Why I Couldn't Have It All

When I tried to do it all, I cut corners everywhere. I made sacrifices with everything: my work, my kids, my marriage, my home. And I was miserable. Our crazy, hectic lifestyle wasn't working.
07/07/2014 06:23 pm ET Updated Sep 06, 2014

In our "lean in" world, we are told that it is possible to have it all: the high-powered, demanding career; the two or three kids; the doting partner/successful, happy marriage; the nanny or cushy daycare; the big house, fancy car, extra spending money. That not only can we have it all, but that we can do it all well.

If it's true, then this is a story about how I completely, spectacularly failed at "having it all."

Once upon a time:

I was a lawyer, a mom to two beautiful twin girls and wife to a doctor. I had a full-time nanny, a large house in the suburbs and a luxury SUV.

My career was beginning to take off. I felt trusted by senior partners, often asked to work on complex cases and given substantial responsibility and autonomy in those files. I had developed relationships with several long-standing clients and was beginning to bring in work for the firm.

My colleagues were incredibly supportive. They accommodated my in-office schedule of 9:15 to 4:40; during the hours when I wasn't physically present, but working from home, we simply discussed case strategy over email or telephone. More than once, I had to say no to covering hearings or mediations or out-of-office marketing trips (I was still breastfeeding the twins and had to be home), and no one ever criticized me for being honest about my priorities.

Our nanny, a woman with her Master's in early childhood education, was wonderful with the girls. She kept them on a schedule, set up daily outings and activities for them and wrote detailed comments in a notebook that we kept on the kitchen counter. She wrote us emails with thoughtful suggestions about developmental toys we could purchase, including research on each item and links to the lowest-price option. She left her guitar at our house, which she played for the girls every day, singing along quietly.

My husband was working insane hours every week, and yet he woke up every night to sit with me while I fed the girls. If I was too tired, he would bottle feed the milk I'd pumped. When he was home, he was in charge of diaper changes. He cooked meals and brought me glasses of wine. He said nothing when I set my alarm to wake up at 4:30 a.m. (after we'd both been up two hours before) and began my work day by bringing my laptop into bed and checking emails. Often, he'd wake up with me, turn on the morning news for some quiet background noise and do some extra reading on his own, rubbing my back absentmindedly.

My godsend of a mother lived with us for six weeks after the girls were born, doing our laundry and cooking our meals and waking up at night to help with the girls. She visited just about every week and a half afterward, and sent more baby clothes and toys than I can recall so I wouldn't have to spend my time off work shopping. On more than one occasion, I called her when our nanny was sick or had a death in the family, and she either jumped on a plane or made the eight-and-a-half hour drive without a complaint.

And of course my precious little girls cooed and began to hold their heads up and then roll over. They cuddled with each other and slept peacefully and stuck to their little schedule. Throughout the workday I received pictures of their adventures and videos of new things they learned or did. When I came home, I fed them and bathed them and put them to bed.

The career, the kids, the husband, the support system. Perfect, right? Except that it wasn't. Not for me.

My heart ached every morning when I kissed each girl goodbye and slipped out the door to my car, the one we'd excitedly bought in anticipation of filling it with family. I would sit behind the steering wheel and force myself not to cry, repeating in my head that I was showing the girls how to be a mom and a working woman, that I had worked hard for my career and shouldn't back down, that they were in good hands with our nanny.

The last one stung, because they were someone else's hands.

But I pushed that out of my mind. Millions of parents worked and handled it just fine. Hell, plenty of people were far worse off. Who was I to complain? The key was balance, right? And balance meant sacrifice on both ends, at home and at work, when there are only a limited number of waking hours in the day.

I tried to compensate and stretched my waking hours as much as I could. I got up early to work and shower; I took care of the girls in the morning before our nanny arrived. I drove straight to the office and declined 98% of lunch invitations, instead eating at my desk. I came home, threw in a load of laundry, played with the twins and cooked dinner. My husband walked in, ate with us and took over with the girls while I finished up another hour's worth of work. We fed them, bathed them, and put them to sleep, and I turned back to my work before bed. Work. Life. Balance.

Once upon a time:

I wasn't spending any quality time with my husband. (One morning, as he was heading to work, he said, "Wish me luck on my presentation." I said blankly: "What presentation?" Not my finest moment.)

I spent at least an hour and fifteen minutes driving every day.

Our laundry never got folded.

The cleaning never got done.

Dishes sat in the sink until we ran out of dishes.

I missed out on some of the girls' milestones.

I missed out on much more of their mundane, day-to-day lives.

The girls' baby books remained in the Barnes & Noble bag, untouched.

I stopped taking time for myself, feeling guilty if I did anything other than work or spend time with the twins.

I felt like I should be working when I set aside my work to spend time with my children.

I felt like I should be spending time with my kids when I was working.

Eventually, I realized: there is no such thing as having it all. "Having it all," I think, is a fallacy. Something, somewhere, always has to give. Some people are able to deal with that. I was not -- at least not at this point in my life.

When I tried to do it all, I cut corners everywhere. I made sacrifices with everything: my work, my kids, my marriage, my home. And I was miserable. Our crazy, hectic lifestyle wasn't working.

One of us needed to lean out, and (after many discussions with my husband) I picked me.

Do I miss work? Absolutely. I loved my job as a lawyer. But I can always go back.

Here's the thing: for me, and for now, I am unbelievably fulfilled by my title of Mom. The bear hugs and cuddles. The stumbling, tentative steps of a tiny person learning to walk. The sticky fingers, the skinned knees, the runny noses, the plaintiff cries for mama: I am there for all of it. I am all in.

And I am so happy.

A few things:

1. My husband, even though he now has a wife at home, still doesn't "have it all." Again: in my opinion, there is no such thing. He is missing time with the kids while he is at work. He spends time with the children when he could be working. To me, this isn't a male-female issue -- it is a parenting issue. Whether your title is mom or dad, when you're working, your focus is in multiple places at once, and you're making conscious sacrifices in both arenas.

So why is "having it all" discussed primarily in terms of the female worker? I have two guesses, and maybe this topic will serve as a later blog post. The first, I think, is due to the way that the male and female roles in the workforce versus the family were classified until the later part of the last century. The second is because females actually bear and feed the children, something men physically can't do; the connection between mother and child is -- quite frankly -- different than that of father and child.

2. I recognize what a privilege it is to be at home. I know so many families don't have that option -- that so many men and women feel what I felt and have to keep going.

3. I started this post after reading this article. To me, it exemplifies why there is no such thing as having it all.