On Having It All: Breaking Free of the Myth

"Having it all" isn't the be all and end all. This essay, directed towards women, speaks about balance, cultural myths, happiness and well-being.

Life Letters

How many times have you received the message either inferred or directly that, "You can have it ALL!" What an offer, what a dream, what a promise, what a lie...

For years, most people who knew me believed that I "had it ALL." And I might have even agreed with them not so long ago. I had a successful private practice, a loving marriage that now spans two decades, a healthy blond haired, blue eyed daughter, a Ph.D., wonderful friends, a close extended family, a cottage on the water to escape to, mutual funds, stocks, an IRA, and plenty of money in the bank.

So how come I wasn't living "happily ever after?" I had more than my young girl fantasies had ever promised. Why wasn't I satisfied? What was wrong with me? Was I just another "spoiled baby boomer?" Did I expect too much? Demand too much?

Or, was it that I had too much? Too many appointments, too many obligations, too many goals, too many roles, too many deadlines, too many plans, too much to maintain, too much to loose...

Most parents want their children to have better lives. Ours wanted more money, more opportunities, more security, and more choices for us. We wanted more too, and that's exactly what many of us got - more. More materials, more opportunities, more education, more technology, more stress related disorders, more failed marriages, more latch key children, and more demands. We got, I believe, a whole lot more than most of us bargained for.

We wanted the "good life." I wanted the "good life." I was told in countless ways that it was possible for me to achieve it - if I was smart enough, motivated enough, disciplined enough, willing to work hard enough. If I was "good" enough, it could be mine. And so I did my very best to be and do all of those things. I wanted MINE.

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As I struggled to achieve, I began to succeed in obtaining and accumulating all of the trappings of the "good life" I had fought so hard for. But along with the college degrees came student loans, the house came with a significant mortgage, the private practice came with significant demands, the cottage required upkeep, the marriage called for compromises, the child came with no instructions but with numerous responsibilities, and each friend offered his or her own unique gifts as well as obligations. Along with my 'good life' came more and more and more...

I had a full life. It was so full, that all too often it felt that I would explode. I was becoming a woman of means too. I had the means to do and buy a number of things, and I did them, and bought them, until one day I was surrounded - by THINGS - to have and to hold. I had so much of it ALL that all I needed now was time. I wanted just a little more time please, so that I could do it ALL - with the ALL that I had. It seemed ironic that with the ALL that I'd gained, I couldn't have more of such a small thing. Just a wee thing that didn't take up physical space, didn't require maintenance or a mortgage, just a tiny request really - Just a little more time...

One day, in the midst of my plenty, I recognized that I was starving - craving a few totally pointless moments, a period of doing nothing, to just "be" and not "do." How difficult that was to accomplish in spite of ALL that I'd achieved and accumulated. I was surrounded by it ALL.

I had so many CHOICES. Where were they? They were looking me right in the eye and smirking.

"Should I close my practice?" I considered. "And what will become of your clients? How will you get by on just one income? What about those degrees you're still paying on? What will happen to those dreams of yours? How will you pay for your daughter's gymnastic classes, her college, family vacations, and be certain that your financially secure in old age?" the voice demanded.

"Should I stay working?" I wondered. "And how will you give your daughter the quality time she deserves? How will you find time to contribute to your community? When will you ever write your book? How will you manage to stay involved in your daughter's school, connected to your family and friends, keep a journal, and read all of the books that you keep saying you're going to read that aren't work related? Who will tend your garden, keep your bird feeders filled, see that your family's diet is healthy, make dental appointments, see to your daughter's homework, and that your dog has his shots? How will you do all of that and still manage to live a life that doesn't exhaust you?" the voice taunted. "I'll manage. I have so far" I replied. "And is this the life you want for your daughter?" queried the voice. "Absolutely not! I want more for her," I quickly replied. "Maybe you should want less for her," the voice retorted.

Want less? I wanted her to have every opportunity that I had and more. And then it hit me. The more had become my problem. I had bought into one of the most popular myths of my generation - that I could have it ALL.

No-one can have it all. We each must make choices, it's a fundamental law that not one of us escapes. When we choose one path, we forsake another, at least for the time being. We can't do it ALL without making sacrifices.


If a woman chooses to work and parent at the same time, it doesn't necessarily mean that she'll compromise the well-being of her child. But she will give up something. In many cases it means giving up time for herself - time to nurture her other relationships, and to develop significant aspects of her inner life. It may not be fair, but it's true.

If a woman chooses not to bare children, it doesn't mean that she's robbing herself of her biological right or forsaking her duty. It does mean that she'll miss certain experiences that many women hold sacred. She can't simply replace them with additional adventures and opportunities, but she can be fulfilled and complete without them.

If a woman chooses to stay at home with her children, it doesn't mean that she'll automatically be a better parent than her working peers, or that she'll stop growing. It does mean in most cases that she and her children won't be able to spend money as freely as those families who possess two incomes, but she'll have more choices regarding how she spends her time.

If a man decides to abandon the fast track in order to pursue another calling, it doesn't automatically follow that he'll die poor, any more than it guarantees that he'll live happily ever after. It does mean that he's not as likely to possess the financial and material options of his corporate brothers, but he will most likely possess a sense of freedom that most of those he left behind can only hope for in retirement - if they live that long.

There are no simple answers. No perfect path to follow. There is no way to obtain "everything" and give up "nothing." We all understand that intellectually, and yet somehow many of us are still trying to figure out how to get around this fundamental truth.

Lilly Tomlin, the comedian perhaps best known for her portrayal of the precocious little "Edith Ann," quipped, "If I'd known what it would be like to have it all, I might have settled for less."

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But I wasn't raised to "settle." My generation which has been touted the largest, most educated, and most advantaged group in the history of the United States, has been born and bred to expect the riches and opportunities we were promised. And we struggle to claim them long after Bob Welch reported in More to Life Than Having it All, that according to two separate studies published in Psychology Today, we are five times more likely to be divorced as our parents, and ten times more likely than our elders to be depressed. We keep scrambling for more, and more is what we have ultimately gotten, I guess...

We want the 'good life' we've heard so much about. Interestingly, while the notion of the 'good life' seems to be deeply implanted in our generation's psyche's, it's origin stems from the dreams of those who came before us, and meant something entirely different from what so many of us have come to yearn for. The world was introduced to the concept of the 'good life' by such long gone seekers as William Penn, Thomas Jefferson, Henry David Thoreau and Wendell Barry. And it appears that their vision was very different than our own turned out to be. To them, the 'good life' represented a lifestyle based on simplicity; not materialism, on personal freedom; not acquisition, on spiritual, emotional, and interpersonal development; not net-worth. We lament that we too value those things even as we scramble to put large screen televisions with stereo sound, and computers on our tables.

Do I sound harsh? Judgmental? Forgive me please. You see, more than anything else, I'm conducting an argument with myself in your presence. I'm attempting to set myself straight, which typically involves great vigor and drama. It's never been easy for me to change, and that's what I'm trying to do these days. Change my attitude, my perspective, my lifestyle, and my direction... I never did like to walk alone, and so here I am once again attempting to get you to walk along with me. Never mind that I've gotten lost on more than one occasion. Just keep me company.

I've altered my path significantly in the last few years, and I won't tell you that the rewards have been tremendous, (although they often have) or that I don't look longingly at my neighbors life from time to time (is that a new car they have in the garage again? I ask, as we attempt to keep our 1985 model running). One day I'm sitting in my rocker gazing at the crepe Myrtle trees we just planted, feeling a sense of satisfaction and gratitude. The next morning I'm dreaming that my book has been published and has been well received, leaving me free of the financial concerns that periodically plague me. I'm feeling good that I'm more available to my daughter one minute, and shooing her away while I attempt to pump out more words on my computer screen the next. You see, I'm far, far from finished and settled into this new life plan of mine. And I still want more, but now I'm settling for less, and striving for different things.

Who ever it was that said, "You get what you settle for" got my attention, and those words still touch me today. I got plenty in my old life, and I settled for more. More stress, and less time; more responsibilities, and less peace of mind; more materials, and less satisfaction; more money for play, and fewer opportunities to enjoy what I had; larger Christmas presents for my daughter, and smaller portions of my energy.

And now, over two years after I made significant changes in my life, I'm still struggling with the trade-offs. There have been far more sacrifices than I would have chosen to make if I were queen of the world. But I'm by no means royalty, so I've learned to barter. And I generally manage to feel that I'm gaining far more than I lost in the deal.

Djohariah Toor informs us in, "The Road by the River," that the Hopi's have a word, Koyaanisqatsi, which means, "a life out of balance." What specifically does it mean to live such a life? Well, I'm not sure I can adequately explain it, but I know with all of my heart that I lived it, and still do. The good news however, is that I've succeeded (I believe) in swinging the pendulum closer to the center. I'm able to invest more in my inner life, my spirit, my relationships, and to live a life that reflects my personal values to a far greater extent than ever before. There's much in my life which still requires fine-tuning, and my professional life has certainly absorbed formidable blows, but my garden is beginning to bloom, my heart feels lighter, and I'm once again discovering anticipation in the mornings.

Charles Spezzano wrote in, What to do Between Birth and Death, that, "You don't really pay for things with Money. You pay for them with time." I tell myself today (and now believe it), that my time is more valuable than my money. I don't want to spend as much of it as I used to on things that really don't matter much. I have no idea how much of it remains available to me, and I'd rather run out of money in the bank at this point, than out of what ever time I have left. I can't have it ALL, and so I'm negotiating.

My husband, Kevin continues to struggle with his own choices. He's chosen to provide our family with it's only significant source of income. Sometimes I feel saddened when I think of him. One of his best friends, who opted not to have children, enjoys so many more choices than Kevin does. He has a partner that shares the financial burden that Kevin carries alone. His friend goes off on adventures, purchases newer and bigger toys, and relaxes on the weekend, while my sweet husband mows the lawn, attempts to fix a broken appliance (that in his old life he would have had repaired), while contemplating which bill he should pay this week. In our old life, he never would have had to think twice about who to pay when. The money was always there. Still, today, there's no checking with me to see if he can work late, no wondering what he'll make for dinner tonight after working ten hours, or rushing to pick up our daughter before day care closes. He doesn't need to rush around getting himself and our daughter ready in the morning, and he no longer faces a second shift when he leaves the office for the day. He still misses the financial freedom our previous life-style allowed, how could he not? And he still wonders what it's all for on a bad day. But he's able to focus more closely on his own life, go to bed early if he chooses, and his best friend is waiting for him after a long day who's not as preoccupied as she used to be. One who eagerly awaits him and feels far greater appreciation for him that she ever did before.

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Our life is far, far, from perfect. We still catch ourselves longing for that elusive future when we're able to experience greater freedom and more choices. We have less than we used to for sure - less money, less security, and far fewer investments to brighten up our "golden years." But we also have fewer regrets, less guilt, and less tension.

Our larger dreams still all too often overshadow our day to day enjoyment of what we have - our child, our health, our families, our love... But we're more apt to catch ourselves now, rather than getting lost far down that road of tomorrow, the one we used to travel on an almost daily basis.

Marilyn Ferguson observed in, The Aquarian Conspiracy, that, "our problems are often the natural side effects of our success." Kevin and I are clearly experiencing fewer benefits of the conventional "success" that we used to take for granted. Yet, while our shift in life style has presented new challenges, it has also offered solutions to issues that used to weigh heavily on our shoulders each and every day. We have ceased our exhausting struggle to have it ALL, in order to experience and appreciate more fully what we havetoday, for who knows if it will be there tomorrow.

I sometimes recall my yesterdays when I become discouraged with my today's. Then my mantra was, "hurry, hurry, hurry!" My little girl learned from her parents to move quickly, while reaching out to grab hold as we went speeding by. I recently watched a video of a beautiful, curly haired child playing ballerina, a toddler that used to be mine. As the camera zeroed in on her golden eyes, I realized how often back then her little face was out of focus, as I raced to catch up with my life.

I'm slowing down now. Go ahead and pass me. I'll get out of your way, although I may be tempted to speed up as you go sailing by. I'm hoping though my resolve will hold - that I'll take the time that I truly understand now is precious. Because no matter what we do, become, or accomplish - the one thing that awaits us all in the end - is the finish line."

next: Life Letters: On the Love, Pain, Hopes and Fears of Parenting Table of Contents

APA Reference
Staff, H. (2008, December 4). On Having It All: Breaking Free of the Myth, HealthyPlace. Retrieved on 2024, July 25 from

Last Updated: July 18, 2014

Medically reviewed by Harry Croft, MD

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