When we asked our contacts for their views on whether or not it’s possible for women to ‘have it all’, we were a bit taken aback by the level of vitriol in their replies (once they finally replied, that is – at first they apparently thought we were joking). Indeed, ‘having it all’ has become such a loaded phrase nowadays – it’s gone beyond cliché to a focus of pure scorn, to the point where there’s even a sense of backlash against those women who ever had the nerve to think they could.
But why? Generally accepted as a byword for having both a career and a family, on the surface it refers to a lifestyle that millions of women around the world are living every day. Can you have a successful working life and raise happy, healthy kids? Absolutely – thousands and thousands of us are doing it now or have done it already. But is it easy? Good lord, no.
And there’s the crux of it. ‘Having it all’ sounds smug. It’s inauthentic. It sounds like the sort of glib, self-satisfied statement Fake Mum would make – and no-one likes Fake Mum. Because she likes people to think she ‘has it all’, and that it comes easy to her – children who ace every milestone, a perfect husband, an immaculate home... And if not a fabulous job then at least a glamorous lifestyle blog, or a cute little cottage industry selling homemade jam. Oh – and she’s thin, stylish and probably an aerobics teacher in her spare time.
But it’s not her charmed life that we resent her for – not in the slightest. Rather, it’s her faux-naiveté, the way she likes to craft and perpetuate an unattainable image of herself (“You like my hair? Oh, thanks, but I just woke up with it unnaturally shiny like this.”)
We don’t hate the phrase ‘having it all’ because of what it ostensibly means, but because of what we have made it mean. Having both a family and a career wasn’t an option for many of our female ancestors, but as it has become more possible, so have our expectations of ourselves.
It’s not enough for it to mean having work and kids anymore – millions of us are doing that, and (even though there’s a long way to go), it’s probably easier now than ever before (try using your kids as a reason to leave work early in the 1950s…). So we’ve raised the bar; we’ve redefined ‘having it all’ to mean not only having work and kids, but also an amazing relationship, perfect hair and an Instagram feed dedicated to yogaerobics and pictures of macrobiotic food.
Instead of trying to compete for ‘has-it-all mum’ status, I’ve become a fan of the Four Burners theory, as proposed by American essayist David Sedaris. He says: “One burner represents your family, one is your friends, the third is your health and the fourth is your work.”
The gist is that in order to be successful you have to cut off one of your burners. And in order to be really successful you have to cut off two. It’s quite a harsh way of looking at things, but it rings true.
So, if you want to keep all four burners going, you’re going to have to keep them on a low heat. But if you want to flambé in one area of your life, then another area is going to have to go cold for a while.
What we particularly like about this theory is that it doesn’t just apply to women, and it sums up the fact that all parents – whether male or female, whether we work or stay at home – have to make sacrifices, and they shouldn’t be glossed over or belittled in a trite phrase like ‘having it all’. Because, in the end, a successful life isn’t about having it all, but about what you choose not to have in order to have what you want.