Spoiler: ‘Having it All’ Sucks

One day I cracked. I was sitting in a tangle of quilts, surrounded by two-weeks worth of unfolded laundry, halfway through an article profiling high-power women and work-life balance, and I started to cry. The women featured were praised for their superhuman abilities to effortlessly keep the plates spinning in work, family and life. Girls commented with relief to discover that women could be both business powerhouses and dedicated mothers. Had I come across that article three years ago, I knew I would’ve commented with the same effusive buoyancy. But now, all I could see were a group of people who gave absolutely everything of themselves to everyone around them (albeit bathed in the halcyon glow only a closet full of vintage caftans and a rose-water addiction can give you). I wondered why I was working myself until exhaustion to get to where they were. I saw that their lives, much like mine, contained no quiet moment alone to refocus. To do something just because they wanted to. I realized I was reaching, tantillian like, towards something I didn’t even want anymore.

Up until that point, I had been trying to achieve the highest plane of womanhood: Having It All. In addition to the perfection of family/work balance, at this level women have also “achieved” a pre-baby body and glittering social life. With absolutely no realistic expectations for failure, I proceeded to sacrifice myself to a grueling schedule centered around this goal. I’ll spare you the details. Just know that my days started at 4 a.m., ended at 10 p.m. and involved at least one 15-minute ice bath to shock me back from the dead of fatigue.

As you can imagine, this left me frayed. But I continued to push myself.

For those women with kids who read Man Repeller, I’m sure you’ve come across these articles a lot. There are whole websites dedicated to “super moms.” To be honest, I found them really motivating before I had a baby. They gave me guidelines and a visual for a life to work towards.

They are a part of this whole “You Got This, Girl” culture that is pervasive in the Pinterest era of modern motherhood. As soon as you get pregnant, you’re ushered into a realm of easy-access tops, motivational platitudes and 30-something moms boundless in both energy and verve. If you’re not a mom, check out this handy Pin board as a primer.

These sorts of articles and motivational quotes are, at best, a hollow escape. A way to briefly disengage from the realities of modern motherhood: a culture that equates having a family to the death of a woman’s nuance, and a set of U.S. public policies that act to reinforce the thought. What you’re left with is a generation of women with children, feeling the loss of all of the hard work they put into their careers and their personhood, plastering over reality with a hodgepodge of trite cliches.

I was complaining to a friend about how frustrated I was with the glut of aspirational internet moms slinging their inspirational one-liners. Instructing me in rose-gold Mightype to love my tiger stripes, get back into my skinny jeans, and enjoy these exhausting years of early motherhood while leaning into my career. Thankfully, she cut me off to remind me of two obvious facts that I had lost sight of:

1. Anything worth pursuing is also worth sacrificing for, which is true whether or not you are a parent.
2. I made the choice to overwork myself.

It was then that I realized I was wasting both my time and emotional energy on an illusion, that I had mistaken marketing for reality. These women weren’t getting to Have It All without sacrificing something. When I finally took a moment to figure out what I was willing to forego in building my future, it turned out sacrificing my own sense of sanity wasn’t it.

Collage by GraphicaArtis via Getty Images.

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  • 20 oz filet

    As I approach 30, I often wonder if it is worth having children. Articles such as this certainly aren’t encouraging, but are important. It presents a realistic perspective. The sacrifice is real and often overlooked, especially when you factor in someones financial situation/access to affordable childcare.

    • Gretel Stroh

      I never wanted kids, till I hit 38, and was lucky enough to sneak one through my shriveled ovaries….even after having my child I told another hormone crazed woman, no it wasn’t that great…..if you come from a big family, and want a family it might be different, but as an only child, now dealing with an ADD teenager, who is a great person, but failing in school, I don’t think it is worth it.

      • June2

        I have ADD and had to go holistic to find working remedies – the main one is choosing a creative career or focus – that being fine art for me – when I doubted any talent at all – but turns out, everything is learnable, even art. Maybe explore that option with your son?

      • Miss J

        Thank you for saying that. I’m almost 33, married and childless, with no desire/plan to have a child myself. I like kids but I’ve agreed with my husband that it’s not for us. For the last five years, I feel so pressured that it’s comforting when someone other than Chelsea Handler comes out and says “Kids, they’re not that great.” I’ve had “friends” pressuring me so much with everything from “you’ll regret it later” to “you’re killing both your mother and mother in-law” that I don’t even talk to them anymore. I’m perfectly happy not worrying about packing lunches other than mine and my husband’s, taking ad-hoc vacations, eating dinner for breakfast and breakfast for dinner, and having wine as the only beverage in my home other than water. So, again, thank you for your honesty, and expressing a thought that I assume a lot of women with kids would say but just don’t have the courage. It took me years to realize that there is nothing wrong with choosing to not have them.

        • Gretel Stroh

          Don’t give into pressure. this is a decision for you and your husband and you may feel differently next year or not. Remember everyone wants to have a baby…noone says I want to have a cranky teenager…raising a good kind well natured human being is not easy. I’m lucky to have had a great kid, your friends and parents aren’t going to raise this child, I often think it’s mommy guilt others put on you to drag you to the dark side. There are lots of ways to share your love other than by having a child

        • I’m 24 but I’ve been battling with thoughts of having a child or not for a while now, this was reassuring. I’ve never wanted kids, and I definitely don’t want plural, but every now and then I get these ‘oh but maybe one wouldn’t be so bad’ thoughts. I try to brush them off as biological urges but sometimes I can’t help but wonder. I like being able to chill naked when I’m home, and all those other things you mentioned. I think I’d be cool with just being a dog owner.

          • Miss J

            Funny that you mention dog owner- I even gave up on that and settled for a cat. I travel a lot and realized that for a dog it would be to stressful to be with sitters for longer periods of time. I guess not having a child enables you to do only the things you want to do, not thinks you have to, or should do. That sort of freedom is priceless. After all, if we do change our minds after 40, there’s always adoption. I’ve always thought that having a kid is about your desire to take care of and raise another human being as opposed to having a kid because you want to “give the world something”.

          • I grew up with dogs so I’m more of a dog person, but I get what you’re saying. I like travelling too but usually go on shorter trips so my dog has never been on without my boyfriend or I for longer than 5 days.
            And agreed about adoption. I don’t need the child to come from me when there are already millions of children who need homes out there. Plus pregnancy/childbirth kind of freak me out.

    • snakehissken

      As someone with a history of depression and anxiety, I’ve realized it’s not worth it to me. I wouldn’t be able to keep up the things that keep me sane, and you never get a break from parenthood.

      I actually REALLY like kids, but for the moment I’m satisfied with being an aunt to my best friend’s baby boy. (He tried to steal my pizza once before he could even stand, and if that hilarity didn’t make me want kids I don’t think anything will.)

  • June2

    Well said. Nanny’s are vital and should be paid to reflect that as much as possible. Like, $70 an hour plus inclusion on the family health plan, as they ARE family for the duration of their employment. I am %100 serious.

    • June2

      Or wait, even better – read about how insanely supportive the French system is for parents – so. much. government funded support! (the book, Bringing Up Bebe).

      • June2

        …meaning, compared to France, the US is officially anti-family – there is virtually no support in a practical way compared to the French system. It is shocking that American women agree to get pregnant at all under these circumstances!

        PS: another must read for perspective on how much more supportive other governments/societies are towards mothers esp and family in general than the US at present is the Motherhood Around the World series on the blog, Cup of Jo.

        • Leslie Ortiz

          I guess I’m moving to France! 🙂

        • CatMom

          Ha, well have you seen our restrictive abortion laws? If the conservatives have their way, there won’t be any “agreeing” involved.

          • June2

            Women must secure legal personal autonomy – isn’t it just ridiculous that it’s even still an issue? Sheesh…

  • Such an interesting read, as much as I know there’s no having it all it doesn’t stop me trying even when it has a negative impact on my life – I need to do something about that

    – Natalie

    • Rob

      Often our (insatiable) drive to “have it all” is one of many distractions we employ that keeps us from stopping and experiencing what is really going on with ourselves and loved ones. Sometimes this drive seems to be a desire to fill and empty void within ourselves

  • Life artist

    Having kids changes and challenges you in ways you cannot understand if you do not have them. I have been a mom for 7 years (now 40), adopted 3 daughters 5 years ago. It’s been wonderful, but many changes had to be made because I too wasn’t willing to give up my identity for my kids & partner. Remember though your sense of self changes and even when I’m exhausted and frustrated I’d choose them again if I had it to do over. Motherhood is a worthwhile journey, if you are willing to grow further than you thought possible. That said yes the French and all those socialist societies do have it right. Quality of life matters. Support matters. I agree that the US is anti-parent, but really the US is anti-nonrich persons.

  • Jamie

    Great article. Although neither a super-duper career woman or a mother, I admire women who do it all, because, honestly, anybody who can keep all those balls in the air has some serious skill. But I also worry. I know from experience that there is only so far you can push your mind and body before it starts to break down. While I happily support the women who do have the energy for all those endeavors, I wouldn’t want anyone to feel that they are somehow a lesser person because they have different limitations, and are choosing to respect them.

  • Samantha Lee

    I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately – the notion of “having it all”. And really, you’re right, it’s not possible. Sacrifices are made somewhere, which means you are losing one thing to have something else…ipso facto, NOT having it all. But it’s still difficult not to strive for it – we’re inundated with so much on the internet – that “perfect” mother, the jet setting fashionista, the workout crazed, the at home-chef, the world traveler. The thing to remember is that none of these people are ALL OF THESE THINGS. You can do anything, but not everything. There is physically not enough time and energy in our lives. We just have to decide what are the few things that mean the most to us and focus on those.

    • nicholeNYC

      love that. ‘none of these people are ALL of these things’!

  • Thank you for the honesty! I’m a working mom (at a startup) with a 7 month old and I laughed at myself when I thought “how did she find time for that?” after reading “at least one 15-minute ice bath” per day. . The thing is – NO ONE actually does it all and that’s entirely ok! I’m still learning this myself 😉

    • I thought of that to! I mean… not even my face mask I am able to do this days…

  • yesterday, YESTERDAY, I declared that I was done with the chase. this article is both poignantly written and a critical perspective missing from the rose-gold Mightype. AMEN!

  • Leah Davis

    What i find frustrating is that it isn’t enough just to be a mom now. I think our generation (I’m 33) really looks down at the choice to stay home. As the mom of a six month old with a law degree, I feel immense pressure to return to my career and do something “important” at some point in my professional life. For some reason, I feel like it isn’t enough just to be a mom and raise kids. I’m not sure if that is societal or self-imposed, but I can’t shake it. I know it is a blessing to be able to make the choice whether to work or not, which I do truly appreciate, but I don’t feel like I can just enjoy being a mom. Everyone around me is developing some type of career, even if its a part-time gig that they do from home. Why can’t being a mom for some period of time just be enough if that’s a choice that people make?

    • Hey Leah, I can’t answer that question for you because I am the mom who can’t accept being ONLY the mom. I live in Brazil, things here are different and I am blessed enough to have a staff helping me with the kids. I have 3 under 3 and probably because of the staff I can’t aloud myself to be just a mom, I need to do something smart and productive to my life and I do want that. I just don’t know exactly how to manage this and being a mom and if is really something that will be smart and bring me money or if it is something just to keep me busy and don’t make me obligated to do the mom things everyday. I know I will be a better mom if I do other things in my life rather than motherhood, but I also feel I am being judged all the time for not being that person yet, since I have help. I think you totally can be just a mom for as long as you want and be proud of that decision and you being uncomfortable with this probably comes from the same dark area I also feel uncomfortable with not wanting to be just a mom, but I definitely don’t want a 9 to whatever kind of job and not be able to pick my kids up from school. I want it all, with balance.

    • Basil

      There’s so much pressure on mothers (I don’t notice my husband getting the same). You’re a heartless bitch if you go back to work and you’re retrograde and wasting your talents if you don’t. As a society, I think we need to start recognising that people and their needs change over the course of their life, and you have DECADES of a working life. Taking some time out to look after your children, if that’s what is best for you and your family, should be welcomed

  • Rob

    We often fall prey to the idea that if we get everything we want, we will be happy. So we engage in the never-ending chase to “have it all”. Meanwhile our life passes us by.

  • meme

    Yet I don’t see any articles on men who find the balance to “have it all”. Maybe that’s a big part of the issue.

    • Sarah

      I don’t think men get to “have it all” either though; our society just talks about it less. Men who make a lot of money are often workaholics and do not get to spend that much time with their children or see them grow up. My father is a lawyer who always worked late hours. My brother and I were much closer to our mother and respected her more simply because she was a larger part of our lives. He travel a lot with work, and I think he missed out on a lot of the wonderful parts of raising a child as a result, like seeing your daughter take her first step or hearing your son say his first word.

  • Sorry, American women, but NOOOOOOO. YOU ARE NOT ‘CHOOSING’ TO OVERWORK YOURSELVES. Statutory maternity leave in the UK is 39 weeks with 90% pay for the first 6 weeks! Vs just 12 where you are! (Idk if this differs state to state but that’s what google told me). And on top of that you have half the statutory annual holiday days that people in the UK do. To me at least that looks NOTHING like ‘choice’. Don’t let people fool you into thinking this is about personal responsibility when it is about politics. Sorry to get crazy, but this is not your fault.

    Whiskey Tango Flat White | Life and style in weird short essays

  • Cynthia Schoonover

    Babies grow up and that is what people forget. Having children is a lifetime commitment, even when they become adults, and having children is not for everyone. You should have children because you want them and are willing to take on the responsibility, not because your parents or in-laws want to be grandparents, or all your friends are having babies, or to patch up your relationship with your partner/spouse. The countries which have mandated maternity benefits probably have higher taxes. It’s not the government’s job to take care of you, as having a baby is your own choice. You can’t have it all, because something or someone is going to suffer somewhere along the line. I did not work full time until my youngest started high school. I don’t know how women manage a job and a baby. I did it for two weeks after my oldest was born, and then I resigned. I was much happier staying at home and having less. My husband worked full time and I earned some extra money by taking in sewing jobs. I never worried about keeping up with others, and I still don’t.

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  • oye

    when i went back to work after having my son, my friend (another working mom) told me that the key is to finding a balance of sucking a little bit at your job and a little bit at being a mom. if you’re excelling at one, probably means you’re out of balance with the other. zen of suckage