You Don’t (and Can’t) “Have It All” | Vol. 3 / No. 17.2

Having it all | Photo: Frank de Kleine, CC BY 2.0
Having it all | Photo: Frank de Kleine, CC BY 2.0

Amy Westervelt thinks she has it all, and that it’s left her running ragged. Here’s the thing: she doesn’t (and can’t) have it all, because we live in a universe where time, money, and human energy are limited. Well that, and she’s still trapped in the patriarchy.


In her article “Having It All Kinda Sucks,” Westervelt paints for her readers a picture of a modern woman: she has a career and a child and a husband who “helps out way more than the average husband or father”[citation needed]. But she wants society writ large to stop selling the “fairy tale” that women can have it all. I agree with that, in principle, but we disagree on how much of a fairy tale it is, because at least one of us believes the patriarchy still needs a hell of a lot more dismantling before “having it all” will even become a possibility for mothers.

“Here’s the truth,” she writes (rather troublingly): “you want to have a career and kids? You totally can, but both will suffer.” And that’s how you know something’s gone terribly wrong: because you would never, ever, in a million freaking years say that to a man.

You wouldn’t say it, because you (and everyone else) would take for granted that raising children is the mother’s responsibility. In fact, that underlying assumption — the insidiousness of the patriarchy and its internalization in the minds of the men and women of America — shows between all the cracks in Westervelt’s piece.

I fully agree that we need to make it societally okay for a woman to opt out of work or opt out of having children. Those, too, are symptoms of internalized patriarchy. As she so upsettingly puts it about not having children: “We pretend it’s okay today, but if it were, all my child-less friends wouldn’t get asked about it all the damn time and I don’t really think I’d be reading so many essays defending the choice to — gasp! — be a woman and not have children.” And equally so about not having a career: It needs to be okay, “not sort of okay, but behind your back everyone thinks you’re wasting your potential, so then you feel like you have to parent the shit out of your kids and run yourself ragged taking them to activities and teaching them things.” I am so on-side with those bits of commentary it hurts.

But there are times when she slips back into patriarchal normalization, and it really bothers me. Take this section:

Then we need to make it truly okay for women to opt in, too. Not in the way it is today, where you’re supposed to basically (and in my case, literally) pretend you haven’t had a kid and just take on all the baby duties without letting any other thing slip. But really, truly okay. Like, everyone knows you’re pregnant but doesn’t freak out and assume you’re not going to ever do any work again or that you won’t want to take on anything ambitious.

Yes, again, I’m fully on board with normalizing pregnancy — god knows the anti-discrimination employment rules aren’t actually helping (because pregnancy discrimination is very hard to prove). But there’s that first underlying assumption that we need to tackle: that because a woman has had a child, that it will be she that takes on “all the baby duties without letting any other thing slip.”

Nobody ever says to a man, “oh hey, your wife’s pregnant? Are you sure you’ll be able to do this job?” And there are other things that worry me, too. Like this little exchange:

Thankfully, the baby stayed asleep and quiet during that call but woke up screaming to be fed as soon as it ended, so another half hour in the pee pants. Burped the baby. Got throw-up in my hair, but no time to do anything about it so just threw it back in a clip. Boom. Quickly changed pee pants. Ready for more work. Throw it at me world, I am a strong woman and I have it all and I have got this.

At 5, my other kid comes charging into the room, asking if I’ve made the brownies I promised him earlier. I have not. Then my husband asks what the plan is for dinner. So, I throw the baby into a sling, go downstairs, sort out dinner and brownies.

This is, to my mind, very much not having it all. Having it all would at the very least have to include having a partner who says “I’m a grown adult, would you like me to make us some dinner since you literally just managed to squeeze a business call into baby nap time before getting baby sick on you even though you’ve been sitting in urine-soaked pants for a couple of hours now?”

She’s also proud of working enough in the month after pushing a baby out of her body to have “kept her husband’s business afloat.”

And she even includes an aside to MRAs to reassure them this isn’t a rant against men, because women penalize her more for having kids than men do.

Do the words “stockholm syndrome” mean anything to you, humble reader?

I’m all for increasing parental leave — more for women, yes, because it is a taxing physical ordeal that for at least some women takes actual time to recuperate from — but also for the partners of those women. I’m for everyone realizing that allowances need to be made for procreation, in such ways as not to ruin or substantially set back careers.

But if you ask me, the very first step to all of this is realizing that just because men don’t bear the physical markers of pregnancy, that they aren’t going to have to step up and take at least half of the child-rearing. Some women, in fact, will be able to have kids and a career, without either suffering, in the same way that some men do, in fact, have kids and a career without either suffering. This will happen in those families in which the childbearing woman’s partner (male or female) is the primary caregiver. 

It’s, of course, brilliant of Westervelt to point out that if working and having kids was the be- and end-all of “having it all,” then we’d have been lionizing single moms all this time instead of dumping on them. And in the case of single-parent families, it’s going to take more than just busting up the patriarchy to help them to have it all — including, for instance, state-sponsored childcare. But in two-parent families we can’t begin to approach women “having it all” without first accepting that men can’t always “have it all” either.

We agree, Westervelt and I, that “having it all” isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. We agree that society needs massive changes, and that right now we’re telling women to take on more responsibility without giving any responsibility up. But if you ask me, the problem is not that we’re telling women they can have it all when “the truth is” they can’t. The problem is that if we do tell women they can have it all, then we need to also tell men that sometimes they can’t.

Until we do that, women don’t stand much of a chance at all of “having it all.”


Richard Ford Burley is a writer and doctoral candidate at Boston College, as well as an editor at Ledger, the first academic journal devoted to Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies. In his spare time he writes about science, skepticism, feminism, and futurism here at This Week In Tomorrow.


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