Five things women taught me on “having it all”
The beautiful diversity of what “having it all” means to women today
A few years ago, I had my second child. During my maternity leave, I felt compelled to go into the office for meetings, follow up on projects and check emails. But after a five-month conversation with myself during maternity leave, I chose to quit my dream job in order to focus on my family. My husband was working a demanding job with a long commute. And the thought of both of us working with a toddler and newborn at home just seemed too challenging.
I was conflicted, of course, as I’d worked so hard for the two years I had been with my company, and created something I was really proud of. To walk away from it all was bittersweet. While many women leave their paid work for a variety of reasons after childbirth, for me, I felt like I was taking the easy way out. I had always believed I would be a working mother like my own mom was.
Around the time I was struggling with this decision, there was a lot of talk in the media from women at the very top of their fields who were defining “having it all” as the balance of work ambitions and family priorities. They advised that splitting childcare responsibilities with a supportive spouse and making it home by dinnertime would ease the burden of being a working mom.
All of this I found to be interesting, but not entirely relatable. Too often this discussion of “having it all” made it sound easy, but I knew from my own life — and from the women in my life — that things weren’t so simple. “Having it all” could mean different things to different people (and at different times) — not only in balancing work and family goals and responsibilities, but in searching for a positive work/life balance in general, in deciding whether or not to have children at all, or whether to be in a relationship, whether to focus on making money or making art…all of these were questions the women I knew wrestled with. I started to think seriously about the many different decisions and tradeoffs we all make, and the many different ways of thinking and feeling about these huge decisions.
So what does a researcher do when curious about something? I decided to interview forty of my female friends about what “having it all” meant to them. I wanted to open up a dialogue to encourage us all to think about what “having it all” means to women today, nearly forty years after the phrase was coined.
As a researcher, I was taught to take responses from friends and family with a grain of salt, because our own preconceived notions of who they are can bias our research. So I was especially delighted to find that so many women I thought I knew very well could continuously surprise me with their personal perspectives and keen insights. The more I talked with these women, the more I knew I wanted to share their thoughts with the world. Here are just a few of them:
My former colleague Maisha, who despite having earned her stripes as the fourth black PhD in Engineering from MIT, spoke of everyday struggles in the workplace due to racial bias.
My friend Irene, an art history professor, argued that “having it all” for women would mean changing attitudes in our culture toward gender, race and sexual orientation and implementing more equitable workplace and government policies.
My unconventional and effortlessly over-achieving friend Saneta described the importance of defining what is essential for herself in order to stay intellectually and socially engaged while parenting (even while changing diapers).
My neighbor Anne talked about her decision, at age 50, to quit her corporate life to discover her creativity. She’s found great joy and success through playing around with her new-found medium, flowers, and is so happy to have taken the risk to change careers.
Claudette, my fashion friend in New York City, described her current path, forging her independence as a single mother after leaving a challenging relationship.
My friend Anneli discussed her perspective on parenthood and how it’s been shaped by the benefits and social support she gets as a parent in Sweden.
Leah, a former colleague, who is happily co-parenting her daughter and living her fabulous life to the fullest every day, regaled me with tales of exploring creative pursuits while traveling the globe.
There was my oldest friend, Jenessa, whom I met in kindergarten, a film director and writer, who talked about being happy prioritizing her career and having the freedom to choose when and whether or not to have kids at all. Ultimately, she did choose to, and is now expecting her first child.
My “Having it All Project” is an ongoing exploration, and therefore I hesitate to draw conclusions. But along the way, I have learned some lessons that serve as guidance — not only for women but for men too — who strive to “have it all.”
#1. Embrace the beautiful diversity of what “having it all” means — to you. Thinking about what is right for oneself, rather than living up to some perceived status quo, is the first step to defining what “it all” is for each individual. The women I interviewed expressed the importance of evaluating external expectations of successful lives and careers against their own needs and values. Rather than thinking of life as a prescribed checklist, many of the women operate with different mentalities and models of “having it all.”
#2. You can have it all. But maybe not all at once. The balance of one’s professional and personal ambitions with family can be overwhelming. Many of the women interviewed shared the idea of prioritizing different things at different phases in life. They mentioned the importance of enjoying what you have when you have it. Thinking about life in chapters with time to focus on what matters means that you can “have it all” gradually, and stay sane in the process.
#3. It’s better to do fewer things well. So choose what you love. Clarity drives focus, particularly when time is limited. These women talked about the need to audit and edit their lives, rather than trying to do everything. They described how, in going deep on those things that were truly important to them and cutting out the others, they found a greater sense of contentment.
#4. Surround yourself with people who inspire you to greatness. It takes a village, not just to raise a child, but to thrive as high-functioning adults as well. The importance of surrounding yourself with role models as imperfect, real-life models of what “having it all” can mean, both in and out of the workplace, was mentioned by many women I interviewed. Our abilities to shape and live our values and principles, and to juggle work and life, hopes and dreams, self and others — all are enriched and enabled by our continued and sustaining support for one another.
#5. We are lucky to have options. So let’s make the best choices we can. Most importantly, perhaps, is the realization that my friends and I come from privileged positions — both afforded to us and earned by our own grit. So much of the rhetoric about “having it all” for women is focused on highly-educated, professional women who have the means to make choices about their work and their family. We are fortunate to have the choices that we do, and can easily fall into “analysis paralysis” about our lives while ignoring the reality that for many women, the freedom to make these hard decisions is substantially limited.
It’s this last point that is guiding me in the next phase of this project. I have begun an inquiry into what “having it all” means to women around the world, across a variety of cultures and circumstances and conditions. What does “having it all” look like in cultures very different from our own? What are the challenges for women with unequal rights and opportunities? And what can we learn from their perspectives to inform our own definition of “having it all?”
As I continue my work on this project, I’m mindful–and grateful–that no research project I’ve undertaken has ever left me unchanged. My “Having It All project” continues to impact my life in the decisions I make, with the support of important people around me. I am lucky to be in another dream job which fulfills my personal and professional passions for collaboration, ideation and storytelling. I do my best to keep work and family lives in balance, failing often, but not beating myself up over it, knowing that I ultimately have control.
Having been through a few chapters in life, I realize that the only thing constant is change. I’ve learned to embrace each phase as the peeling back of the layers that reveals what’s most true to my core values. And perhaps, that is my personal definition of “having it all”.
About the author:
Etienne Fang leads the Insights Platform in UX Research at Uber. She is dedicated to increasing the impact of insights globally and cross-functionally at the company to enhance collaboration. In and outside of work, she is passionate about people and the power of their stories to inspire change. Follow the “Having It All Project” on the web www.having-it-all.org and on Instagram @having.it.all Connect with her on LinkedIn.