A Mother's Letter to Her Daughter on "Having it All"

08/03/2012 05:50 pm ET | Updated Oct 03, 2012

I am a mother of a daughter....when I was raising my daughter and my son, it was in that period when we were breaking glass ceilings and challenging and stretching the conventional roles of women.We were sometimes gracefully and sometimes madly... trying to form a new image of what it meant to be a good mom. In this journey we have gone from "barefoot and pregnant" to "super mom" and just about everything in between. Upon reflection...much of what we learned, what we worked for, stressed about and tried to gain.....might turn out to be, as my daughter suggested to me today, when I asked her to read this letter .... is the right to choose...the right to tailor the roles of wife and mother to more personal standards, standards that we can shape to the contours of our own personalities and needs. I found this letter by Dr. Donna Wick very touching....and thought I'd pass it along....

Dear Annie,

Ahhh Annie. How do I respond to you, my brilliant daughter? You were brought up and educated to believe that you can achieve everything at least as well as your male peers. You are smart, and funny, and loving and resilient, so I know you can handle my answer. But it's very painful to give it to you, because it flies in the face of everything I've believed and taught for so long.

I was wrong. You can't have it all. The cost is too high. As Anne-Marie Slaughter says, it's time to stop fooling ourselves. Like her, I realize that I've been complicit in perpetuating a myth of feminine achievement that I no longer believe. Like her, I have clung to the feminist credo I was taught in graduate school, and been determined not to drop the flag for my daughters. But when push comes to shove, I would rather disappoint my mentors than my daughters. Above all else, I don't want to fool them.

So Annie, here is what I've observed after many years of working with parents and children.

"Having It All" is a really bad idea. When you think about it, I can't believe that as a culture, we ever bought into this in the first place. And the fact that it has become emblematic of a feminist agenda is, well, sort of embarrassing. Having it ALL? Is that really necessary? Can't we give some back? It reminds me of a sign that used to hang in the office of my (male) investment banker friend during the glory years. The Golden Rule: He who has the gold makes the rules. Having is good. Having it all is better.

Of course "Having It All" has to be considered in the context from which it developed, namely the expectation that women and girls should be okay with less. Seen in that light, I am all for it, but for the fact that we all have children to raise. A culture that prizes the goal of having it ALL seems a bit, ummm... greedy and grasping. And as Madeline Levine discusses in what Judith Warner aptly describes as her "cri de Coeur";

Our current version of success is a failure... The cost of this relentless drive to perform at unrealistically high levels is a generation of kids who resemble nothing so much as trauma victims. They become preoccupied with events that have passed-obsessing endlessly on a possible wrong answer or a missed opportunity. They are anxious and depressed and self-medicate with drugs or alcohol. Sleep is difficult and they walk around in a fog of exhaustion. Other kids simply fold their cards and refuse to play.

I've spent almost as many years working with parents and children as Madeline, and I have to tell you; she's right. Families are depleted, demoralized and exhausted by this mad pursuit of external markers of success. It's a poisonous environment for our children who are demonstrating vastly increased levels of stress-related symptoms, and not incidentally, record levels of non-medical and prescribed prescription drug use. We simply can no longer afford to buy into the myth that equates happiness with success, or even more absurdly, "having it all." Too many children are paying the price.

Levine believes that as parents and as a society, we have reached a tipping point, and recognize that something needs to change in the way we are raising our kids. Certainly Slaughter's frank acknowledgement that she couldn't, and in the end, chose not to "have it all" is a beginning. At Freedom Institute, we work in some of the most competitive schools on earth, and we have begun to notice some changes in how the administration at some schools view being prepared for college. There is a developing awareness of social and emotional health and resilience as well as academic achievement. However, these schools ultimately answer to their constituents, and if parents remain focused on the Ivies as the Holy Grail, this initiative may die on the vine.

So my dear Annie, here's a new feminist agenda for you. (I am pretty sure that it's the women and mothers of the world that will make this happen). In this wildly unequal, uncertain and unfair country that you are about to inherit, try hard to make sure that everybody has some. You will be much happier.