I’ve Had It with Debates About “Having it All”

I can’t tell you how sick I am of talking about “having it all”.   It is a tired topic that comes up over and over. Each time there is a heavy dose of stigma and mommy guilt without a lot of focus on the reality or the needs of the majority of parents in this country.  The latest in this endless discussion was inspired by PepsiCo’s CEO, Indra Nooyi’s statements about how she believes that women can’t have it all.  She is being lauded for being “frank” when to me she just sounds sad and defeated.  She can have her opinion, but what bothers me is that one very privileged person somehow becomes representative of modern mommyhood.  It is insulting at best.

There is not just one way to have it all.  I leave work each day at 5pm so I can make it home for a family dinner and bedtime.  In exchange, I end up working late into the night after my kids are asleep.  My version of making it work may be different from someone else’s. That does not mean that I am right or wrong.  I have determined what works for me.  My kids are cared for and confident that they are loved.  I feel like we have so much to be thankful for – that we “have it all” – even if it is difficult at times to juggle it all.

Sure I struggle with the demands of my job and my daughters, but I feel good about the work that I do and know that it would be very difficult to get by without two paychecks, especially in light of the specific health needs of our older child who has Type 1 Diabetes, which requires a slew of medications.  There are many families like mine that simply do not have a choice but to have both parents (if there are two parents) work outside the home.

I sympathize with the incredible demands that must come with being the head of a Fortune 500 company.  Most of us are not necessarily facing the expectation that we work until midnight, but we are all juggling many different obligations in our lives.  I often joke with my colleagues that there are days where I feel like a great mom and days where I feel like an accomplished professional.  There are also those days where I feel like neither or both.

I am fortunate to have a certain amount of flexibility in my schedule. I can telework on days that I need to be the one to pick up the kids.  I can leave early or come in late if there is a school event I want to attend.  My employer trusts that I am a competent professional who can live up to my obligations and still grab a seat up front at the dance recital.  That should not be such a radical concept.

Nooyi spoke of how she had to miss her daughter’s class coffees and I could not help but wonder why it was never an option to attend and come in late that day.  I realize a CEO’s job is demanding and yet they attend meetings, occasionally take a vacation or have a medical need and the company still functions.  Couldn’t PepsiCo get by a couple mornings without her so she could attend?  Yes, I believe they could but she probably did not feel she could ask and we have not structured most workplaces to offer this kind of commonsense flexibility.

We need to have real conversations in this country about what it looks like to create family friendly workplaces.  Whether it is teleworking and flexible schedules or paid leave and accommodations for pregnant workers and nursing moms, the fact is that the United States is still lagging far behind when it comes to workplace regulations.

As we face another round of the lean in, opt out, mommy war nonsense, I wish the mainstream media would talk about the need to make changes to employment policies or the social issues that compound to make life even more difficult for moms working outside the home rather than holding up one story and one opinion that in the end does nothing but make us all feel bad (or angry).

For me the saving grace in all this is having a supportive spouse.  My wife and I have faced the situation Nooyi spoke of where she had to run out to get milk after a long day.  I have tucked in the kids while my spouse made a late night trip to the store.  Most nights we get the kids settled down and then face a chore list of school lunches, laundry and work deadlines. The key is that I do not feel it is all on me.  We have a strong support network of family and friends and I have a spouse who is supportive of my career as I am of hers and who is committed to taking on her share of the responsibilities that come with being a parent.

The thing that we do not always want to directly address – in part due to the awkwardness of commenting on someone else’s marriage – is the sexism inherent in the assumption that Nooyi and not her husband should get the milk and that his fatigue was somehow an adequate explanation for not pulling his weight in the parenting department.  Any parent can tell you that we spend our lives in a perpetual state of exhaustion.  Why was the fact that he was tired more important than the long day that she put in?  Did she ask for him to step up or did she feel that she couldn’t?  This is about more than running a family errand. It is about cultivating a cultural understanding of what it looks like to support women and how we can shift and shake up parenting roles to create equitable relationships.

The fact is that there are plenty of male CEOs who have a hard time figuring out how to make it to the school play and finalize the quarterly earnings reports.  We don’t talk about this, which is not only a sexist disservice to women, but also to men who aren’t even given the space to talk about the challenges they face.  This makes it harder for individual men to negotiate the flexibility they need and pushes discussions of important policies like paternity leave to the fringes.

To many it seems absurd to ask a male CEO if he can “have it all” or question how he will balance work and home.  We don’t hear the media talking about how dads are failing their families if they work late.  We need to stop doing this to women!  Instead of perpetuating the stereotype of the heartless career woman choosing job over family, let’s step up and figure out how we can create workplaces that allow women (and men) to feel like they can meet the many important obligations in their lives.  Let’s stop tearing moms apart and offer support.  We shouldn’t congratulate successful women for making it sound like failure is a foregone conclusion.  It is not individual women en masse who are failing. We as a society are failing to do all that we can to support families.

I can’t listen to another ridiculous “can women have it all” debate that ends with little change and lots of judgment.  It is making me want to go to the store to support Nooyi’s company by buying a Pepsi and adding a whole lot of rum.


This piece was crossposted on ModernMom.


3 thoughts on “I’ve Had It with Debates About “Having it All”

  1. Vilas Wright

    Awesome! I saw that you gently touched on their marriage, but also, there is an Eastern culture deficit as well. I don’t think this woman can speak on our behalf. Her challenges are different from most.

    1. morgmeneshets Post author

      Agree there are cultural issues, especially concerning the response of her mom to the roles in her marriage and yet I see the same kinds of conversations with a variety of high powered, female CEOs. We need to look at the political issues of workplace policies, but we can’t tackle the real challenges that women face if we don’t also at least engage on issues of sexism both in society and in our own relationships. Thanks for the comment and the support, Vilas!

  2. Kathryn Sollmann

    Great post. Thought you’d enjoy my response to the “have it all” nonsense, too. Whether or not women can have it all is an irrelevant argument. The real issue is that most women (not just the ones who worry every day about making ends meet) need to work in some way (not just in more than full-time, sell-your-soul corporate jobs) to fund a retirement that could last 30 years or more and all of life’s “you never knows”. I think Indra Nooyi is perpetuating a silly argument that is moot. Read my blog post, “Peace Talks for the Mommy Wars” http://linkd.in/1oVRK0e


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