06/28/2012 01:21 pm ET Updated Aug 27, 2012

Why Do Women Want To 'Have It All,' Anyway?

In his 2009 book Enough, the visionary investor John Bogle, founder of the Vanguard mutual-fund company, recalled an exchange he had read about between Kurt Vonnegut and Joseph Heller as they were chatting at a party thrown by a billionaire. Vonnegut pointed out that their host made more money in one day than Heller made in his entire lifetime from publishing the classic satire, Catch-22. Heller countered, "I've got something he can never have. The knowledge that I've got enough."

Enough used to be enough, until Americans somehow got the idea that they could "have it all." This concept has taken various forms over the last 30 or 40 years, from living lavishly on borrowed money to retiring at 50 with a rich stash of cash. Then of course, there's the working woman's version, which entails a rewarding career on par with any male counterpart, along with a fulfilling second job nurturing and raising kids.

The last decade has been a sobering comedown for many Americans, as incomes have fallen, home values have sunk and dreams of prosperity have ended up submerged. Yet "having it all" seems to remain the ultimate quest for elite working women. In her recent cover story for the Atlantic, "Why Women Still Can't Have It All," former State Dept. official Anne-Marie Slaughter describes the frustration and anger she endured as she lost the battle to juggle her job as a top government official in Washington with her obligation to raise two adolescent boys. "I could no longer be both the parent and the professional I wanted to be," she writes. "Having it all was not possible... at least not for very long."

This type of lament tends to produce eye-rolls in men, but Slaughter does make a few incisive points about the way we work in America. One underappreciated measure of success, she notes, is the amount of control you have over your own schedule -- true for women and men both. She also takes issue with the rigid work habits still enforced by many employers -- such as a 9-to-5 schedule and a requirement to show up at an office -- which seem outdated with the advent of 24/7 connectivity.

But Slaughter also seems to have been chasing a mirage by establishing the expectation that she ought to be able to manage a highly demanding job while also providing everything her 12- and 14-year-old sons needed. On top of that, she committed to an arrangement where she'd work 12-hour days (or longer) in Washington, as director of policy planning at the State Dept., then on weekends commute back home to Princeton, where her husband and two sons lived full-time. You'd have to try hard to come up with a better recipe for burnout.

Since publishing her essay, Slaughter has been a ubiquitous guest on TV and radio talk shows, which seems to indicate that the quest to have it all is still going strong. (She left the State Dept. in 2011 to return to teaching at Princeton, so presumably she has more time now for gabbing with the press.) Many professional women seem to feel glad she has spoken up. A few male commentators have noted that men can't really have it all, either.

The whole debate should make us stop and ask: What does "having it all" even mean? Does anybody have it all? Is it even possible?

To a lot of Americans, the idea is absurd, because they've already made sacrifices that are likely to scratch "all" from their list of accomplishments for good. They routinely miss their kids' school performances and soccer games to work, often at jobs they don't even like. That's if they have a job. Nearly seven million men and six million women are unemployed and looking for work. Millions of others are falling behind, without understanding why.

In her essay, Slaughter acknowledged that she wasn't writing for everywoman, but for "highly educated, well-off women," like herself. Even so, her idea of "having it all" seems to exceed the standard that even most successful men set for themselves. A lot of men work 14-hour days at important jobs, often far from their families, like Slaughter did for two years. But they give up... their families. There are also men who prioritize their families over their careers, and therefore don't get ahead at work the way more dedicated colleagues do.

Here's what there aren't very many of: Men who are both slavishly committed to an important job and deeply devoted to their families. Just as there are hardly any such women. If anybody knows of such a professional specimen, call the curator at the Smithsonian.

The real nub of Slaughter's essay may be a realization she seems to have arrived at relatively late in life: "I've come to believe that men and women respond quite differently when problems at home force them to recognize that their absence is hurting a child," she writes. "I do not believe fathers love their children any less than mothers do, but men do seem more likely to choose their job at a cost to their family, while women seem more likely to choose their family at a cost to their job."

In regular families, this insight is understood a different way: Women feel more guilty about leaving their kids for a job than men do. I don't know if research proves that generalization to be true, but there's sure a lot of anecdotal evidence to support it.

People like Slaughter who strive to accomplish challenging things should, in fact, set goals that are at the edge of attainability. But another hallmark of real success is knowing what your limits are, and finding a comfort zone inside those limits. There's no shame in failing to attain the impossible. Being happy with enough may be as close to all as it gets.