Having It All: A New Definition

Feb 10, 2014

“This whole continuing question about whether women can ‘have it all’ — I think it’s the wrong question. I think the right question should be, “What makes you happy as a person? Do you want to not ‘have it all’ but to have both in your life in an imperfect way?” Because if the question presupposes that you’re going to do both and be equally happy at every moment, it’s a false question. It’s a compromise; it’s a balance; it’s figuring out what’s the most important thing you have to give at that moment and to what. All of that is a constant work in progress.” Sonia Sotomayer, United States Supreme Court Justice, first Latina appointed to the SCOTUS

In my twenties I was reassured that as women we indeed can have it all, we just can’t have it all at once. Without one more word being spoken, we both walked away from that conversation with the understanding that “having it all” meant getting married, working a full time job and having children. For some reason, the presumption of the definition of this phrase never sat well with me. And for nearly ten years, I couldn’t pinpoint why.

One woman’s dream come true may indeed be the aforementioned definition, but to another woman, it may be her nightmare, as she would rather follow a dream career path and be surrounded by a strong circle of loving and loyal friends. Some of you may be nodding in agreement upon hearing this, while others of you may be beyond irked that I could state such a revelation. But it is true. The good news is, this world can support the many diverse paths women choose to pursue to achieve their “having it all”. Regardless of where you stand on the continuum of what your definition is, the only way to bury the constant question that undermines in a very subtle, yet demeaning way, every woman’s achievements is to stop judging, critiquing and criticizing fellow women who find happiness in a manner that is different from our own preference.

While the question posed to Justice Sotomayer demonstrates my point, I remember first hearing it on the radio and pausing to see how she would respond. Her response was refreshing, illuminating and what I believe needs to be better understood. And the only way for women and the world in general to progress beyond said stereotypes is to hear the women in the trenches (or highest bench in the United States justice system) speak about their contentment and fulfillment.

Just as there are infinite stars in the sky, there are also a myriad of paths for each of us to find our ‘having it all’. Married young to the love of your life – fantastic! Eschewed long term relationships for a pursuit of a once-in-a-lifetime career – amazing! Adopted two children – bravo! Prefer to have a house that is childfree – brilliant! Divorced and discovering a long lost passion – courageous! Whatever your choice, whatever your desired life, it’s yours. Just make sure that the life you pursue is a life that is not pre-conditioned by society’s expectations, but rather adhering to your own set of principles, values and goals. You won’t make everyone happy, so stop trying and instead choose to find what makes you blissfully happy.

So long as you are respectful of others’ paths and aren’t choosing a contrary path simply to spite the naysayers, your happiness will benefit society and your energy will inspire others who will go forward and see that they too can define life on their own terms.

So much progress has occurred in a rather short amount of time as more and more women are visible pursuing careers and living lives that were unimaginable only forty years ago.  But so long as mothers who can’t wait for their next grandbaby, uncles who can’t fathom a woman’s equal aptitude for all things business to that of a man’s and sister-in-laws eagerly waiting to plan your bridal shower when you don’t yet have a significant other tease or undermine your life path and you do not respond tactfully, the stereotype will never die.

Let’s change what ‘Having it All’ means, starting today. In the comments below, I’d like to invite you to share your definition. Next week, be sure to stop by the blog as I will outline step-by-step how to successfully attain the ‘have it all’ that will bring you the most fulfillment and contentment.

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30 thoughts on “Having It All: A New Definition

  1. I am a subscriber to the traditional “have it all” definition. At 29 I’m married, two children, employed, growing a business, have investments…. However, I am amazed at he truly wonderful paths other women choose or have put upon them. In all honesty, I am envious at times – I guess the grass is always greener. I believe so long as a person is having a go at life and not expecting a free ride, good luck to them in their quests.

  2. What a great post! In my early 20’s,(this would be mid-80’s) I fell into unconsciously accepting the typical idea of having it all…never occurred to me that there was or could be another way. Things were “lining up” as they should be. When we discovered we wouldn’t be having children (and made the decision not to adopt) we both felt (besides a certain sadness) that something was missing-we weren’t living up to the norm….we weren’t at all like our other friends, we were odd. It took until my mid-40’s to realize that I was missing the whole idea-the point of a fulfilling life….that my life as it was was an incredible gift i think it’s part of the reason that I really enjoy this blog so much-I’m finally actively dreaming up,searching out and living TSLL! I DO have it all! Cathy W.

    1. Cathy,

      Thank you for sharing your experience and for being so candid. The more we hear and discover that happiness and contentment can reside in many different scenarios, the more we should be encouraged to find what best fits for us.

  3. I think that the definition of “all” also changes as we grow older. I was the typical “all” in my twenties: husband, two kids, two college degrees, full time career. And the full time stress that comes along with it.

    I am currently taking a two year family leave of absence from my job to stay home and raise my kids before they start school. Definitely not a path I ever saw coming, but one that has been good for my health, my marriage, my kids and myself. Probably not so good for my career, but I don’t regret my choice.

    My decision to make a change came during a weeklong trip to Italy. I’d work extra hours to get ready to leave, worked some while I was there and was stressed on the flight home about the work that was waiting for me. Travel is my great love outside my family and that trip didn’t make sense. I was making great money so I could travel with my family and then not be present…

    1. Margie…I really like your idea of our definition of “all” changing as we grow older….I think it’s so true and a good thing for me to keep in mind….Thank you,Cathy

  4. You said that some women would “rather follow a dream career path and be surrounded by friends” as opposed to I guess, getting married, having kids, and working? This very statement implies that you don’t think woman can have a dream career path and good friends, AND be a wife and mother at the same time. Well, I believe that you can (and it is my plan to do so), you just can’t do it all by yourself (FYI I’m just about to turn 30 and I’ve been working at my career for almost 7 years). You need a partner that supports you, extra help with the kids, maybe someone to assist with cleaning…there are all different ideas in order to make your life work. anyway, it would be nice if you didn’t try to define what you think the specific paths are in nice neat little boxes. Some people want more than that.

    1. Stephanie,

      I absolutely believe a woman can be married with kids and have a dream job. I have many dear friends who live this life and are extremely happy. If we’re staying on the same page as Justice Sonia Sotomayer, Ruth Bader Ginsburg was married (her husband recently passed away), has children and is a justice on the US Supreme Court. So yes, I do believe it is absolutely possible and happening around us every single day.

  5. Shannon, thank you for this post! While I don’t know exactly what my definition of “having it all” is, one thing I have always known is that I don’t want to be a mom. Most people have no problem with this decision, but over the years (I’m now 37) I have gotten some pushback, disbelief and occasional hostility. On the other side of that coin, I have also witnessed incredible hostility (bordering on hatred) from the intentionally child-free toward those who are parents. You said it very well: “…the only way to bury the constant question that undermines in a very subtle, yet demeaning way, every woman’s achievements is to stop judging, critiquing and criticizing fellow women who find happiness in a manner that is different from our own preference.” I couldn’t agree more.

    1. Becky,
      You are absolutely correct – the respect must be given from each direction. While I am not a mother, I look to my mother, my sister-in-law and close girlfriends who jungle more balls than I can count and do an amazing job. But then they look at single professionals like myself and tip their hat to doing all of the work that is split between them and their spouses. This is the respect we need to give to each other – no judgment, but rather appreciation and support because on both sides, it’s hard, dedicated work, yet very rewarding work. Thank you for sharing your thoughts.

  6. To me ‘having it all’ is the contentment i feel at the end of the day, lying in my bed, just before falling asleep,feeling grateful and thankful for what i have got: a loving husband, kids free life, an earning job and lying in my own bed next to my husband (my earning job requires a lot of travel, to sleep in my own bed next to my husband is truly having it all for me).

  7. To me, having it all means maintaining strong, loving, supportive, and healthy relationships with my friends, significant other, and family; spending LOTS AND LOTS of time with people I love; HAVING FUN & laughing A LOT!!; being financially responsible and living within my means; opening myself up to explore the world (whether that just means locally, regionally, nationally, or internationally…whatever I can do and am interested in doing); going outside of my comfort zone; learning new things; surprising myself every now and then; trying to eat healthy but balancing that with comfort foods; pursuing hobbies and interests; finding a balance between selfless and selfish; relaxing….frequently; feeling good about myself; hopefully opening my own private practice one day (speech therapy) to have greater control of my time; and definitely having children (by any means possible)… I have a long term boyfriend and the only “social rule” that I sometimes feel annoyed by is marriage. I know marriage is our next step before kids (we both very much want to have children…it’s an innate feeling for both of us), but there’s this rebellious feeling in me that doesn’t understand marriage, what it stands for, what it’s trying to prove, and I wish I had the guts to say “to hell with it.” It’s annoying that you’re not official until you’re married, and then so many marriages end… Marriage is weird, and I haven’t quite wrapped my head around it. Anyway! I thoroughly enjoy your blog and your writing!

  8. I love your website and I, too, am a Francophile (I head over again in April for 2 weeks) but I think this is your most important post. I am 42, divorced, career-focused and intentionally did not have children. I wanted a different life for myself outside of what my mother had planned for me, and beyond what society is currently ready to accept from women. I am happy and I have a small group of close friends and a successful career. But mostly I am grateful that being born in the US in the current era has afforded me the ability to do this; in my travels, I have been to places where the life I lead as a single woman is beyond comprehension to either gender.

  9. I’m going to have my 25th birthday on February 17th, and for sometime a question have been plaguing my mind, that is whether I’ve chosen the right path by forgoing the ‘family making’ business and choosing the life of a single and independent woman. I came from a culture that think it is better for a woman to marry early (I’m from Indonesia), and my decision was a difficult one. Even now, the elders in my family loves to question when I’m going to get married, whether I’ve got a sweetheart, etc, all the things that to my mind, I’m not prepared for. My own younger sister married two years ago, and it made me feel the pressure even more.
    Unlike my peers, I don’t like the idea of sharing my space with someone else, and…maybe it is strange, but even though I am a woman, I don’t really like the idea of having a child someday. Plus, for some personal reasons I don’t trust men that much. For me, those mean that I should not get married (at least until I can learn to like children). In my opinion, if you don’t want one, then don’t make one.
    However, this is getting more and more difficult as I get older. Questions like, will I regret my choice? considering as we get older, it will be more difficult to have children. Then questions like, what am i going to do when i am old, then? and so on… well, maybe I’ve been indoctrinated, but the definition of ‘have it all’ in my culture is for a woman to marry, have children, and working (not necessarily in that order), and although I think I’ve had all that I want right now (a good home, a good job, good friends), all of it feels somehow lacking. On the other hand, going to the other way looks like a no go from the beginning.
    Your posts today reminded me of all these…

  10. I was on my way to my definition of “having it all” when I suddenly realized I wasn’t at all happy. I was trying to rush through my program so I would feel accomplished and could finally start my family. I decided to walk away in the middle of grad school and start trying for a baby with my husband. It was the best decision of my life. I have a beautiful 1 1/2 year old boy and a daughter due in May. I get to stay home and savor every single delicious luxurious moment with my children and when I feel ready, grad school will be there waiting for me. I do sometimes see my unmarried friends with their degrees and think gosh, that would be nice. But I completely agree with the idea you can have it all just not at the same time. So for now I feel like I have it all and when I want something different – I’ll go for it!

  11. A week and a half ago I resigned from 12 years of working for one federal government agency based on many reasons that have accumulated over time. For me, I am in a period of transition and am working to figure out what comes next–which I find exciting.

    One book that I am reading at the moment is “The How of Happiness” by Sonja Lyubomirsky which is based on scientific research. It is a compilation on quizzes, workbook and narrative that helps an individual pinpoint how to individually capture additional happiness on a daily basis. I highly recommend it.

    1. Thank you for recommending this book. I have heard very positive reviews. And more importantly, congratulations on taking a risk on yourself. With determination and hard work, the happiness you seek is already materializing.0

  12. First of all let me just say, how much I love your blog. It is literally my favourite blog, for many reasons, but posts like these are the main reason. You are an open minded person. This is probably my favourite post to date. I could not agree more. With the quote you referenced but also, your thoughts on the matter. I agree, I don’t think anyone can have it all. Like that judge said. Not men, not women, no one. In terms of pure economics, in choosing one option (benefit) there is always a cost. Always. Walking down path A will mean you did not walk down path B – And that’s OK because that is life. Life is not about having it all. It is sliding doors, except you won’t always end up at the same point and you may not know what would of happened if you chose path B but that’s life. There are no guarantees and yes, you will inevitable do one thing and give up another. I think it shows, how privileged we are as a society to even think we can have it all. For thousands of years people struggled to survive. To have food. To have a place to sleep. To not get killed. Now we have so man comforts we want, not only the basics, we want it all and we want it now. In fact we wanted it yesterday. I have learnt the hard way, that life is not certain, including choices, what looked good yesterday may not look so good five years from now and you may think ‘I made a mistake’ but that’s life. You are not human if you do not fail or make a mistake or choose the wrong option. That’s life. In fact I would argue that learning to live with ambiguity, discomfort, pain and loss while of course is hard, can be somewhat freeing, as you free yourself from having to conform constantly and be so perfect and make the right choices ‘all the time’. It can be exhausting. As you say, we make our choices- whatever they may be- based on our circumstances and at times, made to the best of our ability, even if others don’t agree or even understand. That’s OK, I say to people, especially other women, you do not have to understand. You may not like or understand my choices and you do not have too. I am not asking for your acceptance but I am also not asking for your judgement. I agree that we should respect each other ability to choose their own paths and not be so harsh on judging other women, for not making the same choices as us. As a single woman I find it so achingly depressing going on blog after blog, which makes it seem like you are only of value if you are married or getting married. There is this sense of superiority among women who are married or in a partnership that they are better then other women who are single. That the women who are single are ‘charity cases’ by default that automatically need consoling and advice due to their ‘sad situation’. This presumption angers me, as often the only time I am sad as a single woman, is when I am in the presence of smug, condescending married women. If it wasn’t for them I would be much more happier, as even if they don’t ‘get’ my situation at least I don’t have to keep justifying it to them. It seems my singleness is more an issue for them then it is for me. Of course I would love to fall in love and experience that experience. I am not saying being single is easy but I am sure being in relationship is not easy. Anything of value takes work. And I just love the fact that I can come on your blog, and find someone who is open minded to all people, in all circumstances. I could not agree more with you, and as a women who at times, has to justify her ‘situation of being single’ to other women, I would like to ask for women to stop always judging other women. I don’t ask married women, why they are married, why must I answer ‘why am I single?’. Who knows, heck even Adolf Hitler had a girlfriend….so really lets be honest, the world is full of things that don’t make sense!I don’t think anyone can have it all in the traditional sense of having everything all at once, but you can certainly have the life you want, as long as you realise that it won’t happen while you are trying to have ‘it all’, especially when the ‘it’ is being defined by others.

  13. Great post – it sure touches home as it does to many of the women whose comments I’ve been reading. I agree that first, I think we have to stop comparing ourselves to other women. That is damaging to us. Our focus needs to be on what is right for our self and what makes us content and successful. On the other side of that coin, we have to stop criticizing each other. I don’t know why some women do that; my guess is insecurity within their own lives and with the choices they’ve made. Instead, we need to be supportive friends to each other. I think being in my 30s (I’m 33) has helped me realize that I need to stop comparing myself to others; the grass certainly isn’t greener on the other side, especially when I’ve come to hear the stories of women who I’ve envied. So, I’ve stopped envying them and learned to focus on what makes me happy, with whatever the future brings!

  14. Hello Shannon
    Thank you for your Blog. I read it daily and love this post in particular so I am compelled to comment. When I read the quote from Justice Sotomayer I hear her ambiquity. The idea of “having it all” is perhaps not what we think it is. It is not ” having it all” but rather making a choice. I’m 45 and my Mom had a choice of teaching or nursing when she went to college. Very few women did anything different. Most women didn’t get a college education and raised families. When I went to college the “sky was the limit” I have a doctorate now and what I consider a career vs a job. I am married for 18 yrs and child free by choice. It is a path I didn’t “dream of” but we are disillusioned if we thick we can “have it all”. It is about compromise, about choice, about sacrifice. It is being true to yourself and what you can do well. You cannot be spread so thin as to neglect yourself, your children, your husband or your career. Women have a choice. Women did not as readily just a generation ago. Indeed, as Everleigh notes, it is not without compromise. There was a time when we chose family and children and men/husbands chose careers. Why now do we think we can have both? Perhaps only with much compromise. I wanted a career or to be home with my children. I believe raising kids is a full time job. I chose the road “less traveled by” and I believe that” it has made all the difference”. I try to embrace my choice and encourage others to do the same. We all have different paths to follow. We should embrace the opportunity to choose that path in how we treat and encourage the women we meet.

  15. Great debate. I consider myself to ‘have it all’ – an amazing career, divorced but with a caring new partner, totally in love with my right year old daughter. My life is fulfilling and I am greatful every day. But the above for me is not having it all. Having it all for me, means for women have choices. And we can’t intellectually debate what it means to have it all (because only a fortunate few can) until we give every women in the world the choice to determine what it means for themselves. For many women their family, husband or even government prohibit them from even considering what it means for them.

    I have a great job because I work for a very progressive British company that supports mothers I’m exectutive positions. I have that job because I had an amazing family who supported my college degree and early years of working with a young child. I was able to divorce a man I didn’t love because my work afforded me to live without him. I am very very fortunate indeed to have it all, but I know that so many women don’t have these options in life. Those of us who have the luxury of defining intellectually what the boundaries of having it all means for us, need to turn the energy to helping other women who haven’t been able to make the choices we have. I have worked harder than most I know to get what I have but most women will do that if they can follow their dream, whatever it may be.
    Perhaps then having it all into own case us recognising and being grateful for my own life and using that ability to help other women have the same options as me. I still need to keep working at how I can make the most of that dream.

  16. I think the key to happiness may lie in “not having it all” rather than “having it all”. I think striving to have it all is the basis for so much confusion, strife, unhappiness, indecisiveness. Some have mentioned that for them, their happiness lies in doing what feels right at the moment, and I couldn’t agree more. Just because a woman has decided that right now she wants to be career-minded and single does not necessarily mean she must choose this path for life! We as women should stop boxing ourselves in to these categories-childfree, single, working-mom, stay-at-home mom. None of the aforementioned women “has it all” but she may be totally content with herself and life at any given moment, which is most important.

    I chose to get married, buy a house, have a child, go to graduate school, get a full-time time job all in my early to mid 20s! From an outside perspective, this may seem like “having it all”. But from my perspective, this isn’t the case. I have missed out on social opportunities with girlfriends, I wasn’t able to travel as much as I could have otherwise done, I was never able to live life as the bohemian I always had a yearning to try out being. Nonetheless I chose what I wanted at the time. I recognize I can change my life at any moment if it is what I desire, and I am very blessed to be able to say this and mean it. On the other hand, a woman who has chosen another path is missing out on the opportunities that someone else has. I think the underlying message of this post is great. Live your life the way that you like. Don’t let outside influences sway your decisions. I also believe that flexibility and not boxing yourself into one female stereotype is important for happiness. I honestly believe that the woman who has it all is a myth, and the idea that she exists perpetuates unhappiness in many modern women. Gratitude for what we have and the strength to change paths when we feel the urge are far more important than attempting to achieve the life of this mythical super-woman :).

  17. My definition of a woman who has it all is a woman who recognizes that she has choices. She can choose to peruse career, family, travel, friends, or all (or none) of the above. It is not about her actions or what those choices are. It is about her attitude toward the choices she makes. The bonus of truly having it all is that she also recognizes that other people have choices as well. She does not compare herself to others (women or men) who have made different choices, because those were not her choices to make.
    By contrast, a woman does not have it all if she does not recognize that she has choices. This woman feels trapped by economics, expectations, cultural stereotypes, or all (or none) of the above. She may also feel trapped by choices she made in the past that she feels have put her firmly on a path that makes her unhappy. To have it all she needs to recognize that as long as we are living there are still choices that we can make to find fulfillment. I will admit, this sounds easier than it really is. However, using this definition, I strive to have it all each and every day.

  18. Thanks for your sharing … to me having it all is not having what you WANT cos it may not be the needful… but to have the ability to cope and the endurance to journey the NOT SO GOOD and to be contented and appreciate THE GOO is to have it all

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