06/26/2012 07:09 pm ET Updated Aug 26, 2012

'Can Women Have It All?' Is That the Important Question?

In her excellent piece "Why Women Still Can't Have It All," Anne-Marie Slaughter says she wanted to start a dialogue about women, work, ambition and family life. The internet is ablaze with commentary asking, "Do You Have It All?" As a clinical psychologist, I think it's the wrong question to ask. The question I would pose to my clients (and myself), is "What Do You Truly Want?"

I started out my career as a psychologist working with patients with spinal cord injuries. Since then, I've worked with people who have had cancer, HIV/AIDS and other chronic disease conditions. I've had the opportunity to interact with lots of seniors -- to find out what's important to them in their last years of life. When you are a young 20-something psychologist (as I was at one time) you learn a lot more from your clients than they learn from you. I think Slaughter touches on some of these points in her article and would probably agree with others.

Lesson #1: When you are in the final years of life, the regrets you express almost always have to do with relationships. I never met a client who told me that he or she wished they spent more time at work. Instead, they talked about children they wanted closer relationships with, friends they didn't see enough and spouses they never really appreciated. I poignantly remember a client telling me, "I remember being happy that I could bring my son to tears with a stern look. It made me think I was a good, strict dad. Now he is the only one who visits me in the hospital. I don't know how to thank him for being such a good son." We worked to help him express his feelings to his son. He was so proud of himself; it was a triumph he carried with him when he passed away a few months later.

Lesson #2: We do men a great disservice by telling them that they do not need to invest in their relationships. Men and women need to spend time with their families. I have worked with so many men who have told me, "Now that my wife has passed away, no one comes to visit me. She handled everything. Our family life, our friends." It does not matter if you are a four-star general or a head of state. When you are older, close relationships mean everything. I once worked with a patient with a spinal cord injury who was one of the most optimistic people I've ever met. He remained active in his church, was always visiting friends and was also involved in various causes he cared about. When he was young, he had invested in good relationships. There's a lot of wisdom there.

Lesson #3: We need to redefine the word ambition. In much of current dialogue, ambition refers to being a leader in your chosen profession. It means having people recognize you as an authority. It might mean changing public policy. This is certainly important to some. But people who want deep, meaningful connections in their lives are equally ambitious. When my kids are grown, I want them to say, "You know, I really enjoy my mom's company." I want to keep an intellectual and romantic connection with my spouse. I want to help my parents grow old with dignity. I want to be the kind of friend who will show up when you need me the most, and hopefully some of my friends will show up for me. Just looking at that list makes me tired; it should certainly be considered ambitious.

Lesson #4: This is not a purely personal journey. If we are serious about supporting families, then workplaces need to change. So while we change our mindset, we also need to change our culture. Family-friendly policies (for men and women) can include flex-time and using technology to work from home. Also, good, affordable healthcare is almost always tied to full-time work. If both members of a couple would like the option to work 25-35 hours a week to be more involved with their family, that option is nearly impossible from a health insurance standpoint.

As a psychologist, my clients have taught me that "having it all" means a lot less than "having the things that are truly important." I would argue that genuinely deep, meaningful relationships are an extremely important component in most people's lives, particularly as we get older. This means that each of us needs to make tough choices about work, family and life. It also means that we need societal supports that help us live out those values.