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This Working Mom Chimes in on the “It All” Debate

I remember as a child, the inquiries of adults who wondered what I wanted to be when I grew up. My standard response was ‘a vice president of a company.’ (Why didn’t I set my sights on the top spot? That’s a whole other Oprah!) I wasn’t sure what company or even what field. What I was sure of was that vice president would be high enough to provide me a secretary…who could take care of the baby I planned to bring to work.  Even at age 5, I had planned to have “it all”.

The current media interest in this topic – as a result of Ann-Marie Slaughter’s recent article Why Women Still Can’t Have It All in the Atlantic – brings those early expectations right back into vivid focus.  And it forces an honest look back from the vantage point of having a son who recently graduated from college and a daughter who’s entering high school. How successful have I been?

I’ve been blessed to work from my home for the past 22 years, the last 12 of them for myself. Both of my kids grew up understanding that:

  • the red light on the headset means mom’s on a conference call… and they trained their friends at an early age how to respond to that cue by entering the house silently and pantomiming ‘hello’
  • work happens at odd hours – when they woke up not feeling well before the sun was up, when they had a bad dream late at night, and all hours in between
  • Mom’s not always here

Sure, I’ve missed some milestones. Like most parents, I lament not squeezing more joy from each day with my children. But I also celebrate what I did accomplish on both the home and the work front. I celebrate that my children had a front row seat to me trying to figure it out (sometimes less successfully and gracefully than others). Perhaps they’ll be able to make better, more deliberate, clear-eyed decisions about their own lives as a result.

As I consider my experience and the debate in the media, here’s what rings true for me …

  1. We have to individually define ‘it all’ and unapologetically own our expectations. “It all” is not the same for everyone. And, it’s easy to be co-opted into other people’s views of what constitutes good parenting or career success. What does ‘it all’ look like to you? For some of my mom friends, it means tucking their kids into bed every night… and that’s lovely. But it doesn’t mean that I’m wrong or a worse parent for feeling very comfortable being out of town several days each month. It’s personal. It’s individual. And if we aren’t intentional about what it is, “it all” will continue to elude us.
  2. Flexibility is the only lever we have in pursuit of “it all”. Control over one’s schedule is the key. Being able to make choices about when and how to work creates the conditions for being able to achieve both work and home objectives. When women (and men too, for that matter) understand this, they may be able to make different choices. When organizations understand this, they may be able to change their cultures and systems in ways that support this human need while delivering potentially greater business outcomes as a result of the engagement, passion, and loyalty of highly satisfied (whole human) employees.
  3. Balance may not be the ultimate end-game. Work and home life will rarely be evenly distributed or have the upright, steady quality associated with the traditional definition of that word. What if we re-framed the idea of balance? Perhaps it’s about integration and bringing work and home into a coordinated whole. Perhaps it’s about harmonizing the needs and rhythms of each. Perhaps it’s about reconciling or negotiating seemingly competing needs and desires. Or perhaps it’s coming to terms with the fact that balance is dynamic, shifting sometimes to one side and sometimes to the other… but only momentarily touching the sweet spot in between.
  4. We need to keep talking about this issue. We need to keep the discussion honest because it’s too easy to sanitize or idealize elements of this very complex issue. And, we need to keep the discussion blame-free. There is no right or wrong as individuals grapple with blending the two potentially most joy-generating dimensions of human life. We need to be kind to ourselves and others during this dialogue.

So, back to my own evaluation. I’d say I’m 80% pleased with the extent to which I’ve had “it all.” And that’s just fine… but then again I am the one who at 5 years old was willing to settle for only being vice president.

What about you?  Are you settling?  What’s your definition of “it all” and how are you pursuing it?

Image by Jerry Bunkers


7 comments on “This Working Mom Chimes in on the “It All” Debate

  1. Laurie Acker on

    Good stuff. Can’t agree with you more on the value of flexibility. I’ve worked full-time, part-time, for other people, for myself. one job, two jobs…it’s been quite a ride. Flexibility is a commodity that doesn’t come with every job. I agree that the 9-5 job (or the 8-6 job?) has its benefit if you are able to leave work at work. But, as you said, we all choose our own “it all”. Question? Have you found yourself re-defining “it all” in different life stages for you, or as your kids enter their different stages? Or did your “it all” remain the same?

    Reply
    • Julie Giulioni on

      Thanks for commenting, Laurie. I’m reminded of something a colleague said when I announced I was resigning from an internal role to go out on my own… describing the move as “leaving the illusion of security for the illusion of freedom.” Working for oneself isn’t the panacea… and in fact, new pressures may compromise flexibility more than a traditional job.

      For me, the definition of ‘it all’ has always been in flux. Kind of like how they describe flying an airplane as hundreds or thousands of small course adjustments en route to the destination. There are lots of variables that have altered my course: the school year, the unique challenges at the different stages of my kids’ development, aging parents, etc. And each is an opportunity to re-evaluate, re-define, and re-adjust the course toward optimal happiness.

      Your question makes me think that you might be grappling with this yourself… or might have some insights for the rest of us. What do you think about different definitions at different stages?

      Reply
  2. Laurie Acker on

    I constantly grapple with redefining “it all.” My heart goes out to many busy women who don’t realize the freedom and the immense choices that they have. Talked to a woman the other day who said “I never spend time alone. I never have the time to just think.” So sad to me… because spending time just being, thinking, journaling, daydreaming, is vital in having anything you want, to living more fully. Because you need to know WHAT you want. Life can become an endless treadmill. If you don’t get off now and then (even for 10 minutes in the morning to enjoy a conversation with an insightful blogger whom you have never met!)… you can’t stay in touch with who you are, who you are becoming, and what your next “it all” might be. Life is not stagnant.

    Reply
    • Julie Winkle Giulioni on

      Talk about insightful… ‘what your next it all might be’! I love that… and doesn’t that really sum it up? Thanks for taking the time, Laurie. Clearly, there’s no endless treadmill for you.

      Reply

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