Having it all isn’t exactly a myth, says Sindhu Hirani Blume ’93. But it’s a knotty issue that requires untangling before each of us figures out what it means in our own life.
In 1993, I unknowingly lied to my college classmates. I also lied to their parents, our professors, and anyone else who was at our graduation ceremony on that hot day in May. I was the student commencement speaker that year, and I told everyone in a rather heightened voice, and with the naïveté that is naturally present at that age, that we (women) could have it all. I meant it because I believed it. And I believed it because it had been drilled into me. And it was a lie.
But as with some lies, it was a great motivator. It pushed me to set and meet goals, to do the things my grandmothers could or would not do, and the things my mother did but to do them better, with more freedom, choice, and control.
Today, 19 years after that speech, having it all is still a relevant discussion, as evidenced by Anne-Marie Slaughter’s much-talked-and-written-about essay, “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All,” in the July-August 2012 issue of The Atlantic. Slaughter writes of her internal struggles in dealing with her troubled teenage son who was in New Jersey while she was on a two-year, high-profile assignment at the State Department in Washington, D.C.
I now have a husband, two children, a mortgage, and a business, and I live in one of the most professionally high-pressure areas of the country. My reaction to that article was: Well, of course you can’t have it all. No one can. It is painfully difficult—still more for women than men—to have a well-balanced career and family life and for all the pieces to come together at once.
Parenting and having a robust career are two separate yet mutually difficult (if not exclusive) things. And on top of these two complex undertakings, some of us want a social life, to read a good book from time to time, to exercise, to travel. And getting all or any of that comes down to making choices. I have no problems, for example, telling my three-year-old son that I am not chaperoning a preschool field trip because of a meeting, but I make sure it doesn’t happen all the time.
I grew up thinking that having it all was what I perceived most men had: a thriving career and family life, and, as a well-deserved bonus, a martini on a silver tray at the end of the day (perhaps too much Bewitched in my childhood?). But there are two problems with this fantasy: I am not a man, and I did not understand fully that the concept of having it all for a woman meant getting lots of help (thereby requiring lots of money) or having a spouse who stayed at home.
I knew after I had a family that I would continue to work, and I have. I love having a job. I love getting a paycheck. What I did not know about was the massive love you feel for your children, and how it changes your heart, your energy level, and your priorities.
I was a director in PricewaterhouseCooper’s Washington office when my daughter was born in 2007. For a while I felt as if I could manage and juggle. But after my son was born in 2009, the time and energy required for two children, along with my commute, became unbearable. The commute was eating up more time than I wanted or expected: the logistics of getting out the door, sitting in traffic, dropping the kids off at daycare, parking the car, getting on a train, and then walking into work were becoming mind numbing. By the time I got to work, I felt as if I had already put in a day. I was exhausted and unhappy, and wasn’t doing my best at work or at home.
I studied all of my options and made a change. I gave up a salary and incredible benefits to start a business with several other partners. Having my own business allows me to work mostly from home and provides the flexibility to set my own schedule without a lot of guilt. My husband and I had to make a number of drastic changes in our life, both financial and behavioral, but there is something to be said for feeling sane. I work more hours and more days now, but it’s from my home office. I still have to make compromises, but there is a difference in my energy level and what I’m able to give to my career and my family.
There are plenty of men and women who have a hellish commute and continue to do what they do after they have children: they make choices, they enlist help, they telecommute, they work part time, or they do none of these things and suffer through it because they have no viable or immediate options and have to put food on the table, or they need the employer-provided health insurance.
I think we have to keep telling young people that they can have it all with the caveat that “all” is different things to different people and it means different things in different careers and industries. Most important: you cannot have it all at the same time. If you’re working 14 hours a day in an all-consuming, high-profile job, don’t expect to have a lot of daily, quality time with your children, unless some of those hours are committed from home. That’s a whole other discussion about work-life balance.
By the time my children are thinking about having it all, the work environment probably will have changed. But I think I still will have to offer unsolicited advice urging them not to bend to someone else’s ideal of having it all. Not easy, but doable.
Sindhu Hirani Blume is vice president of Trinity Place Technology, Inc., an IT government contractor. She lives in Bethesda, Maryland. This essay originally ran in “The Gender Agenda” (7/19/12), a blog published by PricewaterhouseCooper. She also wrote about her involvement in the 2012 C3 event.