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Deborah A. Kahn Headshot

What Is 'Having It All'?

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WOMAN ON COUCH
Lori Andrews via Getty Images

The growing roles and acceptance of women in the workplace in all types of jobs in all types of industries is welcome news. We have moved from a time when women were limited to teaching, nursing, secretarial work and staying at home caring for the home and family. Today, they are CEOs, astronauts, firefighters and elected officials, and maybe they'll even be president someday.

With these new opportunities have come challenges for employed women who, when they become mothers, have to decide their work status -- remain employed or stay home and care for the family. Most of the books, articles and blogs focus on only one side of this debate: What we can do to "have it all" -- career and motherhood. The implicit assumption behind that challenge is that being both a mother and career woman in the workforce is "having it all," and any other situation is therefore a lower achievement.

How terribly wrong that measurement of success is. And it struck me particularly strongly when I recently attended the funeral of a friend. She was not married. She had no children. She died too young. And she was human; not perfect.

But if you took a poll at her funeral, I am confident the several hundred people present would agree that she had a full life -- she "had it all." She had a passion for her career, her family -- brothers, sisters, cousins, nieces, nephews and friends. She gave of herself and consistently helped others creating opportunities for them that would enrich their lives. She was a strong voice and a stubborn voice but always loyal, well-loved by many and respected by all. Her life was filled with career achievements and activities, diverse people, experiences and, again, love.

Those who advocate that women must have both a successful professional career and be a mother to "have it all," no matter how well intentioned, are poisoning the well for today's women as much as those who said women had no role in the paid workplace. Books with titles such as Lean In may contain helpful advice for those who want a major professional career and happen also to be a mother. But what about women who want to be at home to raise their children? Or women who avoid jobs that will keep them away from home too often or do not provide the flexibility they need in their schedules? Are they societal failures because they have "leaned out" instead of "in"? No, they most certainly are not failures. Perhaps some of us have forgotten the familiar adage, "No dying man ever said 'I wish I spent more time at the office.'" Well, it goes for women, too.

In the follow-up study (2008) to my dissertation (1994) on employed and at-home mothers that involved 123 mothers over a 14-year period, 73 percent of the mothers who chose staying at home over being employed responded they would "do it (stay at home) all again." Who is to say that they did not "have it all"? They loved spending time with their children at activities; being available for whimsical and important discussions that guided their children through emotional, psychological and developmental challenges; establishing their own network of friends with whom to compare motherhood and family notes and receive validation; and having more time for themselves to refresh for their manifold responsibilities.

Are we, who fight for gender equality throughout our society and our economy, going to say that staying at home with children is of less value than having a career and motherhood? I hope not.

More attention needs to be given to alternatives to the societal assumption that the definition of "having it all" is full-time career and children. People are different, circumstances are different, experiences are different and passions are different. Let each of us define what choice and path makes us happy and feeling successful. Let each of us applaud, not denigrate, another's life choice.