What Is the REAL Problem? Having it All or Doing it All?

Woman with Worries eyes closedI’d like to say I’ve been contemplating this one for years. You know. That tricky issue of “having it all” and how to make it work.

But it wouldn’t be true.

Contemplating anything for years would assume (a) mental capacity to do so, (b) sufficient sleep for aforementioned mental capacity, and (c) time to kill, or more specifically, time to think about implausible scenarios. Most working mothers? (And that would be all of us.) We’re mired in (d) none of the above.

Dare I add –  these days all I contemplate is the changing state of my softening neck, and its potential impact on my (imaginary) dating future.

The Personal Parenting Pact

Sure, sure. There’s the blur of months that comes with a newborn. We expect that.  But what about the (unwritten) blur of years that follows? The mother’s manic manipulation of a 24-hour period? Her inane insistence on tricking the laws of physics (the 30-hour day)? Defiance in the face of postpartum biology (huffing and puffing on the StairMaster)?

Oh. And let’s not forget that once they’re screaming toddlers and questioning second graders, we’re on a path to Zen to get our “happy” back, through the bickering, the chasing, the driving, the growing expenses.

One way or another, who among us hasn’t bought into the notion that we can have it all, if we can just figure out the right formula for doing so?

The Myth of Having it All

And possibly, we could have it all. If we make ample use of phrases like “You can have it all, just not all at the same time” – which is precisely what Emma Thompson was quoted as saying in the press, and is a line we’ve heard over and over again.

But truthfully – who among us doesn’t think, somehow, that we really could have it all – all at the same time – if we can manage better, schedule better, sleep a little less? That the inability to have it all is somehow our fault? Our ineptitude? Our attitude?

Frankly, I think we need to shift the conversation. And the burden of responsibility. Isn’t it really an issue of doing it all rather than having it all? And isn’t doing it all – on our own – a physical impossibility?

The Parenting Package

The more I talk to (and read) anything from the maternal side of the parental equation, I am struck by the constancy of “Mom” saddled with double duty, Mom managing maternal guilt, and Mom shrinking under the woeful weight of inadequacy. In her own view.

Many write eloquently about the tug-of-war they’re living – wanting to stay in the workforce, dealing with a long commute, feeling as though every aspect of life – marriage, parenting, career – is compromised by an inability to provide peak performance in each area. One woman I read recently said simply:

I can’t juggle what I used to.

And while there are reasons for this that remain individual to each of us, don’t millions of mothers say these words, as we blame ourselves for running out of steam when it comes to “doing it all?”

Don’t we feel this way at least some of the time – whether we work part-time, full-time, in the home, outside the home, or the full time job of parenting our sons and daughters?

I repeat an assertion I’ve stated previously: parenting is a profession, or at the very least, involves a workload, skill set, and importance that ought to liken it to one whether compensated in dollars or not. In complicated times, this is more true than ever.

Parenting is Work, Loving is Work

I will make a distinction between a one-child family and more than one, just for a moment. Yes, a digression. The only mothers I’ve observed who aren’t half nuts have one child. Two parents to manage a single child? I’ve watched in awe. And envy.

That said, I’m delighted with my sons, but parenting is physical as well as emotional work. And time. Every day. And then there’s loving – the man or woman who is your partner. Loving is a commitment – and yes, it takes effort. Attentiveness is essential. So is a little bit of romance.

Ideally, fathers and mothers share the workload. Or, divide it up in ways that feel fair to both involved, according to them, still allowing for earning a living.

Gone is an economy (and lifestyle) in which most households can operate on a single income. For some, that’s part of the problem. For others, it’s the fact that as women, we’re accustomed to earning our way, we’ve invested in our careers, we love what we do. Compromising the sense of self that is derived from earning power and “contributing” takes a terrible toll. Even if we love being mothers.

Doing it All

Might I wax retro momentarily, and suggest there’s a reason it takes two to tango? Doesn’t it follow that raising children might require more than a single set of hands? And more than one point of view?

Wasn’t there a time when parenting was more communal? Great Aunt Edie would babysit, Aunt Louise helped out with the cooking, and Grandma came to stay for a week so Mom and Dad could get away to the Poconos – and did so without guilt?

Notice – in my scenario – it’s the women whose “job” it was to pitch in with domestic tasks. (And in those same days-gone-by, the men were fixing things, tinkering in the garage, bringing home the bacon, and yes, having a drink or two in front of the fire.)

And then there is our familial landscape in times of divorce. If you’re going solo, you’d better have a helluva support team lined up – friends, family, co-workers. Or kiss a decade or two goodbye – at least – kiss the illusion of what they will be goodbye. There’s joy to be had, and struggle. Tough choices, and narrowing windows. The question of having it all – or doing it all – isn’t even in the picture.

It’s “get it done any way you can.”

Work-Life (Im)balance

I admit that working a corporate job when my children were little was my salvation. I adored them of course, but it was exhausting being 40-something and dealing with two rambunctious boys. Those hours in the office, about 10 minutes away, offered relief. More physical than anything else, particularly as I knew my kids were in a safe and stimulating day care environment. Because at the time, I could afford to provide that for them.

Did I feel conflicted splitting my role in corporate life with that of Chief Cook and Bottle Washer?


Did I still try to please a traveling husband when he came home?

That, too.

Did I succeed?

It takes two for a marriage to work, and two for it to end. But when divorce came, I would’ve been sunk without the conviction that I could manage, and the reality of having kept a foothold in the work-for-pay world. And doing it all really was doing it all.

Superwoman is a Comic Character

Granted, the past years of a rotten economy have dealt a nasty blow to this household, like millions of others. Money stress worsens everything. Help is unaffordable. Statistically, women earn less than men. With or without double duty (working at home in the parenting role and working for pay in some other), doing it all is a virtual impossibility.

Or at least – expecting to do it all well – and isn’t that the problem?

We slog through. Much of our day is mechanical, much is hazy, much is the stuff of getting by. Much of the same can be said of motherhood, period.

May I remind you that Superwoman is a comic character?

Single Father Formula?

So what about the single fathers out there? Those with primary custody who are also carrying a significant load?

I suggest there is likely a woman in the picture – if not a romantic partner, family or friends who pitch in. I wonder if they even think about having it all. Or are they plowing ahead doing everything they can, and not castigating themselves because it doesn’t seem like enough? Is there a lesson (for the women) in that?

And I must say, I admire this when I encounter it – fathers raising their children – in part because there is less angst and less self-deprecation. Yet  might that be because their bodies don’t age like a woman’s, their sexual marketability will not end at 40 or 45, and they’re still making time for the occasional beer with the buds or night out on the town – and sans guilt?

Is a man “doing it all” really doing it all? Or is his view of doing it all different?

And do the men who parent more actively quibble and compete over who is doing what, not to mention who is the better sort of father?

Doing it Together, Doing it Differently

For me, it was never about “having it all.” Certainly not consciously. It was about doing the best I could, with whatever came my way.

Wouldn’t it be lovely if we considered alternatives to carrying the onus of “having it all” or even “doing it all” – as women? What if we accepted that conflict was inevitable, and “doing it together” makes more sense? You know. Individuals interchanging roles as they see fit, without labeling, mythologizing, aggrandizing, or diminishing the value and effort in any of it.

And without grading ourselves or our performance, to some imaginary and unachievable standard.


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  1. says

    Is a man “doing it all” really doing it all? Or is his view of doing it all different?

    I suspect that there are some distinct gender differences in our perception of what it means to do it/have it all. The compromises that we all have to make are tough to swallow.

    I haven’t been able to chase my career the way that I wanted to. Some of my dreams lie just beyond my grasp. I can see them, almost touch them but have been unable to reach for them because of the cost.

    And some of those dreams aren’t necessarily things that I wanted when I was younger. It took life experience to realize that they are things that I believe to be fulfilling and rewarding.

    Right now I have two basic goals.

    1) Finding a way to live my dreams and not dream my life.
    2) Reaching a place where I am happy with what I have.

    • BigLittleWolf says

      “And some of those dreams aren’t necessarily things that I wanted when I was younger. It took life experience to realize that they are things that I believe to be fulfilling and rewarding.”

      I understand this so well. And your two goals. Thanks for joining in this discussion, Jack.

  2. says

    “Wouldn’t it be lovely if we considered alternatives to carrying the onus of ‘having it all’ or even ‘doing it all’ – as women?” Yes. It starts with ourselves. What would be really incredible is finding a way to pass that along to our children too.

  3. says

    I’m lucky. I have a wonderful partner who earns enough to support our family. So we have a lot.

    The “not quite all” part of our equation involves a move far away from family and friends to a part of the country where we’re not as happy as we could be and don’t have access to many aspects of the traditional “village” that you mention. And part of the reality of that move (combined with starting our family) is that I had to give up my job. The flip-side of that is that my time at home has introduced me to the idea of a new career (writing) that I’d never considered before.

    So – perhaps in a scenario like mine where most variables are good ones – not having exactly what we want can introduce us to the possibility of having something new.

  4. says

    I have to admit, I like Kristen’s take, that where one door closes another opens. And yes, I’m trying to make this happen for me. I’ll be honest, I want it all and most of my struggle is accepting that I cannot. Knowing in my mind that I can’t but wanting it badly in my heart. Disconnect. Like you career is important, but how to shut it down when away and how to become an employee when I feel pulled to be a mother. Conflicted. You wrote that we sometimes feel That the inability to have it all is somehow our fault? Our ineptitude? Our attitude? Yes!! I can’t see why I can’t. This is a high hurdle for me to climb.

    Thanks so much for the shout out my friend!

    • BigLittleWolf says

      I will say, Christine, when kids are older, as long as you know they are where they’re supposed to be (and fine), it’s far easier to be “at work” away from them, without worry and without conflict. One of the nice things as time goes one, and they become more self-sufficient.

      You still may find that what you want evolves, however. Your career ambitions in your 30s look different 10 years later, as does what matters to you. Ideally, we would all have options to tinker with the amounts of relationship / domestic life / social life / parenting / career that comprises our days and nights. (It sounds good anyway, doesn’t it? :))

  5. says

    Anytime I think of “having it all” it makes me want to RUN and SELL everything I have and move to a shack on the beach. It’s way too much work! Even still, I have issues with wanting to do everything well and being a working mom just seems to be counterproductive.

  6. says

    Further to Kristen’s post today about how blogging has changed her off-line life and relationships, here’s to hoping that our virtual meeting, discussing, contemplating, wishing for change (i.e. a more communal spirit of support for parents of every gender and configuration of single, together, supported-emotionally-by-friends-or-family) may contribute toward an off-line reality where, at the very least, no parent (nor their children) ought to feel that they are alone in the struggle.

    While I feel fortunate in my career, I gave up my uncertain film career for the good of being there consistently (in body and in check-book) for my kids. My wife worked while I completed school and took on loans, but the struggles modeled an ethic of everyone pitching in for our kids and helped solidify the idea of relationship and sacrifice as something you do for love, out of love, with love.

    And then there is luck. So while I may not “have it all” (nor do I want it all), I do have all that I want. So, whether or not I have any say in the matter, I certainly wish every parent, kid (and non-parent) the freedom to explore dreams and know that they are safe to fall and be helped back up. Perhaps far from lived reality at present, but one can always imagine. Namaste

    • BigLittleWolf says

      “The struggles modeled an ethic of everyone pitching in” – I believe this still exists, but it isn’t necessarily reflected in the stories we see or hear, what we watch on television, or what is presented in popular film. And while we’ve touched on this conversation before (Emma Thompson), I think many of us would take solace and inspiration in seeing some of these stories (rather than pure escapism) on film. Simplistic of me perhaps, but I would certainly see them.

      I love your approach of moving the sense of community here into our real communities – and I’ve seen that happen already. Those lines may be crossed in very positive ways, and change lives, for the better.

  7. says

    I am a single father and I agree with the article. I don’t try to feel like that I could do more or be envious of others because there may be two of you. I just try to always do the best that I can and let the cards fall where they may.

  8. says

    Well, since I’m a solo Dad…. of two teenage boys. It’s hard. And Wolfie, the only women in my life are the cleaner and babysitter (colleague’s student daughter) and my own family (who live 1000 miles away).
    I’m lucky in that I have some flexibility @ work and my commute is a 20 minute walk. And the lads are wonderful.
    Costs? I don’t date. My social life consists of church, family and school occasions, and facebook. The basics get done, but the pretty things do not. I’d rather cook dinner or play the viola (with son number two) or help with homework than get a costume together.
    I never have believed in superman — and I think women believe that they can. That lie, in my view, cripples them.

    • BigLittleWolf says

      Welcome to both the new dads for joining in the conversation. (Chris – you have a cleaner? ;))

      You raise an excellent point about costs. Single or married, the costs of raising kids often puts a crimp in any sort of adult socializing (or those dreams of “having it all”). When you are on your own, that’s certainly a factor in the ability to meet for dating or more.

      I agree with your remark that believing one can do it all/have it all can become crippling.

  9. says

    I can relate to all of your words. I am that woman. The one forced into doing it all. No choice. The father of my children lives far away both in physical and emotional distance. Full time parent, employee and student. I do what I have to. I am always climbing over just one more rock. Sometimes the superwoman analogy gets me through… sometimes it cripples.
    But I look at my children and what they have become and I know… I did a fantastic- super woman- job. It is more the career that has suffered for me to this point in time. But I would have it no other way.

  10. says

    That being torn being profession and family once got to me. I knew that I couldn’t do it all; I consciously chose to be a parent and reveled in that choice… except when I didn’t. A choice I never regretted but only recently came fully to terms with. I already have it all – can’t do it all – and to be honest, I am not totally sure what “all” is??

  11. says

    Part of what I think is interesting/problematic is that we are often quite aware that we cannot do it all or be it all- yet we still try. I use a quote from Wayne Gretzky with my kids on a regular basis:

    “You miss 100% of the shots you don’t take.”

    I love it, but I have to add that I wouldn’t push my kids to over extend themselves the way we parents do. It is not always a good use of our time and energy.


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