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Cheryl Dumesnil Headshot

The Problem With "Having It All"

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Years ago, as a twenty-something fledgling writer, I sat in an auditorium, listening to author Chitra Divakaruni read her work, enamored by the lilting tone of her voice, a musical quality made all the more lullaby-like by the echo of the poet's infant, nestled in her husband's arms, cooing from the lobby. A loving family, a new book of poems, the entranced attention of an audience full of writers -- in my eyes, Ms. Divakaruni had it all.

That rose-lensed image stayed with me for fifteen years, until it was my turn to stand at the lectern, this time in a bookstore, where I read to a packed house from an anthology I'd edited, a collection of stories written by same-sex couples who'd gotten married at San Francisco City Hall during the Winter of Love 2004. While I spoke to the audience, out of eyesight but not earshot, my wife Tracie followed our then one-year-old as he giggled, speed-crawling through a maze of bookcases.

Notice this, an inner voice said. Like a climber halfway up a mountain, I paused; looked around at the view I'd earned, took a deep breath and appreciated what I saw.

And then I started hiking again: answering audience questions while my milk let down into my aching boobs; signing books while wondering how Tracie was holding up, after not only a long day at work, but also this much-longer-than-expected event; hearing our baby's overtired squeal as I smiled for photos, worrying that we'd pushed him too far, that instead of falling asleep on the two-hour ride home, he'd thrash around in his car seat, screaming like he'd do when he'd crossed the line from tired to exhausted.

Fortunately, our baby did sleep on the drive home, as did Tracie. Light from the streetlamps we passed swept across their dreaming faces, while I wondered if any of the twenty-somethings in the audience that night would hold on to the image of my family as evidence that you really can "have it all."

I hoped not.

"Having it all" is a myth. "Having" is far too passive, far too effortless a verb for what it takes to combine career and family life. "All" suggests a sense of wholeness that in reality most parents who earn paychecks rarely experience. Instead, we live an ever-shifting, moment-by-moment dynamic of choosing this at the expense of that. We are not "having it all." At best we are "making it work."

And it is work -- physical, intellectual, emotional and sometimes even spiritual work, rewarded by moments of glory that feel like pulling off a David-Copperfield-worthy magic trick, or finally solving a calculus problem that's been tickling your brain for months.

Recently Supreme Court Justice Sonya Sotomayor addressed the "having it all" issue in an interview with Fresh Air's Terry Gross. "This whole continuing question about having it all," she said:

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 try -- not to have it all -- but to have both in your life, in an imperfect way. 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. And all of that is a constant work in progress that creates a level of tension in a lot of working mothers. I wish there were an equal amount of appreciation of that, as of the choice that women have whether they want to do that or not.

Amen.

Even under the best circumstances, tensions arise. For example, I teach a creative writing class, in the after school enrichment program, on my children's campus. My kids attend the class, so I don't have to pay for childcare. Ideal, yes? Until cold and flu season hits, and I have two sick kids at home, and eleven healthy students expecting their teacher to show up, and I don't want to disappoint any of them, nor do I want to add to Tracie's stress by asking her to take time out of her busy work day, even though I know she would if she could.

If "having it all" is the standard for success, inevitable moments like this, where the only option is to sacrifice family or work, can feel like failure. But really they're just par for the course.

The changes that need to happen in order to alleviate the very real tensions inherent in combining career and family life -- changes in cultural attitudes, workplace practices, employment law and family welfare policies -- are happening slowly, if at all.

While we continue to push those changes forward, let's also do ourselves a favor. Let's tell the truth about what it takes to nourish a career and family at the same time. Let's replace myths about "having it all" with real stories.

I'll start: In my nine years as a parent, I have published three books. To some, this may look like "having it all." In truth, I finished the first manuscript a month before my first son was born. The second book was a collection of poems, most of which I'd written during my pre-parent years. The third, a memoir, I wrote the bulk of in one- to two-hour increments that felt like pushing Niagara Falls through a drinking straw. I completed that manuscript -- about two years after my fantasy-driven, self-imposed deadline -- thanks in large part to Tracie's emotional and financial support.

Behind every "having it all" image, we will find the reality-checking, humanizing, inspiring stories and cautionary tales we need to hear, if we just start asking.

And while we're at it, let's replace that phrase "having it all" with a more accurate descriptor, something like "busting our asses to make some of it work, most of the time."