why you can’t have it all

boy looking at sandBecause the whole idea is stupid. Of course you can’t have it all. When did having “all” become a concept to aspire to? You don’t get to have an intense, time-consuming career and tons of time with your kids.

Well, maybe pre-industrial revolution you did. Back then, your (surviving) children would work in your cottage industry with you and you’d see them – and do your job – all the time. You’d all be engaged in the struggle for food and/or income together, all the time. You also didn’t get to choose what you did for a living beyond a few very limited options, so I think we can safely deny the “all”-ness of that time period.

Returning to modern capitalism. Historically, men had the time-consuming careers and women had the time with their children. Men didn’t have it “all” because men didn’t actually have time with their children. They just had time at work and with other men. (Have you ever read the Longfellow poem, The Children’s Hour? It’s about the single hour a day this doting father spent with his daughters.) Women didn’t have it all, of course, because their work options were extremely limited.

And that is still pretty much the case. You can, if you’re lucky, have an exciting or lucrative career and still have time with your children. But you can’t have a time-consuming career and also have lots of time with your children, because time is your one fixed resource. No matter your gender. Full stop.

Do you really think President Obama is all that present in Sasha and Malia’s lives?

I suspect the problem for most people is something else entirely. Having it all is a red herring.

It’s not about being torn between work and kids. Or, not the good part of kids. Not spending meaningful time with them, or even taking the day off to be with them when they’re sick. It’s the drudgery. Scheduling the doctor’s appointments, doing the laundry, keeping the house clean. Buying the stuff you use to clean the house. Remembering to sign the permission slips and sign up for sports and which are the half days and which are the days off.

That’s the drudgery of parenting, and no, it’s not equally split. Women still do it. There’s research to demonstrate it. (Nice resource here from the University of Texas at Austin on the gender division of housework, globally. See also this post on the declining happiness of women in marriage.)  The drudgery is the real problem for women. They are so caught up getting the clean towels put away that they don’t get to have work time or kid time. They’re stuck in drudge time.

I can feel everyone about to go after the clean towel strawman, and no, it’s not about the damn towels. Just telling everyone to be messier is not the answer.

Drudge work is essential work, and it’s real physical and emotional labor that takes up time and cognitive surplus that could be applied to working late at the office, developing creative ideas, or reading Goodnight Moon for the 337th time while snuggling a toddler. (An excellent read on the emotional work of parenting is Thinking About the Baby)

Men come closer to having it all, because most men do far less than their share of the drudge work. It’s not that women are missing out on “having it all.” It’s that they have too much of what they don’t want.

Edited to add: The Atlantic wrote a new article about this exact topic

 

2 thoughts on “why you can’t have it all

  1. Excellent, thoughtful piece. I’ve had similar thoughts for a long time and I wonder, how can we get men to partake in more of the drudgery? My partner makes more money than I do, even though we work similar hours and I feel that my work is just as socially meaningful — if not more so. How can we prevent the financial imbalance between partners from translating into one person taking on more of the drudge-work?

  2. I so wish I had a useful answer to that. It’s personal and societal at the same time. It’s about recognizing unpaid labor and the value of work done at home. We can push for it in our personal lives and we can try to change society, but this just comes so slow.

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