The concept of “having it all” — and women’s ability to do so — has been heavily debated over the past few decades, evolving from a conversation around how women should be able to have it all, to realizing they couldn’t, to pursuing it all over again in different forms. Below, MR’s editorial team explores why this phrase remains frustratingly relevant.
Haley: Hi! Question for you all. During yesterday’s edit meeting, we talked about the concept of “having it all” born out a question from a community member and how pervasive it still is, even while the words themselves induce an eye-roll. I suspect the reason we can’t let go of the idea is that it remains a kind of unspoken target. Even if it may no longer mean “being a put-together CEO with three children and a doting husband,” it’s still floating in the ether, taunting us in other forms, don’t you think? What do you think “having it all” means today?
Leandra: Lately I’ve noticed the conversation shifting away from self-improvement towards self-satisfaction — that is, I don’t need to become MORE, I am enough. The most recent Heather Havrilesky book, in fact, was called What If This Were Enough? Elaine Welteroth is about to publish a book called More than Enough, and I recently also saw this article headlined, “Here’s a question to consider: What if there’s nothing wrong with you?”
Haley: Yes — it seems like a natural response to the self-improvement/productivity focus of the last five years, which has been exhausting.
Leandra: So in my view, having it all is moving away from getting it all. To quote Sheryl Crow, “It’s not getting what you want, it’s wanting what you got.”
Harling: To that point, one of the main problems with “having it all” as it was initially defined is that it assumed all women want the same things, which is obviously untrue. There’s more nuance to contentment than a set of preconceived goals that may suit one person’s aspirations but not another’s.
Haley: Yes true! But I do worry that the details of that definition have transformed to something so vague (i.e. consistent contentment or self-love) that it feels equally unrealistic to meet.
Emma: Totally, which is why I find that there’s almost a cognitive dissonance with conversations centered on this idea of having it all. On the one hand, we know that the concept implies an undefined and oftentimes unattainable target, one that is dated or no longer relevant. But we, to your point Haley, still do have these conversations!
Leandra: The advice I often give is if you can live a fulfilling and happy life working for someone else, or not working at all, DO THAT! There is so much emphasis on becoming a CEO nowadays and how that has convoluted the “having it all” conversation, too. And it doesn’t feel right.
Haley: Although I do think we are moving away from “everyone has to be a boss” era.
Harling: Yeah I have zero desire to be a CEO, so it actually feels more empowering to me to acknowledge that than it would be to try to fit myself into someone else’s box for what success looks like.
Emma: We might be moving away from specific targets (ie. being a “boss”) but in my own experience, these convos still center around three spheres of existence: work, home, personal/social life.
Haley: Agree. When I asked people what “success” looks like to them, I was so surprised by the number of people who rattled off a list of things in all different areas of their life (fulfilling work, time for hobbies, an active social life, inner wellness, a loving partner). A kind of “ultimate balance” that I’m coming to learn is impossible to achieve.
Emma: And yet, is still desired?
Leandra: I don’t think intrinsically desired. I think desired in a very manufactured way — as a thing we think we’re supposed to want.
Emma: Great point. Late-stage capitalism strikes again. (By the way, running to an appointment!)
Haley: Bye Emma! And yes agree re: desiring what we think we should want. Sometimes I’ll berate myself for not throwing a dinner party or something, and then realize that I’m actually really satisfied socially.
Leandra: Oooooh, sometimes I’ll make plans, then realize all I wanted to do was put on an outfit, not actually socialize. I also went through a phase in my mid-late twenties when I really had to ask myself if I had built MR into a media company because I wanted to or because I felt like the opportunity was available to me, so I had to.
Harling: Shonda Rhimes famously said that, “Whenever you see me somewhere succeeding in one area of my life, that almost certainly means I am failing in another area of my life.” I’m curious if that comes across as apropos to the evolving definition of having it all — which is, perhaps ironically, acknowledging that you probably never can, and being at peace with that.
Haley: I love that quote. And it’s almost embarrassing how often I return to that realization. And how many times our culture has! It’s like we keep having to relearn this lesson.
Leandra: The thing about having it all is that we all do
Have it all
Haley: Memoir forthcoming? I think it’s very natural to think of your life as a collection of pillars (work/friends/romance/family/home), but it’s so easy to get caught up in what those things should look like instead of what you genuinely want them to look like, or what genuinely suits you. And I think that’s because sometimes, when it does look like you think it should, it feels so good. Too good! And you mistake that feeling for fulfillment. When really you’re just fulfilling an external expectation.
Leandra: You’re on to something re: how good it feels to get something that you think you should want, which brings up the question of what we pursue when we pursue happiness. I got to happiness because that’s not actually what we pursue, or I pursue. I’m after fulfillment.
Haley: But don’t you think even fulfillment wavers?
Leandra: Fulfillment is that indelible feeling that sits in your gut and enables your ability to problem solve and answer hard questions and frankly, self-heal. It doesn’t necessitate a consistent feeling of purpose but it does necessitate a sort of blinders-on approach to keeping in touch with your purpose.
Harling: Yeah I think of fulfillment and happiness as very different too — the former being more immune to the natural permutations of how you feel about yourself/your purpose on a daily basis.
Haley: Are you describing fulfillment Leandra or just knowing yourself? Or are they one in the same?
Leandra: They’re one in the same, I think. I only feel lost when my inner compass is swimming away from me. And sometimes to get it close again I have to crawl out of my skin just so I can get back in, but those are some of the most rewarding time periods — not because I’m a masochist, but because I’m cracked open.
Haley: I think people often think of fulfillment as hitting all the pillars at the same time (I historically have), but it’s much less concerned with external factors. And the reason its easy to lose sight of that is because we all have moments in our twenties where everything lines up and you think THIS is it. And then you realize that it’s not. But you try to get back to that feeling, thinking that getting up earlier or drinking more matcha will enable you to find that elusive balance again. But it’s not about nailing balance.
Harling: What do you think the stumbling blocks are that are impeding culture from being freed from the trope of “having it all”?
Haley: Assuming it’s more than simply endeavoring to know yourself
Leandra: Compare culture too
Haley: Yes, those are intimately tied!
Harling: And the wellness-industrial complex, which certainly encourages the idea that you can fix your life by doing/eating the right things. It sells reinvention of self by means of a quick fix.
Haley: And it’s always selling the best of everything. The best job. The best group of supportive friends. The best state of mind. Meghan is writing a story about the joy of mediocrity for us this month, and I think there is really something to celebrate in that.
Leandra: Compare culture is distracting. Seeing and being around people who are self-satisfied and confident and purportedly fulfilled…it can trick you into believing that by doing the things you see them doing, you’ll get the same results. I think I struggled a lot with this in my twenties! I always wanted to be around women who had their shit together and I got distracted so many times because I conflated their self-assurance and shit togetherness with the actual THINGS they did to get there, and tried to re-approximate. It is only very recently that I have been able to recognize this and course correct
Haley: When really the more likely common factor is weathering enough shit while being thoughtful enough to let it teach you something. Which doesn’t package well as a morning routine.
Leandra: Yeah, or respecting yourself enough to recognize the process and feel comfortable letting it play out
Harling: It’s also difficult to articulate while you’re in the middle of it, and often becomes clearest in hindsight — which is not something the internet metabolizes as easily. The process of muddling through something is rarely represented
Haley: Totally. I feel like all of my essays lately are saying the same thing: You’re okay. Let it ride. Pay attention to your honest feelings. And I feel like a broken record, but it’s the only lesson that has truly endured over the course of my twenties.
Harling: You will change, and you will change again
Leandra: When you do present in progress, stream-of-consciousness thoughts, though, particularly in the context of publishing, you do also run the risk of having this timeline of your emotional ebbs and flows immortalized
Haley: For sure. Which is why I increasingly shy away from saying “THIS IS RIGHT,” and instead try to say, “here’s one way to think about it, it might be wrong.”
Leandra: I get a ton of shit for showing pictures of my kin because of what I went through, which is definitely a product of my having shared how painful hearing other pregnancy announcements were. But I was purposefully thoughtful about what I did and didn’t share publicly during the pregnancy! And for as long as we are operating under the guise that you are guilty until proven innocent, this won’t change.
Haley: Or malicious until proven misunderstood/changed.
Harling: Yes, I think that’s one of the biggest challenges of writing about yourself on the internet — you have to take a stance from time to time, but they can be turned against you so easily as soon as your life evolves, and that is an approach that’s governed by the same rigidity as “having at all.” It doesn’t allow for nuance.
Haley: Yes, the internet has a way of making something very vague (human emotion and pursuit of connection) into something falsely explicit or literal, which is part of the problem with having it all, too
Harling: But I also want to acknowledge that the status quo is set up in a way that consistently makes the conversation about “having it all” relevant. Women are shouldering nearly three times more of the work associated with the home than men — child care, elder care, cooking, cleaning, transportation. Most companies don’t offer paternity leave (I think it’s under 10%) in America. Which means that women who choose to have families and careers simultaneously are frequently tasked with a juggling act that their male counterparts are not. So I think that’s part of why the aspiration of having it all still feels like a pressure cooker
Haley: Right, and those realities don’t go away, even if we add in “higher calling,” “good mental health,” and “a perfect wellness routine” to the definition of having it all.
Leandra: What does having it all mean to you ppl?
Haley: I think I’m just coming out of my cocoon of believing it meant balance across work/home/family/friends/love (and my definitions of success within those realms), and beginning to see it moreso as a kind of comfort with my ebbs and flows. And truly understanding what taking care of myself looks like practically and emotionally (which, like you said, is often hard work)
Harling: This is such a tough question because I tend to think of contentment in ways that are either too specific (to my own detriment) or too vague (which is probably a symptom of the current confusion around “having at all”). I would say that one big aspect for me is being at peace with who I am as a person to the extent that no matter how my life unfolds, no matter what someone says about me on the internet, no matter what turns my career takes or how my relationships evolve, I am still okay. I’m still grounded.
Also, this is corny, but just knowing I am loved by people who matter to me — that can feel like having it all because it is fully independent from my more tangible goals/aspirations.
Haley: That’s a great definition of having it all. (And I think it’s worth pointing out that I think that kind of self-assuredness is what enables people to more productively contribute to society and help others.) What about you Leandra?
Leandra: Money, shoes, hot men
Harling: Rethinking my whole definition
Leandra: I think my definition is a version of both of yours. I think we won’t ever stop pursuing the quest to have it all, because to terminate that pursuit is to stop trying to learn ourselves. What we are actually doing, I believe, is discovering that having it all is as simple as having your own back. I don’t know how else to put it. Being comfortable with the prospect that wherever I go, there I am, that even when I’m not alone, I am all alone (not lonely! It’s different).
I used to say that my biggest fear was loneliness, and to a degree, it is still is, but we are all alone, no matter who we fall asleep or wake up next to, so it kind of occurred to me at some point while I was pregnant and in the incipient months postpartum that what I was afraid of was myself and that I was afraid of myself because I didn’t know how to be alone. It’s kind of like a child who only knows love in the context of an abusive parent or something. They want so badly to love, but can’t unlock the chamber that makes it possible. Learning a new language of self talk and care and understanding and most importantly, I think, tolerance, is having it all. It’s a fluid body of work that doesn’t reach a conclusion or pinnacle, it persists like an organ, shutting down only when you do, or if you don’t treat it well. It’s not at all sexy but fuck, when you crack it, it is so, so good.
Collages by Emily Zirimis.