When I first started writing this article, I thought about calling up women around the startup scene and asking them: “Do you have it all?”
At that moment I realized how meaningless the phrase, ‘having it all,’ has become.
Because nobody has it all. The idea of it has become a joke, a punchline on 30 Rock. To my ears, it has become devoid of meaning. So I’m personally retiring that phrase. No one in this town, man or woman, will ever get a call from me asking them if they have it all.
Of course, just retiring that phrase doesn’t mean the concept is going to go away. So I’d like to share my perspective in two work-life debates that have flared up in the past month.
Please, hold back the fire until you’ve read this entire article.
The first debate is over Marissa Mayer, the 37-year-old new CEO of Yahoo!, and her short maternity leave. The second is the controversial article in The Atlantic titled, Why Women Still Can’t Have It All, by Anne-Marie Slaughter, the first woman to be the director of policy planning for the State Department.
I watched five videos of her interviews as research for this article, and she consistently came across as being vivacious, super smart, geeky, friendly, and with a laugh that’s so lacking in self-consciousness, it makes you want to learn about Google search trends.
When Mayer made the leap from Google, where she was the first female engineer, to Yahoo!, she was already pregnant. She’s due in October, and when asked about her maternity leave, she said: “My maternity leave will be a few weeks long and I’ll work throughout it.”
And with that one sentence, Mayer landed squarely in the crossfires of the Mommy Wars, which are bringing up new issues of inadequacy for women, thanks to things like this Time Magazine cover.
I’m not going to dissect the Mommy Wars or Mayer’s decision. I know better than to get in that mess.
But what’s interesting to note is that although Mayer technically ‘has it all,’ she is still being called ‘delusional’ and ‘naive’ and getting treated to infographics pressuring her to take a longer maternity leave.
To me, that means the goal line keeps getting moved. It means the concept itself is likely neither grounded in reality nor reflective of reality, and does more harm than good.
It occurred to me that if Mayer went into this knowing about the Mommy Wars and how her remarks would be taken, and she just didn’t care, then that shows she is a gutsy CEO who won’t be afraid to take Yahoo! in new, perhaps controversial directions. Also, if Mayer did not have an inkling how her remarks would be taken because she was too busy kicking butt at work — that might be even more hilarious and awesome. She didn’t care because she had better things to do, like you know, preparing to lead a $20 billion company.
In any case, Yahoo just got a lot more interesting because Mayer is at the head. She’s going to be going up against her former mentors, one of whom is a former boyfriend, and in a post-Facebook IPO Silicon Valley. Pass the popcorn.
The article by Anne-Marie Slaughter is the one that emotionally hit home for me, much more so than the Marissa Mayer news.
Slaughter, the first woman to be the director of policy planning for the State Department, wrote a 12,700-word article in The Atlantic that was partly a very personal account, and part policy paper. She wrote about her struggles in trying to achieve the right work-life balance, about how much she wanted to stay at her job in D.C., but how in the end, she chose her teenage son, her family.
Slaughter’s conclusion was that women still can’t have it all, and that major changes in corporations and in government will have to take place to make them more friendly to work-life balance and flexibility.
Initially, I really chafed at her article. Slaughter’s generation, the Baby Boomers, are mothers of the older Millennial women, and so it was particularly frustrating when it seemed Slaughter was making assumptions based on a worldview that did not apply or appeal to me, nor to many young women and men I know.
Take this paragraph, for instance:
“Only recently have I begun to appreciate the extent to which many young professional women feel under assault by women my age and older. After I gave a recent speech in New York, several women in their late 60s or early 70s came up to tell me how glad and proud they were to see me speaking as a foreign-policy expert. A couple of them went on, however, to contrast my career with the path being traveled by younger women today. One expressed dismay that many younger women are just not willing to get out there and do it. Said another, unaware of the circumstances of my recent job change: They think they have to choose between having a career and having a family.”
While it’s to Slaughter’s credit that she recognizes that it’s damaging to condescend to young women, there’s no indication that she actually believes differently from the older women she quoted.
Where were the women entrepreneurs? Where were the smart, optimistic young women who are eschewing the traditional definition of ‘having it all’ and are actually getting out and doing it in their own way, working without a safety net, putting their blood, sweat and tears into creating something new?
In this long, well-researched and well-written article, Slaughter does not use the word, ‘entrepreneur’ even once. She uses the word, ‘business’ five times, mostly to refer to corporate work-life issues.
Meanwhile, there are indications, not only in the Triangle — where there are certainly more women founding startups now than just three years ago — but nationally, young women are identifying entrepreneurship as a new, viable path. (Evidence here, here)
There’s a weird disconnect between Baby Boomers and Millennials. It’s as if women of the Baby Boomer generation are thinking along the Y-axis of ideals, and Millennial women are thinking along the X-axis of values. They do intersect, but we have to work hard to understand what each other is doing.
Right now, what I see with Slaughter’s article is that in a discussion about work-life balance, the blind spot for the top women in government is entrepreneurship.
HAVING IT ALL? NO, GIVING IT YOUR ALL
In conclusion, my beef with ‘having it all’ is that it’s a limiting, unrealistic concept used more often to undermine and divide than to uplift people, particularly women. And it’s just not applicable anymore, in many ways.
A friend of mine, a commercial writer in Austin, Texas, was in town recently. We started freelancing around the same time last year, and over a conversation at Beyu Caffe, we talked about the difficulties we were facing, how we were both trying to change our writing, to make it more real, make our words impeccable and beautiful. But both our dreams are even bigger than that, and those dreams are still unfurling and blooming. To think of those dreams in any terms close to ‘having it all’ would be to contain them when they shouldn’t be contained. We want to see how much farther down the road we can travel, not to say, “Ok, I’ll go five miles and that’s it.”
Yes, we know we’re on ‘borrowed time.’ Even writers are aware of the boundaries of material resources and, you know, money. There’s only so much time we have to make what we want to do work, but we’re trying anyway.
In a few years, he and I and other friends of mine will have to consider work-life balance. Until then, our lives are decidedly unbalanced, and it’s more about ‘giving it our all’ rather than ‘having it all.’
(And in 20 years, I’m sure a young woman will write about how it’s impossible to give it your all. And that’s cool too. By then, I’ll be ready to hear it.)