Yes, You Can Have It All (But Only One Moment at a Time)

There it was again – that question – the question that comes up every so often around the topic of women walking the tightrope between professional and family life: can women have it all? 

This time the question came up at a meeting hosted by the Obama Foundation in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia and was directed toward former first lady Michelle Obama and actress Julia Roberts.

The women seemed to be in agreement that having it all was “a headline,” “a myth” and “stupid.”

“You have to define your terms of what “all” means. All is different for everyone,” said Roberts.

“I’m not supposed to have it all,” said Obama.

The premise of “having it all” has been around for a long time. It perhaps first entered into popular culture in 1986, when former Cosmopolitan editor Helen Gurley Brown penned the book Having It All: Love, Success, Sex, Money Even If You’re Starting With Nothing. The notion that women can balance both a fulfilling home life and a thriving career – ie, have it all – has been enticing women ever since with a carrot that feels just out of reach.

In 2012, “having it all” – or not – hit the headlines when lawyer and professor Anne-Marie Slaughter wrote an article for the Atlantic Monthly titled: Why Women Still Can’t Have It All.  In her piece, Slaughter makes a compelling case that for women in her demographic, having it all – as in holding a hyper-demanding leadership position while maintaining a degree of presence for children – is simply not possible. She points out that having it all comes with a high price many women just aren’t willing to pay. “In short, the minute I found myself in a job that is typical for the vast majority of working women (and men), working long hours on someone else’s schedule, I could no longer be both the parent and the professional I wanted to be—at least not with a child experiencing a rocky adolescence,” she wrote.

Along with suggesting an array of social changes, Slaughter ultimately recommends women anticipate a more flexible career arc, and defer on the most demanding positions until children are out of the house. She references a common turn of phrase many senior women pass on to their protégés: “you can have it all; you just can’t have it all at once,” but she offers caution about the interpretation. It’s not so much about figuring out the perfect time to have children as it is about having patience and adopting a long-term view.

Indeed, asking women if they can find personal balance in an imbalanced society and working culture does feel like a false start. It’s something I know well from personal experience. After spending a year and a half at home with my children, and amassing debt to do so, I decided to go back to work full-time and quickly found myself unable to attend to the rigors of NYC city’s work culture and feel like a genuine presence for my twin toddlers. Two months later, I dropped out of the full-time workforce in a moment that was heavily mixed with both defeat and relief.

Over the next few years, I voluntarily spent much of my time with my small children and there were plenty of times when I certainly didn’t feel like I had it all. But at the same time, I also began to see the question in different terms. Partly due to a career shift toward training companies in mindfulness meditation, my perspective shifted: even though I didn’t have it all on paper, there were some moments when it felt like I did have it all and some when it felt like I didn’t. In that sense, having it all was a moment-by-moment experience. Different than the not-all-at-once interpretation, I would say, yes, we can have it all, but only sometimes and only if we awaken to it.

The question of having it all has long been posed in the macro-form where having it all means maintaining a high-powered, successful career while raising well-adjusted, healthy children. But in the micro-form, the question looks a little different, as in: do I have everything I need – just in this moment – to be happy? And sometimes the answer is simply: yes, I do. From the moment-by-moment perspective, we might very well have a lot more having it all moments than we realize.

In my life with two five year olds, sometimes I’m happily sandwiched between their squirmy bodies and there it is. I have it all. About a half hour later they’re fighting like the idiomatic cat and dog and I want to scream out, “Calgon, take me away!!!” (because I’m a child of the 1980s after all). In those moments, I definitely don’t have it all. But just a little while earlier, I did. When I’m connecting with a participant at a workshop, and in the back of my mind, I know my children are in loving care, I have it all. But then later, I’ll lament that I’m not further along in my career, and I don’t. From the moment-by-moment perspective, having it all ebbs and flows, like pretty much everything else in life. Part of the good life is simply recognizing and waking up to those fleeting moments when indeed we do have it all, and doing whatever we can to maximize them, including developing patience for the moments when we clearly do not have it all (surely, you know those moments.)

In macro-terms, having it all is solely a women’s question because society has rendered it so much harder for women to have a successful career and raise children. But at the micro-level, having it all is everyone’s question. There are plenty of men working ten hour days, who only see their kids on weekends, and they hardly feel like they have it all. They may be working long hours to make ends meet, not because they’re passionate about the job. They may feel pressured, short on time or overwhelmed. For both women and men, stress is the number one enemy of having it all.

Furthermore, the traditional parameters of having it all, focused on children and career, don’t feel relevant for many people or apply to their lives. But in micro-terms, anyone can have it all in any moment that we notice the good and allow feelings of contentment to arise. Sitting with a pet, sipping tea, or even doing the dishes, can all be moments to look around and say, in this moment, I have it all.

While a large part of having it all is a genderless moment-by-moment experience, that doesn’t mean we stop trying to create change at the macro-level or let our governments and employers off the hook. When my children were two years old, I didn’t just step back from working full-time. Due to hyper-expensive childcare and overwhelming working hours, our family left New York City all-together and moved to Vienna, Austria, a city with ample parental leave, free early childhood care, and a much more moderate working culture. While managing toddler twins in a foreign country wasn’t always a joyride, being in a society with a sustainable work-life balance made it much easier to find more having it all moments. Balance begets balance.

Social policies notwithstanding, most of us do have moments of quiet (or loud) joy with our children, engaging meaningfully at work or just simply waking up to the goodness already in our midst. As we continue to advocate for the professional and social policies that will make our lives more manageable and enjoyable, let’s not overlook the micro-moments of having it all inherent in nearly every life, every day.