In this post-Lean In era, where concepts such as work-life balance and self-care are now part of many a modern woman’s everyday vernacular, the unobtainable myth of “having it all”—the perfect job, the perfect body, the perfect home, the perfect family—has largely been demystified. We recognize that not just as women, but as humans, we alone, cannot sustain a fulfilling existence without not only the support of others, but the support of ourselves. That we must love ourselves, be patient with ourselves, and forgive ourselves for the mistakes that we’ve made. Yet, I, as is the case with many women, am my own harshest critic.
I have long struggled with the dogma that you can’t “have it all” on a personal and political level. Despite all that I know, all that I’ve learned, and all that I’ve seen—I still seek it all. I still want it all. But not just for myself, for everyone. For, how can I rest as a feminist when feminism so boldly proclaims that we must seek equality for all, or else our individual victories are meaningless?
To be clear, I’m not recommending that women risk their physical or emotional health in hopes of attaining impossible socially-constructed ideals about who or what the perfect woman should be. Nor am I unaware of the structural and intersectional barriers that far too often aggravate women’s attempts to achieve their ambitions. Yet, far too often have I found myself and other women I know falsely interpreting the premise that women “can’t have it all”—as though it’s some kind of Trolley Dilemma where we’re forced to choose between a successful career or maintaining positive relationships, between making money or following our passions, between going out and living healthy. And I’ve seen many pragmatists make the same arguments for different political strategies—we must choose between growing business and maintaining environmental protections, between citizenship for legal immigrants or citizenship for undocumented immigrants, between promoting national unity and recognizing systematic inequalities. But in reality, where one lives, the other doesn’t have to die.
“But in reality, where one lives, the other doesn’t have to die.”
As American women, we’re strong, creative, and resourceful. It is not a matter that we “can’t have it all” (because with the right amount of ingenuity we can accomplish anything). We are capable of supporting many identities and many causes at the same time. After all, isn’t carrying multiple coexisting identities at the heart of intersectionality? We are not one label, but complex individuals comprised of overlapping social roles, both chosen and unchosen. I’m not just a daughter, not just a nonprofit employee, not a just feminist, but all of these identities and many more at the same time. And isn’t supporting many causes at the heart of recognizing how feminism embraces all identities? How often have we had to correct others of the misconception that being pro-feminist means that we are anti-male? Or that being pro-Black is anti-White? The same concept applies with our supporting our multiple political causes. Just because we support one does not mean we have to oppose the other.
Instead, it is a matter of realizing that we “can’t do it all” in the physical sense, recognizing that all humans have a locus of control and that we all have external limitations, which may merely force us to be creative in terms of how we “get it all.” There’s a fine line between being pragmatic and defeatist in our personal or political goals. If individually, our aspirations are feasible, then why should our other goals diminish their validity? Will a task be more difficult to accomplish if it’s one among many, versus the sole priority in our personal or political agendas? Yes, but that doesn’t mean it’s any less worth pursuing. In many ways, the fact that we have multiple passions may make the given task even more vital to our overall being, complementing other identities and beliefs that we carry.
“In our mission to “have it all,” we must first define what the core of “all” means to us on an individual level, both personally and politically.”
We all have our limitations in terms of time, treasure, and talents. So, in our mission to “have it all,” we must first define what the core of “all” means to us on an individual level, both personally and politically. For me, “having it all” means having a career that helps those in need, maintaining positive relationships with loved ones, and taking an active role in my community. These components of my “all” are broad enough for me to have fluidity in my actions, but specific enough to reflect my ideals. And can I do it all? No. Or rather, I can’t do it all by myself all the time. Sometimes, I may need support to reach these goals in the form of family, friends, coworkers, and mentors. And sometimes, I have to recognize within my schedule that it’s impossible for me to attend a work event, a friend’s celebration, and a political rally all at the same time. But I can also discern when to go to a friend’s wedding versus a work party, when to go to a work conference versus a candidate’s speech, and when to go to a voter registration drive versus a night out drinking with friends. But so long as I don’t let one component of my life constantly stunt the vitality of another, or conflict with one another in a dangerous way—I can have it all in a healthy way.
The same goes for our political identities. You can be passionate about reproductive rights, protesting police brutality, and raising the minimum wage all at the same time. We can have it all, so long as we don’t attempt to do it all by ourselves all the time. Activism never has been and never will be a one-woman show. That’s why alliances and coalitions are so critical to our mobilization. They serve as our political support networks when faced by formidable political adversaries or we find ourselves low on capital. And similarly, we can be strategic in terms of how we balance our causes. We know when one cause has legislation that’s gaining momentum, when one cause has a major protest planned, and one cause is being proposed as a referendum.
With the right determination, we can and we will have it all—for ourselves and for our rights.