The constant conversation about women, men, work, family, children and what it means to 'have it all' always stops short for me on the 'all' front. What does 'all' mean? Is it different for me? For you? Short, provocative news clips on the subject jump right to the punch of 'can women/families have it all' leading us to nod our heads in agreement one way or another avoiding the real question of what it is we are searching for. What do our lives lack? And how do we go and fill those gaps for ourselves and our families?
Not to minimise the issues at the heart of recent debate: lack of pay parity for women; a dearth of opportunity in the board room; and the suffocating realities of childcare costs. We know these are fundamental stumbling blocks, but I'd also argue that both women and men are also making the choice to get off the fast track and it's short-sighted to suggest that it's simply because it's 'too hard' or some obstacle is not allowing for it.
A lot of smart, educated, senior women I know have left the workplace behind because it's not making them...happy. It's not because the opportunity was limited, but because sitting around a soulless office all day is not as fun as spending time with the people, or doing the things, that make you happy. While flexing one's brain and feeling the satisfaction of contribution is one thing, the reality is that stale coffee, grey carpets, bad commutes and corporate travel (all the things I know) are highly overrated.
Over the past few years I've had a roller coaster of life and work experiences: from the privilege and excitement of building businesses and the joy of becoming a mother three times over to the frustrations and perils of toxic, sometimes sexist workplaces and the unfortunate lens of losing a child. I'm optimistic and ambitious (loving a Louis Vuitton bag as much as the next fashionista) but have really had to dig deep to figure out if that ambition makes me part of the 'senior woman executive balancing kids and homelife' rhetoric. Because the truth is I'm personally happier working from home in Gap sweats and getting a chance to hang out with my kids. I'd happily give up pretty much all the trappings of success to spend timing doing the things I love; which incidentally does both include 'work' and 'family.'
If you spend time thinking about what your life may lack and take stock of those around you who are happy, you might find that the lead story is how people, especially women, are indeed pursuing and finding it 'all' and no one has actually noticed.
Those successful, impressive, educated men and women I know who have pursued a career they feel good about; or become stay-at-home parents; or have given up large salaries have a few key things in common:
They realistically evaluate the bottom line. Let's not kid ourselves, at the end of the day it's about money. Many people don't have the luxury to overthink what they do on a day-to-day basis because they have a mortgage, bills and children. But the happiest people I know seem to make the right trade-offs. To simply suggest that all women (or men) would choose to be in the board room if they had good childcare; the respect of an organisation; and/or a senior position appropriate to their background; is simply not true. But the question is what are you willing to give up? What do you need to happily survive? That's the beginning of 'all.'
Find a north star. Do you know what you want to be? Is it a better parent? An artist? A better friend? A better partner? Is that not as important an indicator of 'success'? How much time do we spend on goals that are the 'right' goals. Educated women are especially pressured to 'be all that they can be' but that's usually when held up to the paradigm of a male world. A good friend recently left a long career as an accountant to study interior design and I know a handful that prefer taking care of their kids to slogging to a corporate bank. I also know women who love to work. It's not about some prescribed end game it's about being true to you and your family.
Stop focusing on absolutes. One thing that is holding us back as a society is a focus on hard lines. There are many people (including myself) who are happy to work around the clock but equally need to do the 'life things' when they suit me. There are some (like my husband) who prefer to work at the office and turn off at home. If we look at the intellectual capital available in the world and actually worked around the 'life requirements' of our employees, we'd better take advantage of their economic contribution. The idea of work will continue to morph and change. It will become more fluid and inexact.
So what am I trying to say? Define all for yourself. No one else. Don't be pressured to fall in line. We are all just trying to survive but we can reclaim a bit more about what that means to us.