A few weeks ago, I returned to work after three months of maternity leave with my second child – my son Henry. Incidentally, my daughter, Charlotte, turned two in March. After I returned to work with Charlotte, I wrote an Edelman.com post reflecting on my experiences as a working mom.
Since I last wrote on this topic, the debate has been hot and heavy regarding women in the workplace, and moms in particular: they are heroes, devils, martyrs, should be leaning in more or less – the list goes on. One article in particular that caught my eye recently was Barnard College President Debora Spar’s piece about the challenges of “having it all” and why women should stop trying to be perfect. She makes many points in her article, but her bottom line is this:
“The only way that American women will ever fully solve the ‘women’s problem’ is by recognizing the quest for perfection for what it is: a myth. No woman can have it all, and by using all as the standard of success, we are only condemning ourselves and our daughters to failure.”
As I read her very well-researched and beautifully written piece, it recalled for me a stark memory: artist Judy Chicago’s commencement address at my graduation from Smith College many years ago. There she stood, looking out at a thousand highly motivated, fresh-faced young women ready to go out and set the world on fire. And, like Ms. Spar, she made many points, but her bottom line was this:
“I believe that one of the pernicious lies that has been told to your generation is that one can ‘have it all.’ Although I can’t explain how I knew it, I always knew that this was not possible… I looked to history and discovered that those women who had achieved at the level at which I had set my sights had been childless and those that were not had suffered constant guilt at not being able to meet the demands of both their work and their children.”
As you might imagine, Judy’s pep talk didn’t go over so well with a wide audience ready to start our adult lives. And I have never forgotten her words – but instead of tampering my expectations of what a woman could realistically expect to experience in her life, I used (and continue to use) her words as a motivator.
As accomplished and experienced as Ms. Chicago and Ms. Spar are in their own right, I believe telling young women that they can’t/won’t/shouldn’t even try to “have it all” is A) the wrong message and B) simply not true. I would never condemn my daughter to not have all of the rich experiences and accomplishments of life. If she wants it, she should go out and get it, no matter what it is. And if she wants to do several things at once – babies and big jobs – she can and should do that. And if she wants to do one or the other, that’s great too. It’s her choice, it’s her life. Her path should not be narrowed before she even has a chance to begin carving one.
I think a smarter message is something more akin to the following: to stay sane, sleep at night, and most importantly, to enjoy your life, you need to have realistic expectations of what “having it all” means. Are you going to hit the gym five days a week, be the in-room pre-school mom once a week and be the CMO of a Fortune 500? Perhaps not. You may end up doing some walking on the weekends, hit up the pre-school mommy circuit once a month, and not attend every single work trip. Does that mean you don’t “have it all?” No, it doesn’t. It just means you are having it all, your way.
And the thing is, everyone’s way will be different.
As a mom of two small children and an unabashed career woman, I must be laser efficient with my time and priorities to be impactful professionally and also have the energy to be the mom I want to be. For now, that means the gym visits aren’t happening , and occasionally, neither does the laundry, the grocery shopping or the yard work.
So am I perfect? Of course not. But I am living the best life I could have ever imagined and enjoying and appreciating every day of it. And for me, that is having it all.
Mary Corcoran is general manager for Edelman Digital West and mommy to Henry and Charlotte.