Why Women ‘Having It All’ Is an Empty Concept

This piece was originally published in Womensenews.

by Dawna I. Ballard, Ph.D. and Sunshine Webster, Ph.D.

Katharine Zaleski’s recent letter of apology to all of the women with whom she had worked brought up the perennial question of women having it all, which is entirely the wrong question. While the answers have changed over the years, the basic challenges have not:

  • Men are rarely, if ever, asked this question, suggesting a sexist orientation.
  • Women in lower socioeconomic groups are never afforded access to even consider it.
  • The question “Can women have it all?” presents a romanticized view of the past implying that before women “went to work,” they were contented and happy. That is a historical misrepresentation.

Any answer will necessarily end up as detrimental and unsatisfying. For example, if we think the answer is “yes,” portrayed in the Enjoli commercial seared into the (un)consciousness of an entire generation of young girls, we’ll be terribly disappointed. If we think the answer is “no,” then where do we go from there?

The question also implies that if we chose a “portion” instead of “all,” we’d automatically be happy. But of course that’s wrong. We know plenty of friends (men and women) without children who feel as overwhelmed as their parental counterparts. We also have plenty of friends with children who work primarily inside the home, and they are as exhausted as anyone else.

Closed-ended questions like “Can women have it all?” seek a simple yes or no response, ending a conversation, focusing more on limitation than on meaning in our lives. So let’s ask a different question and make it open-ended so we can invite people to the table and have an extended, interesting conversation, where we really listen to the answer.

A better question would also jettison the underlying mathematical, machine-based metaphor, where “all” quantifies the “it” we are supposed to acquire, in favor of a metaphor consistent with human life. The concept of alignment (a basic human need that supports vitality and longevity but is different for each body) leads us to ask a better question: How can we find proper alignment?

Like a Foot Race

Watching a foot race illustrates the various bodily alignments for individual runners. We do not have the same form or alignment. Rather, we find our unique alignment through trial, error, practice and help from an experienced other (like a coach). When we do, running becomes rhythmic and smooth. When we struggle to find alignment, we struggle with every step.

Alignment is the positioning of parts in relation to one another. To successfully perform a number of bodily functions, multiple parts must be aligned. To run, our bodies align the foot strike with posture, leg and abdominal muscle strength, arm movements, head tilt, etc. Our body parts are aligned in relation to each other body part. Proper alignment leads to good form; improper alignment leads to injury.

Life alignment works the same way: To achieve it, we position our career, spousal, parental, social, physical, spiritual and communal activities in relation to one another. Moreover, each positioning depends upon what we seek out of life, and this may change over time. When we align our activities with our present life values, goals and desires we find rhythm.

But if the alignment metaphor is to be realized, it must also be scaled up and applied to larger systems, including the family, the community, the workplace and even the global economy. Notably, finding alignment within a larger system requires us to see ourselves as inherently interdependent with one another.

For instance, “Lean In Together” points to the fact that men and women working in concert with each other creates a win-win situation for families and corporations. This is a great start, but we must go further and reconsider how the wage inequity and working conditions of others across national and socioeconomic boundaries brings us out of alignment with each other as a global community.

A better question then, explores specific ways we can achieve alignment. Focusing on this offers more room to remove limitations and exclusions, exploring solutions rather than wondering about possibilities.

Dawna I. Ballard, Ph.D., a Public Voices Fellow, is an associate professor in the Moody College of Communication in the department of communication studies at the University of Texas at Austin. Follow her @dawnaballard Sunshine Webster, Ph.D., is a wife, mother, writer, teacher, runner, business owner, fundraising chairwoman and the living embodiment of how proper life alignment makes this all possible.

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