Can we really have it all?

May 19, 2011

Eight months ago, when I blogged about feeling lost, a good number of you responded, saying you felt the same way. Your comments and emails made me realize just how universal that feeling is amongst people who are, by most measures, successful. So many of us feel unfulfilled, unsatisfied and yearning for more, even if we don’t know what we want more to be.

Now that I have a job and an apartment and a city and a social life, I no longer feel lost. I feel like I’m on a path. A meandering path whose end is out of sight, but a path nonetheless. And yet I still have a nagging, underlying feeling of not being satisfied. Like something’s missing.

I have a few ideas of what that something might be. It might be a life partner, because I’m feeling the tug of wanting to start a family. It might be wanderlust; I often find myself daydreaming about my next big trip. Or maybe it’s simply the desire to do so many things in so few hours. On certain days the nagging feeling disappears, like when I finish an awesome story or hit a milestone for my book. On those days, I feel a sense of accomplishment, one that fills the hole of yearning. But most of the time I wonder: What would make me happier? How can I help myself feel satisfied?

Sometimes it's nice when there's only one road.

In the midst of trying to figure this all out, a book arrived at my office. I get so many job-related books at work — from publicists and authors who want me to use them as sources — that I couldn’t possibly read them all. (Though if I ever decide to write a career-focused book, I’ll know what’s already out there!) Yet from the name of this book, I knew right away I’d want to read it: Undecided: How to Ditch the Endless Quest for Perfect and Find the Career — and Life — That's Right for You.

The authors, Barbara and Shannon Kelley, a mother-daughter pair, explore how today’s woman, with more career and life options than ever before, is often paralyzed into making no choices at all. I fall into the opposite camp; surrounded by appealing opportunities, I try to do everything. For that reason, I wished they’d titled this book, You Can’t Have It All.

Because that’s precisely their point: that women can’t have it all. That “having it all” is a myth. That expecting our job to be some sort of spiritual calling, one that’s entirely fulfilling, is a recipe for disappointment, just like thinking we can put 100 percent of our energy into a high-power career and still have 100 percent to spend on kids.

The book isn’t a downer, simply a reality check. I don’t yet have to deal with the career vs. family dilemma, yet I still struggle with trying to do it all. Career. Side biz. Blog. Socializing. Exercising. Eating right. Because opportunities are also trade-offs: If I spend the next two years working a full-time job, that means I’m not traveling. If I follow my hankering to join a tech startup, I’d have to give up journalism. And this applies on a daily basis, too: If I spend today barbecuing with friends, that’s one less day I have to work on my blog.

I’m always trying to fit everything in, always planning for my Next Big Thing. And that has an unfortunate side effect: forgetting to live in the moment, to appreciate today. “My real life was always on the verge of something else,” said one of the women quoted in Undecided. How many of you feel the same way?

But. Not going for it all makes me feel like a slacker. I want to throw myself into everything I do! Because What If I decide to hike the Appalachian Trail and it changes my life? What If I throw my energy into a book and a publisher buys it? What If today’s opportunity leads to another which leads to another? Not going for it feels like settling. And “the very word ‘settling’ carries negative connotations, far more negative than its close relative, ‘compromise,'” the authors write. “When it comes to achieving our dreams — and having it all — do we interpret accepting anything less as giving up on our potential?”

The mother-daughter author pair treats this as a women-only phenomenon, saying women have trouble making decisions because, historically, we’re not used to having these choices. In decades past, women were expected to become a secretary or a teacher or a mother, lacking the career options we have today. Now, faced with so many options, we don’t know which one to choose.

At first, I disagreed with their female-only premise; after all, I know plenty of guys my age who suffer from this same I-want-to-do-everything mentality. But then the authors made another point that does apply only to women, one whose weight I feel increasingly each day. Women's choices, they say, are more loaded than men’s. Why? Because we hear the tick of the biological clock. Each time we make a decision, we also have to factor in having children — if that’s something we want to do — because we don’t have forever to do it. I often say to one of my closest girlfriends that I wish I had two decades of my twenties, because there are so many things I want to do before having a family. Yet men my age don’t feel that pressure. Time is on their side, which, the authors of this book say, makes their life decisions less loaded.

This entire issue is one of privilege, of course. Having too many choices is a problem of the world’s wealthy, the privileged, the lucky even. But that doesn’t make it any easier to decide what to choose — and what to give up. Which is why, for so many of us, the grass always looks greener on the other side.

What’s the solution? The authors of Undecided propose an idea I’ve actually written about here before: that we might be happier if we let go of some of our dreams. Would we be better off if we held ourselves accountable for achieving our biggest dreams, rather than all of them? Are we even capable of figuring out which of our dreams are the biggest, which are most worth chasing?

What do you think? Is it possible to have it all? Could you keep yourself from trying?

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    31 Replies to “Can we really have it all?”

    • Karen Walker says:

      Hi Alexis,
      We haven’t connected in awhile, although I read your blog all the time. I wanted to respond to this because it is so universal. You are definitely not alone in feeling a gnawing dissatisfaction, a feeling that something is missing. And trying to balance everything we want to do. I am in a very different time of my life from you, but the feeling is similar. How do I want to spend what time I have left?
      Knowing you, you will figure it out and continue on your amazing journey with joy and much success.

    • Emma says:

      This is a timely post! I’m currently reading Flux: Women on Sex, Work, Love, Kids, and Life in a Half-Changed World by Peggy Orenstein. It’s ten years old, but still quite relevant. I have wrestled with these issues a lot personally. I am definitely someone who wants to feel extremely passionate about what I do–career, love, etc. But I have realized that while I am ambitious, I do not want an all-encompassing job. I have a great job that I find fulfilling, but I don’t work crazy hours and therefore have time to (try to) be a good mom, exercise, and write. I think there’s something to your “biggest dreams” idea. It’s all about priorities!

    • Sarah says:

      I totally hear you. I get myself into a tizzy about this kind of stuff all the time. The best I can say is, I can have all I want, just not at the same time. There are so many things I want to do, but as the mother of a small child, some things are just not feasible this moment. But, with some planning, a little help, and a bit of making my own luck, I can start on a few things now. And I try to remember, if something is really truly importa

      • Sarah says:

        (sorry, my daughter is on my lap pressing buttons!)

        And I try to remember, if something is really truly important to me, I will make the time. If I don’t make the time, it must not be that important to me.

    • Emily says:

      Oh yeah, any person with a liberal arts background in particular (me included) was sold a major bill of goods that career should be all-satisfying on every personal, professional, ethical level. Realizing this is crap is the first step toward recovery! Which isn’t to say we shouldn’t have passions and chase them. But no, no one can have it all. Every door we open does mean another one shuts. But … so what? I mean, the fact I choose to spend my 20s as a journalist meant I didn’t spend my 20s as a Rockette. Maybe I wanted to be a Rockette? I’ll never really know. Shrug.
      Maybe what you need to do at this point is some rose-smelling. You have so many amazing things going on in your life. Maybe it’s time to delight in the small. Have a leisurely dinner. People watch. Get a pedicure. Go to the park and count birds. Life is good. You do have enough and it’s also OK to want more.

      • Alexis Grant says:

        I like the rose-smelling suggestion. I had a hard time cramming so many thoughts into this post, but one way I don’t want it to come across is as complaining. Because I’m happy and lucky! I’m more interested in exploring this theme because so many people seem to grapple with it these days.

        • Emily says:

          I don’t think you’re complaining, no worries. I just know when I used to grapple with these same feelings, and see high-achieving women do the same, it was almost always because my life/their lives didn’t involve enough down time during which they got real glee from little things. Go sit in a park with a coffee and sketch trees! For real.

    • Jeff Sonderman says:

      “Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.”

      Sometimes the most empowering thing you can do is to let go of planning and just see what happens… make choices as they come and then let them go.

    • Emma says:

      Love this post! I can definitely relate. I’m constantly reassessing my priorities and thinking of what I want my life to look like in the future, especially once I have a family, and going back and forth between being so so grateful for everything I have and wanting more. Thanks for sharing; nice to know I’m not alone.

    • Lee says:

      This is a timeless question for many of us– I too feel wanderlust but am tied to a desk job, bills to pay like student loans, trying to blog, write a book, keep up with my kids. I think it is a question of priorities and each of us has different ones–health issues for me and now my husband have forced priorities to shift–does this mean I am not going to still yearn to do it all? No, just have to learn some patience.
      I really like your blog, by the way.

    • I know that back in the day (when I had a home, a steady job, etc.), I seemingly “had it all” as defined by society (minus the family), but I was terribly unhappy. And I couldn’t really define why, my job was okay, my marriage was great, etc.

      Now I realize that I didn’t really know what “it” was…which was the cause of my unhappiness. Letting go of all of that and satisfying my wanderlust has helped me look at the world in a whole new perspective of what I truly want and need to make myself happy. And I think that’s the cause of a lot of people’s struggle…what is “it”? What are those dreams that you should hold on to?

    • Before having children and a whole new set of obligations, is the time to, not only live life to the fullest, but to learn more abouut yourself and what makes you happy. For you, it may be, being able to travel annually, have a fulfilling career and a family. No one can have it all unless they live only for themselves. Yes, take time to smell the roses…learn to be selective in choosing from your options and find the ‘right’ reasons for the choices you make. it’s great preparation for when you do have a family and its your job to teach your children to live in the moment and enjoy all the small things as well as the bigger treats in life.

    • Andrea says:

      I love this blog post and the subsequent discussion in these comments!

      I think contentedness is a practice, not a state of being that comes naturally. And contentedness isn’t settling: It’s knowing that you’re on the right path, right now, and trusting that if you’re not on the right path, you’ll know yourself well enough to know it strongly. …Strongly enough to act and leap.

      I’m with Emily: Enjoying the little moments matters and helps create joy and increase overall life satisfaction. I have to admit that this is MUCH easier for me on days like today in Seattle, when the sun is glistening off of the water, and the ships come in and out and there is a warm breeze.

      When we have 40 straight days of rain, I get antsy and wondering what I’m doing here on Earth and why my life is so gloomy. Ha. 🙂

      On a larger scale: I read once that Americans have become more secular and perceive less higher purpose in their lives, which means more dissatisfaction in general. I’m not sure how much I agree with that, though I do realize that the more in tuned I am with my faith, the more content I feel every day. I won’t say happy – I don’t know if we were put here to be happy and I’m not even sure how to define it.

      Moments of bliss are unsustainable, but we could all use more of them. They’re defined as these zen-like moments full of pure pleasure. I have them sometimes in yoga (usually when I’m laying flat on my back and not expending any energy to be a pretzel) and in church.

      This past Sunday, I was at the communion rail and one of our members was playing “Great is thy faithfulness” on the piano. And then a women came up behind me and started humming softly, and another woman joined in.

      And I just knelt there, hands folded, letting their hums and the music wash over me and I felt … grateful. Grateful for these two women with their understated hums, and grateful for the piano player, grateful for my health, grateful for my life.

      I felt a release of pleasure crystals, which is the only way I know to describe that feeling you get during a massage or when someone gently places their hand on your shoulder.

      And I thought: How come I’m always worrying, dissatisfied, wondering what’s next, when I’ve got so much? I could stay in this moment forever. This is bliss.

      Those moments don’t last on the surface, but they build up underneath, like well reserves that we draw upon in times of trouble.

      Hiking the AT, spending more time with your own baby, sketching trees — all sure ways to create such moments.

      My final comment: the opposite of contentedness is discontent, or feeling stuck. I think you can feel content if you are lost, or practice it. But you cannot if you are stuck. And stuckness almost always comes from having too many obligations, a costly lifestyle, and a desire to maintain appearances. Yuck. Not the stuff of joy.

      Love this conversation.

      • Alexis Grant says:

        I really appreciate your last note, mostly because it makes me feel grateful for not letting myself get stuck 🙂 I’ve got that going for me! Now to focus on how to have more moments of bliss. I love those. For me, they find me while I’m running or hiking or yes, on my back during yoga. I may not be a woman of faith, but I’m certainly spiritual, and those moments make me feel even more so.

    • alisha says:

      This is a great post Alexis, I can totally relate. I wish I could have five more years being 30, with the time to pursue the things I’m passionate about and without the pressure to have kids before “it’s too late”.

      Also, I’m constantly finding that tension between contentment and ambition, because both are good. When I was working full-time I dreamed of working part-time to have the space to create and write. Now that I work part-time and have that space I miss the structured opportunities to achieve and grow my vocational skills.

      Thanks for this reminder that it’s a journey. I really want to be thankful for this season I have right now without rushing into the next.

    • eemusings says:

      Can you have it all? No. Do I keep trying? Yep, I’m a sucker for punishment. I’m not even 23 yet, but I’m definitely starting to wonder how financially I can swing my big travel dreams, having a small wedding, buying a house and having kids in the next 10 years.

    • Alyssa says:

      EEP What a great post and what great comments. This is extremely thought provoking, and these same issues of work/home life balance and how to have it “all” and what “all” really is crosses my mind often, but not quite as eloquently and succinctly as you put it here, lady!

      I think one huge thing is not thinking about “what ifs.” What if I’m missing out on other opportunities, what if I’m making the wrong career path decision, what if I’m doing something that will negatively affect my future? We can’t know these answers, and anyways, we make our own luck… right?

      Also, like Alexis, it’s important to not just be our job. You have outside passions, and that’s how you reconcile what you’re missing, the what ifs that you can’t harp on every moment or you’d go crazy! For instance, I get to write at my job — but it’s not my favorite topic. So, I freelance on the topics I do care about. And, I don’t always agree with the politics of my organization, so I make sure to keep up with my own activism and beliefs. I like how Alexis mentioned this drive to engage at a start up tech company – I feel that too because everywhere, especially publishing, is heading into apps and e-pubs. So, why not jump in early? Luckily, we can do that while having our day jobs by having outside consulting businesses, freelancing, or just general personal skill building by taking classes, networking, attending conferences. Then again, maybe we are trying too hard to do it all then, and setting ourselves up for failure…the balancing act sure can get tiring.

      I guess I’m being positive here because I know there will always be days where the “what ifs” overpower the optimism, but overall, it’s important to just stay calm and realize you can always make a big change, take a leap, in terms of your focus — nothing is EVER permanent, at least not if you don’t want it to be.

    • Kelli says:

      Hi Alexis,

      This makes a really good point. I’m in a good job that I love, but I’ll be 26 this year. I’ve still got a little time, but if I want to travel and see how that’s going to change my life, I don’t have that many years left.

      People travel with kids, and I think it might be fun to do that with mine, but if they’re in the cards, planning starts 4 years from now or it ain’t gonna happen. Of course, there’s always the possibility of adoption…You know, 4 years used to be forever. It’s hard to be happy and in a hurry at the same time.

    • Andrea says:

      “It’s hard to be happy and in a hurry at the same time.” — Brilliant.

    • SoVeryVienna says:

      I am adding this book to my reading list. You write logical ideas. Very hard to implement in practice. I do agree with the women-focused ideas, though. It is tough being a motivated woman in today’s society. I just wrote about this topic on my blog, as well: Nice parallel thoughts this week, Lexi!

    • Hi Alexis,
      This is a great post and I think it resonates with a lot of people (probably mostly women). Like you, I see so many challenges and tasks that I want to tackle–career change, being a mom, writing a memoir, writing a picture book, blogging, etc. In fact, facing a new reality after I had Henry provoked me to begin my blog. I felt lost as I no longer worked, I decided to quit my PhD program, I was now responsible for the well-being of another human being. I bucked the labels that so many attach to themselves and others–I did not want people to only see me as a mom (I did not want that from myself either), but I wanted to be a mom (I appreciated Chris Guillebeau’s post on names!).

      I have kept up my running and yoga schedule and work on my writing daily. I have begun working again and Henry and I go to the park twice a day. I also volunteer to head to groups with big plans. I have tried to tackle everything I can, and I want more. However, lately my body has told me to slow down. I have been exhausted and starving. Too much!

      I think that we can do a lot of what we want, but we might not be able to it now. For me that means putting my memoir on the back burner and focusing on my blog and my picture books. From what I have heard from others, children require far less of their parents’ energy (thank goodness–I can barely keep up now!) as they grow older so I anticipate reengaging with projects later on that I have set aside.

      That said, we contemplate adding to our family and I wonder how I will make that work…I had no idea what changes having a child would bring. The biggest was a re-ordering of my priorities. Henry’s needs come first for me and that is not a choice I made. It became my default once he was born. In the 22 months that have followed, I have learned to squeeze my hobbies in and to take time for myself while still prioritizing Henry’s needs. I have been far more forgiving of myself in the past two years than I was in the years preceding Henry.

      I wish I had an answer to how to feel content…I really think that more thoughtful (and sometimes successful) people tend to reassess themselves more often than just on 1 January and their birthdays. Constant analysis of success and failures to reach benchmarks and to realize self-improvements leads to less contentedness. I don’t see this as negative; instead, I see this as an acknowledgement that we all make mistakes or fall short of our own expectations–we are all imperfect. Striving to do better and to challenge oneself in new and myriad ways makes life more fun and exciting…I certainly hope Henry continues to explore like I have…

    • Becky Benson-Flannery says:

      What I should have added: Less contentedness does not mean not content. I have found that the unexpected–those moments that pop up that bring peace and joy–happen while I try to get everything done. Henry says “vitamins” perfectly when we ready him for bed or spontaneously hugs me when the day has been absolutely awful, I run 8 minute miles at 6 am, or I connect with several friends during the day…

      Good luck finding your moments:)

      • Alexis Grant says:

        Thanks for this, Becky! I also like how you say it’s good to constantly reassess — so we know we’re working toward our goals, whatever makes us happy. Good to keep in mind.

    • Alexis —
      Thanks so much for this post and for the conversation it inspired. What you have written — along with the thoughtful comments of your readers — goes to the heart of what we found when researching our book: we’ve been fed the message that we can do anything, that we can do everything, and that we can have it all. What’s been left out is the fact that there will be challenges — and compromises — along the way. Maybe we can have it all, in the traditional sense, but not necessarily at the same time. Our point is that women today are in a state of transition, with no generational role models (unlike the ones men have had for generations) to help us navigate this new terrain. We’ll figure it out, I have no doubt, but it will take work. We’re hoping that conversations like this one will help to move us forward.
      Thanks again for your post and your nice words about our book. You really got it! barbara

    • Akhila says:

      Great post. It’s something I think about often – how women cannot have it all. It’s because of the biological clock. I too want to travel and work abroad, but I also feel the pressure to go to grad school, get married, “settle down” and have children before it gets too late. Men don’t seem to have the same pressure and they have more time to go and achieve their dreams; they don’t have to have kids by the age of 30 or even 35. And somehow, women usually do end up caring for the kids more and having to give up more – I hope my future husband & I split things equally, but I’m always afraid I’ll be the one who has to give up more of my career/personal dreams to care for the family. Somehow, it always seems that the woman moves or gives up things to be with her husband/take care of the family.

      As for career; I’m interested in an international career, so I do not see it as a divide between getting a “stable job” and getting to travel. I have not gotten to travel much this past year, but after a year I would like to get a job abroad. That way you can live abroad and work as well. I’m interested in international human rights.

      Why not do something like this? Why not be a journalist abroad? I know plenty of journalists living abroad and freelancing. Jina Moore is an excellent example!

    • SoVeryVienna says:

      I wanted to let you know I picked up a copy of Undecided and have been reading it eagerly. It is pretty remarkable that I see myself so vividly in these pages. Clearly this is a social phenomenon. I am so interested in the modern woman and how we create our lives. I do agree with what the authors are saying – we are in the midst of change, not at the end of the feminism era from the 60s/70s.

      At page 56 of the book, I’m hoping to finish it with some ideas on how to live with more peace and commitment. Thanks for flagging it for me – I can see how you’d love that book, too.

    • This is a late comment, but someone posted a really interesting parenting article on Twitter that seems to speak to this discussion: The writer finds that parents of people in their 20s and 30s tried to make their kids’ lives easier (to help in ways their parents’ could not) and that has created some angst. These grown-up children feel a lacking, says the author. Happiness is not accepted as is, the article posits; rather, people always look for something more.

      If we have been told that we can do everything and then fall short (especially if our parents facilitated so much of our early successes), happiness and contentedness will be elusive, correct?

      Just some thoughts…

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