Anne-Marie Slaughter's controversial cover story in this week's The Atlantic, "Why Women Still Can't Have It All," has got me thinking about the expression "having it all," a simple, three-word phrase that has become a rallying cry of a generation of women -- mothers, professionals and feminists.
The phrase became part of popular lexicon when Cosmopolitan editor Helen Gurley Brown wrote a book titled Having It All in 1982, in which she posited that women could have it all -- the "all" meaning "love, sex and money."
To the horror of feminists like Betty Friedan and Germaine Greer, Brown did not address her book to an audience of well-educated, professional women in the midst of the work-life juggle. Rather, she spoke to a group that she called the "mouseburgers" -- women who were ''not prepossessing, not pretty, don't have a particularly high I.Q., a decent education, good family background or other noticeable assets.'' According to Brown, if these women were willing to work hard, put ambition first and flatter and manipulate people, they could get ahead in the world. All they needed to compensate for their modest endowments was ''street smarts, good intuition, a degree of selfishness and drive."
Mainstream advocates of family and marriage were also up in arms against Brown's outspoken views on the power of feminine wiles and sexuality.
Fast forward to the 1990s and 2000s. "Having it all" has become the catch phrase for women's untenable struggle to balance career and family life without shortchanging either one. This is the struggle that Slaughter details in her Atlantic piece.
While I'm mostly in sync with Slaughter's point about how it remains particularly difficult for women to succeed at the highest levels due to the clash between the personal and the professional, I am not in sync with the feminist rallying cry that "having it all" should be the goal we are working towards.
The real problem with the idea of "having it all" is the illusion that you shouldn't have to make any choices. Everybody makes choices -- about their profession, work, family and more. While the choices that women today are making about work-life balance are relatively new -- up until the 1970s, women didn't have much choice when it came to career (nor did men have much choice about staying home to raise kids, mind you) -- they present an interesting dilemma.
Without choice, we would not be free. But choice is not all liberating. We may be born with numerous talents and potential, but not all are fulfillable given the limitations of time, opportunity, money, etc. Nor are all potentials harmonious. For example, a person cannot pursue a career as a professional gymnast and a professional ice skater at the same time -- the demands of each sport conflict.
Ms. Slaughter's choice to forego a job with the State Department that took her away from home five days a week was counterbalanced by her ability to go back to a job as a professor at Princeton University -- not a shabby career choice by any stretch of the imagination. Did she forego "having it all" by making this decision? I would dare to say no.
Bottom line: We need to stop equating (female) success with "having it all." We live in a society where we are taught to believe (falsely) that we can do anything we put our mind to -- that the sky is the limit. I've known very few people whose lives have progressed in a way where they've never had to make complicated trade-offs. The outcome isn't always perfect, but "having it all" is not the only option.
Samantha Parent Walravens is the author of TORN: True Stories of Kids, Career & the Conflict of Modern Motherhood, chosen by the New York Times as the first pick for the Motherlode Book Club.
Follow Samantha Parent Walravens on Twitter: www.twitter.com/@nosuperwoman