I’m a square. I always wanted the standard-issue American dream: beautiful home, loving husband, couple of kids. I met another square and we got married; a year later we had a baby, three years later had another. Despite our outsider bona fides (interracial gay couple; two black sons) we’re a minivan-driving, public-school-attending, Christmas-cookie-baking, Eisenhower-era model of American life. New York values indeed.
There was a period in which I told myself — there was no one else interested — that I had it all. My younger son’s infancy is a blur (nature’s design, or no one would have more than one child) but those days were just what you imagine, and I used this phrase as mantra and lament as I dealt with an infant who was obsessed with me, a 3-year-old who also needed attention, work, bills, dishes, laundry, and so on. I was a stock photograph come to life, baby in arms while I took a conference call and somehow cooked dinner at the same time; I was the very picture of having it all.
My luck was idiotically good. The children were healthy and happy. I grew disenchanted with making a living in advertising then stumbled into a dream job in magazines. I had a solid marriage and my husband himself had a great career. And I had the luxury of saying having it all with ironic italics: Society doesn’t ask men to choose between career and family, doesn’t damn him should he choose one over the other. Still, these words were an incantation: Be grateful, be careful, and things will continue to be well.
The spell I had cast broke in August 2014. My husband was on assignment in Asia while I was in Soho making a magazine. Summer camp ended, but our wonderful sitter (yet another way in which I had it all!) was willing to work 13-hour days while I closed the magazine. I got up at five, sat the children in front of Netflix while I showered, made dinner while I shoved breakfast into them, handed them off to the sitter, was consistently late to the office, ate vending machine Pop-Tarts for dinner, and left work at eight, having run up a child-care bill greater than my salary.
Labor Day came, the long weekend alone with the children more punishment than respite. The West Indian Day parade streamed exuberantly down my street, yards from my bed, in the middle of the night. I stood in the backyard and smoked an illicit cigarette and cried. I had it all and, to quote every mansplainer worth his salt, I realized that well, actually, having it all really fucking sucks.
That noisy night in August, it was mostly annoyance with my faraway husband that I felt. But then, my dissatisfaction with my work, my lack of a creative outlet, and my exasperation with my children bled into it, laying bare for me that the italics with which I rendered having it all perhaps weren’t so ironic after all. I actually believed it not only reasonable but imperative that I have a job I cared about and wanted to succeed at, that I have a family life in which I was actively involved, that I have a creative life I found personally fulfilling, that I have an actual marriage that involved the occasional trip to a restaurant. I didn’t have any of that stuff! No wonder I was crying.
Then I did something. I gave up on that all. I blew it up. I determined that what was most in my power to change was my work; I forced myself to sit down and do what I had long wanted to do: write. I got a novel out of it; I sold the novel and began a new career. Crazy happy ending right? My best life!
Not really. That all remained as elusive as ever. I wrote my book at night, between 7 p.m. and 3 a.m.; I’d sleep three or four hours, pack lunches for school, go back to bed for an hour, get up, make dinner or do laundry, read what I’d produced the night before, tidy up, hang out with the kids while they ate dinner, then start the whole thing over again. I had my work — work I found fulfilling with no promise that it would lead to publication or any other actual change in my life — but: I barely had my sanity.
I missed play dates and doctor’s appointments, I left bedtime story to my husband (this pained me; there’s a finite number of bedtime stories you’ll read to your children), and I introduced fish sticks for dinner. I ran up credit-card debt and was a bad friend, I didn’t have a meaningful conversation with my husband for months, and I was wracked with guilt about all of the above.
My career disenchantment set in after a stint in advertising so it was no surprise to learn from the writer Jennifer Szalai that having it all is more Madison Avenue construct than feminist clarion call. It doesn’t matter, anyway: At this point having it all has evolved into shorthand for an ideal of modern existence in which one aligns life’s every component — career, family, romance, and personal satisfaction — in harmonious balance.
I’m not a woman. I am an idiot, though; I’ve always been susceptible to advertising. The scenario just described, that elusive all, is impossible. I can’t believe it took me years to figure that out. Don’t even bother trying! You’ll only end up hating either your partner, your children, your job, or yourself, or some unholy combination of the above. I’m hardly the only person to say this very obvious thing, but mansplaining, my task here, is about the obvious, and obviously, there is not one person alive who has it all.
There’s a fundamental flaw to using having it all as a synonym for a life in balance: Balance is stasis and life is change. If you have kids, they grow, and no matter who you are it’s so easy to see the circumstances of your life rearranged: divorce, death, financial disaster, illness — all components of that menacing all. In my house, all was conference calls and folding laundry, figuring out who was taking the kid for allergy shots and who was going to parent-teacher conferences. In someone else’s, all is a parent with Alzheimer’s and a dog that needs walking.
Those who agitate for institutional change — equality of pay, improved parental-leave policies, better day care, the list is long — are obviously right to do so. Such reforms would have real effects on real lives, but no reform will allow you to achieve the impossible. My all — wiping noses, cutting out paper dolls, loading the dishwasher, paying taxes, writing a book, being a good spouse — differs from your all, but we have common ground in that neither of us will pull off the hat trick. I’ve got to hand it to the conference room of copywriters who came up with having it all, but I’ve been that copywriter, and I’ve been in that conference room, and I’m a lot better off now.
Rumaan Alam’s novel, Rich and Pretty, is out June 7.