On having it all in 2020 – and why we need to stop qualifying women’s success

It’s 2020. Why can’t we have it all?

In “Why Women Still Can’t Have it All” (The Atlantic, July/August 2012), Anne-Marie Slaughter famously concluded that women who manage to rise to the top of the career ladder as mothers are “either superhuman, rich or self-employed.”

I’ve been thinking a lot about that little snippet recently.

The implication is striking: that the “career supermom” is a unicorn. The qualifiers for success (superhuman, rich, self-employed) feel unattainable and largely outside of our personal control. We might as well just give up.

And lots of women do just that: as their families grow, they leave demanding jobs behind to be home with their children, or switch to career paths that are (or are perceived as) more flexible and family-friendly. In Laura Vanderkam’s 2015 book I Know How She Does It, one woman who left a promising career in consulting poignantly explained her departure: “I looked at the senior women in my firm, and there was no one whose life I wanted.

At work doing what I love – science!

The trap of “oh, but”

The exercise of mentally surveying the lives of the women leaders in your field is worth doing for yourself. Running through my own network, I was actually quite encouraged: there were some real role models. But then I started back-pedaling. I fell into the trap of “oh, but.

For each successful woman, I would ask myself, How did she do it? – and then I would qualify my answer. As much as I admired these women, I couldn’t resist entertaining thoughts like “oh, but she waited until she was nearly 40 to have her first child,” or “oh, but her parents moved in and helped take care of the children.”

Not only does this kind of thinking minimize real achievements, it’s discouraging. It makes the biggest kinds of success feel out of reach. Read between the lines, and what I was really telling myself is “oh, but: I could never do that because I did not make those choices or have those resources.” By explaining away hard-earned successes as being the result of unusual circumstances (that are not available to me) or sacrifices (that I am not willing to make), I was giving myself permission to remain in a very comfortable place: one where I’m free to lament the challenges of life as a working mom. Satisfying as such lamentations may be, they were actively hindering my career.

Qualifiers = solutions

The truth is that finding balance can be challenging, and women who do it well are often willing to think outside the box. High-achieving women think of their challenges as tractable problems, and seek individualized solutions. As soon as I stop lamenting my own barriers and adopt a solutions mindset, I can do the very same thing. For example, I am willing to persevere at work through my children’s intense early-childhood years, even if that takes some creative shuffling. I can log some extra work hours in the early mornings and evenings, when the children are sleeping—and still have time to walk my kids to school every day. These sound like compromises, but they are solutions, too. Lamentations aside, there is no need to give up yet.

At the end of the day, women who effectively balance work and home life are deliberate about their priorities. They are picky about what they spend their time on. They craft their career around their life (and vice versa) to lead full lives. That’s something all of us can strive for – and a positive mindset goes a long way.

Baby Heather at the computer in 1987
Me circa 1987 – attempting to have it all from an early age!