How to Prepare to NOT Have it All


It fascinates me that we're totally comfortable with having to make choices in most aspects of our lives - we can't live in two cities simultaneously, nor in two apartments, nor take two competing job offers - yet when it comes to family and career, we remain obsessed with "having it all." In our last post we debunked five myths on this topic. Now it's time to get down to business and make a plan for living with the myth-ditching fallout.

1. Get Real

My college-aged self would think I've failed. I'm doing a shoddy job on not one but two fronts, she'd say as she popped Tums and returned to the library at 10 at night.

  • Here's what I imagined: I'd go full bore with my career for about ten years; "opt out" to be an awesome makes-every-meal-from-scratch, doesn't-allow-screen-time, creates-home-based-preschool curriculum uber-mom for about five years (even though I disliked all things domestic at that time - and, surprise, still do!); then magically re-enter the work world in bold and brilliant style.
  • Here's reality:  I teach two days a week; work on freelance projects one day a week; and spend the remaining weekdays with my toddler. There are no high-power fireworks going off in any domain of my life; I do everything competently, but not in a newsworthy fashion.

Do I "have it all"? Uh uh.

I have something better:  a life I actually want to live.

Dropping the "having it all" pressure is Step One to creating a meaningful, fulfilling life. Get real about what's possible - and what's sanely manageable. Reading my previous post is a good starting place, as is Anne-Marie Slaughter's article in The Atlantic "Why Women Still Can't Have it All" in which she writes the following about a speaking engagement:

"What poured out of me was a set of very frank reflections on how unexpectedly hard it was to do the kind of job I wanted to do as a high government official and be the kind of parent I wanted to be."

2. Get Informed

It's also vital to get informed about the facts related to work and home life. In particular, I suggest that all 20somethings read up on the following:

  • The real scoop on age-related infertility. Check out the brand new article in The Atlantic by Jean Twenge. The great news:  the late 30s aren't that bad for having a child. The bad news: "plan to have your last child by the time you turn 40. Beyond that, you’re rolling the dice."
  • The reality of career off-ramps and on-ramps. It's easy to step off of a career path for a time (37% of highly-educated women do), but it's pretty darn difficult to get back ON (only 40% return to full-time jobs, even though 93% of "off-rampers" want to do so).

These facts stink. Period. But the only way to avoid bitterness in your future is to know and accept them up front. And then make decisions accordingly. Which brings us to the next step:

3. Get Authentic

This is my favorite step. The only decision you can't regret is the one made from your inner core. <click to Tweet>

i am me

So dig down and recognize what you want - not what society dictates, nor what your family wants for you, nor what you've been indoctrinated to believe.

  • If you dream of sun-drenched days making paper hats and Play-Doh chickens with your kids, you are not a disgrace to your gender.
  • If children make you itch and squirm and you want nothing to do with them, you are not a disgrace to your gender.
  • If, like me, you realize the only way you can stand being either an employee or a parent is to be each in small measure, you are not a disgrace to your gender.

Be honest with you. Only then can you start being honest with everyone around you.

The students who make me feel saddest are those who "slip up" and admit their domestic dreams to me, then try to cover them up out of fear that I'll stop supporting them. Why, oh why do you do that? That "slip" was the real you. Be proud of hearing that voice; hearing it means you're doing better than 99% of your peers.

Likewise, I strongly commend Slaughter for her honesty when writing about her decision to step-down from a high-powered government career:

"I realized that I didn’t just need to go home. Deep down, I wanted to go home. I wanted to be able to spend time with my children in the last few years that they are likely to live at home, crucial years for their development into responsible, productive, happy, and caring adults."

In contrast, I'm authentically not someone who is "mom material." Deep down, I want to work, a fact that caused me to feel much guilt during my daughter's infancy. Now I'm able to say, "she's cute and I love her, but being Mom isn't my natural role." Although I do feel guilty simply typing that. I want to do the best I can at being her mom. It just so happens that her mom happens to be someone who highly values meaningful, intrinsically-driven work. And who values modeling that love for her. I dream of being a domestic goddess who derives satisfaction and mastery from home life. But I'm simply not.

Bottomline:  whatever you desire, you will feel guilty for it. Might as well own up and live your truth, then shake off the guilt as best you can.

4. Get Grounded in Now

As I discussed last time, Sheryl Sandberg warns women not to "leave before they leave." By living in the present and fighting to create a fulfilling career while you can still focus solely on yourself, you build the resources you need to make a genuine choice when it comes time to figure out where family fits - if at all.

If you're in your early or mid-20s, you do not need to make career/family decisions at this.very.moment.

Should you think about all of this? Yes. Read up on the facts related to the topic? Absolutely. Take action? No.

Get informed about the future but live in the now. Make decisions only when it's time to actually make them.


5. Get Reacquainted With Yourself Regularly

The only way your work-life decisions will stay "un-regrettable" is if you keep updating those decisions. At 22, I thought kids were a pox that marked the end of a person's life. At 32, I was literally prepared to give my life to have one.

Let yourself develop, then check in regularly.

Set those check-in points now. As in today. Put them in your planner and hold yourself to them. You might try the Working Self "Who Am I These Days?" Annual Tune Up to keep yourself on track.


6. Get Ready to Live With the Consequences

This is the hardest step of all, by far. By the time you're 40, your major decisions about family and career trajectories will be behind you. You can and should keep tailoring and invigorating those trajectories for many decades to come, but you'll have set the general course by then.

These aren't horrible consequences if the decision to get there was made actively, authentically, and based on genuine facts.

And if the decision wasn't made this way? The consequences are darn bitter pills. With an aftertaste.

7. Get Active

Finally, if you're angry about the concessions and compromises you have to make to create the life you want, good. There are plenty of policy and societal changes that could be made to increase career-family harmony, which Slaughter outlines in her article. She writes,

"I still strongly believe that women can “have it all” (and that men can too). I believe that we can “have it all at the same time.” But not today, not with the way America’s economy and society are currently structured."

Make the best choices you can for yourself in the present moment. Then fight a little for the future. After all, we wouldn't be having this conversation at all if someone hadn't fought for us.

What are your thoughts on preparing for NOT "having it all?" Is this the wrong message to send entirely? I genuinely want to hear your ideas.


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Hope you enjoyed the newsletter! 

(Not on the list? What are you waiting for? The next Newsletter arrives Wednesday, August 14th!)

We should all tattoo this on ourselves. In a matter of speaking. (Photo credit: The Happy Robot)

Some want this. Some don't. You don't need to decide for yourself until it's time to decide. (Photo Credit: legends2k)

Put the annual check-in in writing. Now. (Photo credit: Mike Rohde)