle is for those options and every time someone chooses one of those options it is a victory.

  5. Wait, it's feminism's fault that my life isn't exactly the way I want it? Woah! Well, it's nice to know that I don't have to take responsibility for my actions or make difficult choices. I can just blame feminism for failing to be the magic bullet that makes my life perfect.

    Okay, that was a little snarkier than perhaps it needed to be. I just get riled when people act as though feminism is a genie rather than a philosophy/framework/ethical system.I suppose I'm lucky. I don't *want* children, so I don't have to worry about my career being restricted, or wonder how I'm going to strike the balance between kids and my job, or worry that my childbearing years are slipping away. I don't have to make that choice, and so I don't have any regrets. I mean, I guess I chose not to have children, but it wasn't a difficult choice since I didn't want kids in the first place. I do sympathize with people who do have that conflict, though. I can see how tough it is. But that's not feminism's fault. That's just life.

  6. What I would have said: My understanding is that feminism is about choices. You choose your own priorities in life. I'm confused as to how that translates as "you can have it all."

  7. I think Raquelita's point about entitlement is a really important one.  When you grow up in a house where your parents are able to provide so much for you, perhaps it's hard not to become an adult who feels like the world should grant you all your wishes.  I didn't grow up in that kind of house--we were middle class, but my parents were really frugal, so I grew up with a very keen awareness of money and power.  In important ways, my awareness of money has shaped my education and career choices, which I don't regret, but I wonder if I would have chosen a different path if my family had been more affluent.

    I flipped through a Newsweek issue about colleges, and I saw a blurb about how young people are now worrying that studying abroad will make or break your career after college.  Now, granted, I didn't read the whole article, but I felt a little irritated.  What a privilege it is to travel!  But now it's being seen as mandatory?  I don't know.  I feel like college-aged kids are so young, and they have so much growing up to do.  Why do they feel like they have to be a "complete package" at graduation?  Why do we make them feel that way?

    I'm almost 30, yet I feel like I have so much more life to live.  And I never did study abroad while in college because I was too busy with the rest of my education!

  8. I think entitlement is a HUGE part of the problem. A lot of people (especially younger ones) seem to want a lot of things, but not do the work that comes along with getting it. I'm generalizing, of course, but I'm also guilty of it myself. Especially now, when I want to maintain the lifestyle I had as a full time worker as a poor graduate student. Yeah... not gonna happen. But definitely worth the rewards of getting an MFA and not working 40 hours a week at a desk. 

  9. I agree that finding a balance is not always easy - it's a learning process and we all make mistakes along the way. The hardest part, I think, is figuring out what you want in life and figuring out how to pursue that without driving yourself crazy.

    Thanks for commenting! I hope you got that extra cup of coffee. :)

  10. I agree with you completely. Being an adult is hard, but it's worth it. 

  11. Agreed! This is not to say that being a stay at home mother is a bad choice - it's one of many, and as long as it's entered into willingly then I see no problem with it. Different strokes for different folks! 

  12. Allyson, snark is always welcome on The New Me!  I'm also not interested in motherhood, so my choices are a little easier as well. I think you put it perfectly when you said that feminism is a framework and a philosophy and not a genie to solve all your problems. Life isn't perfect and that's no one's fault but life.

  13. Ah, short and sweet. I like it. Also, if someone judges you for your choices, that's because you're hanging out with judgmental asshats. And those come in every shape and color.

  14. I actually DID study abroad, but it was so long ago and I was drunk the whole time (I studied in Ireland) and while it was a great experience, I do not think that it was a make or break thing as far as my "professional" career goes.

    And I agree with you and Raquelita about a sense of entitlement. This same person also made a comment about how she couldn't believe some people drink tap water. I was like, "Um, your privilege is showing."

  15. It just boggles my mind that someone would say they can't believe that people drink tap water. I think I would have lost it. We are so, so, so privileged to be *able* to drink tap water. I've spent a fair bit of time in places where people walk miles to get potable water (and sometimes it's not even really potable, at least what we would consider potable). If they do drink bottled water, it's because they can't drink what comes out of their sink. How ridiculous must we look to them! I think a lot of people would benefit from having their sense of entitlement swapped out for a huge dose of perspective.

  16. Somehow feminism is shallowly understood by so many men AND women alike. How many times have I heard a female friend follow up a comment with, "but, I'm not a feminist or anything," as if it's some kind of evil label? Feminism is simple: if you believe that women have the right to choose their path in life, you are a feminist. Period. End of story. More choices can mean being torn, but feminism doesn't promise a great, easy life, just the right to choose that life.

    I think your response was spot-on.

  17. I actually don't think I would have commented at all. And i suppose you never got the response you desired, so you felt a need to elongate your reaction via blog, where most responses were agreeable.
    First of all i would think it's obvious to most that many people don't actually put much thought into what they post on fb, as posting is so damn easy to do...and many times a post is merely a thought that one has at a particular point in one day and meanwhile anyone reading it has several moments to reflect (or in your case "de-friend in a fit of rage".)
    i have a feeling this post got to you.
    Chrissy, be honest. You don't like children.
    And the first world dilemma of too many choices becomes such wasted thought. That is a regret that one should have.
    WHO wants it ALL? and secondly, who deserves it all? And thirdly, WHAT is having it ALL?

  18. Elsie! Thanks for commenting and giving me some things to think about. 

    I agree that people often post things on Facebook without thinking, and that I tend to overthink a lot of things. I'm also a blogger and when topics strike me as interesting or worthy of a discussion, I like to post about them because I feel blogs offer a better opportunity for deeper discussion. Also I haven't actually ever defriended anyone in a fit of rage - I was mostly joking with that aside. :)

    As for the first world dilemma of too many choices - I disagree that thinking about these issues is wasted thought. I think questioning your reality and rethinking norms is important and interesting, no matter where you are in life. It's how we grow and understand the world around us.

    And finally, I think it's amusing that you assume I don't like kids just because I don't want to have them myself. I actually really like children - I always invite them to my parties, love holding newborn babies, and have had extended conversation about and with toddlers. Most of my friends are wonderful parents with great kids, and seeing them enter the world and experience has been a great source of joy for me. I do believe that children are the future (duh, but also true!) and I am eager to be a part of their development and growth as a loving and dedicated aunt.

    Again, thanks for commenting - I mean that. Discussions are much more interesting when there are different views.