Every woman gets to have her own definition. Don’t let unrealistic expectations burden you

Indra Nooyi, the first woman CEO of PepsiCo and an epitome of success for millions of women across the globe, claimed in an interview once; “I don’t think women can have it all. I just don’t think so. We pretend we have it all. We pretend we can have it all.” Along similar lines, in a 2016 article titled ‘No, women can’t have it all’, Anne-Marie Slaughter, a renowned American international lawyer, talked about the challenges she faced when balancing professional success with familial responsibilities and why she could not have it all.

As evident then, ‘having it all’ is a phrase used exclusively in the context of women who juggle a professional career (typically a high-paying and respectable one) with a family, without having to sacrifice one for another. It is often seen as an ideal that all women aspire to and only a select few can accomplish, and the two most important variables that go into achieving this ideal are ‘a great family’ and ‘a great career’. Such a formulation of ‘having it all’ for women is deeply problematic for several reasons.

First, if you are a single woman, a single mother, a childfree married woman, or a homemaker, then based on this definition, you do not have a shot at having it all. This is an immensely reductive definition of success, which essentially works by exclusion. For instance, according to Gallup world poll data aggregated from 2014-20, 23% of the world’s female population is currently married without any children, 16% is single, and 13% are single mothers. So are we to assume that these women, who comprise 52% of the world’s female population, can’t have it all until they get married and/ or have children?

If ‘having it all’ refers to a woman’s happiness and well-being, then why can’t a single woman, a single mother, a childfree woman, or a homemaker be seen as having it all? More so because the existing research about the correlation between happiness and working full time with a family for women is, at best, contradictory.

A 2019 study carried out by a group of researchers from the University of Manchester and the University of Essex revealed that women with two children who are working full time are, on average, 40% more stressed out than those who are single but also working full time. It is quite plausible then that a single woman who works part-time has a more fulfilling and satisfying life than one who is married, has children, and works a high-powered corporate job. The former could be spending her time reading books, travelling, and gaining new experiences while the latter could be enmeshed in an endless quagmire of phone calls, household concerns, and business conferences.

The point being that there is no single definition of happiness and success, and they mean different things for different people. The reductive notion that only women who have both a career and a family can be considered as successful and/ or happy ignores the complexity of human personalities and desires. Also, it is heteronormative to the core.

If you are a single professional woman, then to ‘have it all’ you need to have a partner and subsequently children. And if you are a married woman with a career, then ‘having it all’ becomes a patriarchal shorthand for ‘doing it all’, especially if you have limited access to childcare or are still climbing the professional ladder. It implies that you need to excel at your workplace, then be back in time, go on playdates with your children, and follow it up by reading bedtime stories as you tuck them in bed. Unrealistic expectations like these set working mothers up for disappointment and guilt, and any rational person should be able to see through the exploitative intent of such a formulation of a successful woman.

Unfortunately, not only are such unrealistic expectations from professional women accepted within society, they are glorified. There is no glory in drudgery, and that is exactly what ‘having it all’ encompasses for a regular, middle-class woman who wishes to climb the professional ladder while managing a family.

Therefore, it is high time that we redefine the notion of ‘having it all’ for women to make it more inclusive and kinder. Such a redefinition should ensure that every woman on the planet, whether trans, disabled, cis-gendered, straight, homosexual, single, married, childfree, old, widowed, divorced, and so on has a reasonable shot at achieving it. And the only way to do it would be to let each woman decide, for herself, her definition of having it all.

Doing this would provide society with myriad definitions of ‘having it all’, and pose a daunting challenge to apologists of patriarchy who want professional women to believe that to be happy, they need a family. It would also undercut the notion held by those among feminists who believe that the only way for a woman to have an enriching life is to climb the professional ladder.

So, for all the women reading this, chances are you already have it all but even if you feel you don’t, make sure that you define it for yourself rather than letting society do it for you. And once you do that, you will realise that having it all is not as challenging as it is made out to be, and the journey towards achieving it will be just as beautiful and enriching as the goal.

Today is International Women’s Day



Views expressed above are the author’s own.


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