Having it All or Embracing What We Have? by Gina Messina-Dysert

Like thousands of other mothers, I found myself consumed by Anne-Marie Slaughter’s  13,000 word cover story, “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All” for the July/August edition of The AtlanticAs a new mom with a Ph.D. and growing career, I have wondered if I can truly “have it all” or if something will eventually have to give in my overloaded schedule.  It has been exhausting and near impossible to keep up with my “normal” workload while being a parent and I have constantly been concerned about my daughter getting all she needs from me (and me getting all I need from my daughter!).

I had a long struggle to becoming a mother.  After ten years, multiple infertility treatments, many prayers, and even more tears, me and my husband decided to adopt.  We’ve been so fortunate to be blessed with our darling daughter, but becoming a mother has been nothing of what I expected.  I had fantasized about motherhood, imagined it as my true destiny, a spiritual path, the role God intended me to have.  Now that I am a mother, I find myself constantly falling short.  The laundry is never done, take out for dinner happens far too often, and some days I forget to pack my daughter’s lunch.  I’m late to work, I miss deadlines, I don’t return phone calls or emails, and I wonder if it is possible to get back to being organized and on top of life the way I was before.    

After reading Slaughter’s article, I was relieved to know I’m not the only feminist that is questioning the “having it all” theory. I’ve started to think that perhaps “having it all” is nothing more than a feminist fairy tale.  Rather than believing in prince charming and happily ever after, feminists (myself included) have held onto this notion of having the best of all worlds with no consequences.  However, there is no such thing as no consequences.  There are repercussions to every decision we make including choosing to be  a working parent vs. a stay at home parent.  The interactions we have with our children are different, not better or worse, just different.

I love my daughter and I love my career, but the bottom line is, I am not able to give the attention to both the way that I want to.  If I was a stay at home mom, my relationship with my daughter (and our family) would be different.  If I was not a mother, my career would be on a different path.  Yet here I am, doing both, and trying to figure out how to do both well.

I am certain that I am not alone.  And for many women, working is not a choice.  Whether I like my career or not, we are a two income family by necessity as many families are.  And then there are single moms doing it all on their own…just thinking about that makes me exhausted!

I am grateful to Slaughter for beginning the conversation.  I also appreciate her thoughts on scheduling life, seeing our careers as having peaks and valleys, and learning how to navigate them.  But what about mothers who don’t have a choice about scheduling their careers?  How do mothers have it all – particularly when they do not have any choice in the matter?

Do we have to have it all or can we just have what we have and embrace it for what it is?  While I find myself failing on a daily basis – ordering pizza for dinner, missing a deadline, or not making it to the shower (yes, it happens!) – I do know that I am offering my daughter a role model of a woman who keeps trying.

There is no such thing as the perfect mother, we all know that.  There is also no such thing as having it all and we need to stop obsessing about it.  Instead of reaching for something that is impossible, I want to embrace what I have and honor it for what it is.  I am a mother and a career woman, some things I do well, others I don’t, but every day I wake up and do my best. I don’t think that there is a better example I can set for my child.

Categories: Motherhood

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12 replies

  1. These days, maybe having some but not all is good enough if we can get pretty much everything done most of the time. Rien n’est parfait.


  2. Lovely, honest post.

    Most younger feminists do not know that my generation of feminists from Gloria Steinem and Shirley Chisholm on “down” to the rest of us, spoke always of the need to restructure work and family so that both men and women could work fewer hours and have time for their families or even Goddess forbid for interests outsife of work and family. That this did not happen says more about global capitalism than women’s feminist dreams of the past 40 years. Working hours for most people hae increased in the past 40 years, making our feminist dreams even more precarious. We must insist that Europe has it right and we have it wrong, more than 40 hour work weeks are inhumane (35-36 are even better) and 2 week vacations are criminal!


    • Thank you, Carol! I think you are making a crucial point here – and Slaughter talks about this as well. For women in high profiled careers, the hours necessary to “make it” are outrageous – for every person not willing to put the time in, there are three persons who are willing. Being a mother and having a high profile career feels impossible, for exactly the reasons that Slaughter points out. In the US the work week expectations and limited vacations are highly problematic. I think the movement to change these things needs to continue for sure!


  3. Gina, I loved your post and as a Mother of 4, working full-time, working towards a Ph.D. – I can completely relate. I struggled for many years with the issue of standards -academic, career, and family. As a working mom, am I robbing my children of something? I overcompensated by being this leader of this club and this member of PTA, etc. I came to the conclusion that I am a better mom because I do work. While I came to terms with this, I still tried overcompensating with my involvement and leadership roles in school, clubs, and sports. It was not until my second daughter, Miranda, said to me, Mom – why do you make yourself crazy with all of this – all we really want is to spend time with you – we can do that at home, at the park, or even on a walk. This conversation with her was shocking, but she is wise beyond her years, and she taught me something. It wasn’t the amount of activities, it wasn’t my presence at those activities, it was the time we spent at home – doing nothing, talking, watching TV’s, swimming, or popping popcorn and putting rag curls in our hair. These are the times that we all still talk about.

    I think that we need to set our own standards. We know our children, our partners, and our ambitions – and we balance. Often it involves choices – do I do laundry or sit down to watch a movie? Usually the movie wins out. Do I answer an e-mail or write that article or go to the park – again the latter wins out because the other items can be handled with the children are asleep. Do I do 10 lectures this year or 8? You know what is best for you and your family and the most difficult thing I learned to do is say “No.” I was not capable of it for the longest time, but I came to the conclusion my children are with me for a moment in time and I just need to learn to turn off the technology and take the time – distraction free (and in this day, that is increasingly difficult). Here I sit, one in college, one in high school and two in middle school and the speed that this occurred in is mind boggling and surreal – in essence I blinked!

    As a feminist I believe that we can have it all – but by our standards and not standards put on us by anyone else whether other moms, bosses, men, society, etc. I believe that I have the best of all worlds – I just had to start listening to my own heart, my children, and stop listening to everyone else and their standards. I also had to be patient, which is a quality that I do not possess.

    For the record – you are doing great!
    All my best!! – Michele


    • Thanks so much for sharing your story, Michele and for your affirmation! I appreciate all that you point out. You are a great role model for other mothers!

      I think it is interesting that you believe we can have it all. I wonder, how do we even define that? What exactly does it mean? For me, Slaughter’s article was so honest, I think she said what so many of us want to but are afraid…to me, at this point in my life having it all seems like a myth. But I’m okay with not having it all.

      And for the record, you are doing great too!


  4. Gina: I was never willing to be exhausted, and I chose the path of creative fulfillment over motherhood. Some days this feels like a bit of a lonely choice, but I could not see any other way, and if I look at my various decision points, I realize I wouldn’t have done it differently at any juncture. My path has been to fulfill something precious my female forebears could not, yet deeply desired to do, which was to stretch their wings, fully, and live the creative life in its broadest sense.

    Some folks in my own family look upon me as “selfish/self-absorbed” for never having had children (except for several years living with a step daughter, and that was somewhat different), but of late I’ve realized that I didn’t want to compromise a child’s life by not being truly available to him/her as a caretaker. So, in a big way this has actually been the opposite of selfishness — and I don’t mean to imply that women who have children AND do career are selfish. This is just my way of working things out. I do think that a matriarchal social structure is more the way to go — clan living so that there is group raising of children. But we’re not there yet. So I spend some of my time teaching about matriarchal societies to the next generation as my way of contributing to social transformation.

    I don’t have the benefits of raising a family, but nor do I have the stresses and pressures. This has been my karma this time around. I express my maternal tendencies by teaching the things I do, mentoring other women, and trying to be a caring friend and family member. Some days it’s exhilaratingly “enough,” some days it feels like perhaps something is missing… I try to stay current with Spirit by checking in regularly about what I need and what I’ve contracted to do.


  5. that’s why role of community is important to help. neither man nor women on his/her own can’t handle it all. but segregation of duties such as man is bread winner while woman looks after home and kids doesn’t work for all, some share different tasks at home and outside in proportion which suits individual unit. human beings are famous not only for their surviving and adapting skills but for ability to create conditions and environment which help them to tackle such issues. if society is based only on competition not on cooperation, of cause everything is turning into battle.


  6. I’ve left this post open on my iPad for several days wishing to respond. I think many women feel a tension between mothering and “personing,” as I call it. I also think this tension is systemic in nature, rather than personal. Mothers have ALWAYS worked AND mothered until fairly recent history, when it began to be framed as an either/or “choice.” I remain convinced it is society that needs to undergo change here, not mothers and not babies!

    Reading your post reminded me of one of my own that touches on similar issues and feelings–I Just Want to Grind My Corn: http://talkbirth.me/2011/07/29/i-just-want-to-grind-my-corn/



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