When Will We Stop Talking About ‘Having It All’?

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Last summer, Time Magazine made a bold declaration. “We Have to Stop Talking About ‘Having It All,’” read the headline on an essay by Judith Warner. The cliché might sell magazines, Warner wrote, but framing issues this way ultimately harms women’s interests.

This summer, Time seems to have overcome such scruples. “Having It All Without Having Children,” blares this week’s Lauren Sandler cover story.

I have come to think of the “Having It All” cover feature as a genre in itself. And what animates these stories is how much we ask of just about everything in our lives — of work, of love, of family life. The anxiety of high expectations propels the cover story as surely as the marriage plot propelled the nineteenth-century novel. “Having It All,” that shopworn staple of rich-white-lady feminism, is our go-to happy ending.

Sandler, the author of the recent book One and Only (about only children), writes in her piece about the lives of women who feel satisfied with their choice not to have children. They face enormous social pressure to join their sisters in “the mommy trenches”:

Even so, women who choose not to become mothers are finding new paths of acceptance. As their ranks rise — and as the community of adults without kids diversifies in terms of race, education levels and political affiliations — so do positive attitudes about being able to lead a fulfilling, childless life. Along the way, these women are inventing a new female archetype, one for whom having it all doesn’t mean having a baby.

Stepping back from the non-moms for a minute, though, what are we talking about when we imagine “having it all”? If I tried to articulate the implied expectations, it might go something like this: A job should be challenging and fulfilling, putting your talents to their best possible use and nurturing your growth while also offering the flexibility and compensation to allow a rich life beyond the office. A romantic relationship should combine intellectual companionship with emotional support and sexual chemistry, ideally lasting for the next 50-plus years. Parenthood should reconfigure your soul, revealing new frontiers of selflessness and energy, while also producing gifted, healthy, and well-behaved children.

But this is crazy. These things aren’t baseline expectations; these are each impressive feats in themselves, and managing any one of them seems like cause for satisfaction. Maybe quitting your job to be a stay-at-home mom, if you’ve got the money, has more to do with our high expectations of work (why isn’t this job fulfilling me utterly?) than it does with anti-feminist regression. Maybe feeling inadequate as a mother because of your fantastic job has more to do with our high expectations of mothers than it does with intrinsic differences between men and women in the workplace. Maybe, if we felt satisfied with something less than everything, making choices wouldn’t seem like a shock or a failure.

Sandler’s story is not about how we arrived at a point where having no children is a viable option (economically, socially, or contraceptively). It’s about the presumed heresy of feeling “more than fine … fulfilled” after having cleared maybe one or two of the “having it all” hurdles rather than all of them. Still, the article itself can’t shake off the language and ethos of “having it all.” The baseline assumption here is that parenting, done properly, is an all-consuming endeavor:

Leah Clouse understands the amped-up demands of modern American parenting firsthand, as a nanny and a kids’ art teacher. “It takes all of you, and I don’t know that I want to give it all,” the 27-year-old says. She and her husband Paul, who live in Knoxville, Tenn., married four years ago and are not planning to raise a family. Leah commits her time to working on her own creative projects and starting up a bakery; Paul, 29, devotes himself to writing a blog and holds a day job in customer service at a credit-card-processing company. They play a game each week in which they look at their schedule and try to imagine how they could fit a child into it, with their work and their involvement in their church. “It’s insane already,” Leah says. “I don’t feel we can do what we do and be great parents — and for me, the emphasis would be on being great parents.”

Clouse later describes keeping a “baby box” in the back of her closet that contains a pink tutu she once bought for an entirely hypothetical daughter. “It’s indulgent of a life I have to grieve,” Clouse tells Sandler. “If we decided to have children, we’d have to grieve the life we currently have.”

The pursuit of “it all” touches a consumer nerve, both literally (condos, wedding gowns, high-end strollers) and in the ways we weigh our choices. Have you selected the highest-quality life for yourself? What will others think of your high-quality life? And what are you supposed to do — “grieve”? — if you have any regrets? Rather than gambling all or nothing, maybe it would be bolder to acknowledge the comfort of just having enough: a boring job that pays the bills, a thrilling fling that doesn’t last. But we can’t resist trying for more — and if the consumer quality of this impulse seems especially American, so, too, does its utopian aspect. Tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms further, have it all!

Sandler concludes her piece with a triumphant moment for one of the childless women she’s followed: “At her 40th-birthday celebration, Rachel Agee announced, ‘My wish for myself at 40 is to be who I’ve chosen to be and not to feel like I have to defend it.’ Her friends, nearly all childless, applauded.”

My wish for myself at 40 is to make all kinds of compromises, to not feel obliged to announce them, and to read magazines full of interesting stories about women that never once use the phrase “having it all.”

When Will We Stop Talking About ‘Having It All’?