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The Elusive Promise of "Having It All"

Define your goals for career, motherhood, marriage, and faith

You want to succeed at work. You want to invest in your family. It’s the classic—and sometimes heart-wrenching—tug-of-war. Can you “have it all” as some suggest? And what in the world does "having it all" even mean for a working mom?

In an article for The Atlantic, Anne-Marie Slaughter made “having it all” a hot issue once again. Slaughter suggested that professional working moms really can’t do it all in today’s economic and societal structure. In her Atlantic piece, Slaughter examines how the “have it all” mantra can be more of an admonishment than an encouragement to young women today.

The responses to Slaughter’s article ranged from support to condemnation. Some applauded Slaughter for speaking out on the pressure of “default rules” permeating corporate, academic, and government office culture, while others criticized her for having an unrealistic perspective. Many drew comparisons between Slaughter and another high-profile executive, Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook. Sandberg has gained notoriety for asserting that women can have it all, if they are supremely strategic, creative, and ambitious.

Define your “it”

But there’s one question that I haven’t seen anyone asking: What exactly is “it?”

We need to stop pressuring ourselves to achieve some unreachable standard and recognize that in the pursuit of ‘having it all,’ these are necessary choices, not failures.

For Slaughter, “it” meant maintaining a healthy marriage and mothering teenage sons in New Jersey while serving in a dream job as the director of policy planning for the U.S. State Department in Washington, D.C. (Is it any wonder she struggled?) In comparison, Sandberg’s “it” is relatively modest: protecting quality family time while running the world’s most influential social media company. Neither woman is the average working mom, but the tensions they feel resonate beyond their elite careers.

Do you wonder how you can have it all? Start by defining your “it.” I believe this is a step that many women overlook. Instead of specifically defining what they want, many rely on a vague notion of unmitigated success and happiness.

What’s your goal? Having this “it” debate without detailing the priorities that guide our life choices, including where and how we work, just doesn’t make sense. I believe we can have it all, but that has to be defined and judged only by each individual.

Living by someone else’s standard of success is a recipe for frustration and guilt. Instead, focus on what’s truly important to you. Can you pursue a fulfilling career, a healthy happy family, and a vibrant faith? Yes. You absolutely can. But there are also some things you absolutely can’t do.

Face your reality

Here’s what you can’t do:

• You can’t be in two places at the same time.

• You can’t have more than 24 hours in a day.

These are realities every working parent (man or woman) faces. And these realities mean we have to make choices. Maybe you choose to swap lower compensation for more time at home. Maybe you give up the flashy career path for a more stable one. Maybe you don’t have as many children as you otherwise might. Or maybe you have kids later in life. Maybe you’re the first to challenge company policies and ask to work from home. Maybe you take a short-term career “time-out.” Maybe, maybe, maybe . . . It’s a blessing to have these options.

Just don’t get hung up on that dream when you have a life to live right now.

We need to stop pressuring ourselves to achieve some unreachable standard and recognize that in the pursuit of “having it all,” these are necessary choices, not failures. In her article, Slaughter calls for cultural and professional changes that could ease the burden on working parents. It’s certainly nice to dream about a world where corporate hours and school schedules matched up. Or one in which the hard work of parenting is as respected as the disciplined training of marathon runners.

It’s not wrong to wish for that world or to advocate for it when you can. But just don’t get hung up on that dream when you have a life to live right now in your circumstances as they actually are. Don’t base your expectations for happiness and work-life balance on something you can’t control. Instead, face the real but difficult choices in your life with honesty, courage, and optimism.

Read more articles that highlight writing by Christian women at ChristianityToday.com/Women

Diane Paddison

Diane Paddison is a business professional and founder of 4wordwomen.org, local groups of professional working women committed to faith, family, work, and each other.

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