One of my mentors once said to me, “you can Have It All. Just not all at once.”
I was running a successful NGO in Shanghai and pregnant with my first child when we had this conversation. I knew my world was about to change but I had no idea how much it would. However, I trusted her then and I know her advice to be true now.
It’s such a big thing to live up to, this notion of Having it All. Basically, it boils down to having a great relationship, a great career, a great family life, a great social life and a great lifestyle. All while being impeccably buffed, toned, coiffed, pert and polished at all times, naturally.
Having it All is designed to turn smart people into gibbering wrecks, full of self-loathing and insecurity. Where is this fabulous, Pinterest-pinnable life I’m supposed to be having? Why isn’t my whole weekend Facebook worthy? Why has my latest Instagram photo only attracted a ho-hum response?
Having it All is primarily a female concept. We rarely give men backwards compliments like, “I don’t know how you do it” or “your life must be so hard,” both of which I’m told semi-regularly. We rarely wonder how a dad will manage his young children and a demanding job because we assume that someone else will take care of the kids, and for the most part, that’s true. It may not be what the feminists amongst us, myself included, want to hear, but it is the reality: women still manage the majority of the housework and the child-rearing.
In my case, I have an incredible support network, my family and ex husband are close by and happy to step in when necessary, and I happily outsource as much as possible. And there is absolutely no way I could do what I do without all of this help.
Women are told to lean in to make it up the corporate ladder. But this just isn’t feasible for most women unless you have an amazingly understanding and available spouse and the financial resources to support this. Also, those of us who climbed that ladder as responsibility-free singletons often don’t have the same goals after we become parents: once you’ve spent your days at home with small children you may not want to spend your days working with adults who behave like small children.
Present, too, after kids, may be the shifting of priorities, the putting of other’s needs before our own: I wanted to be present in my kids’ lives as they grew up, just as my parents were in mine.
Yet my ambition and my desire to do interesting work and make a difference hasn’t dimmed one iota. There are so many things I still want to do. So many places yet to visit. So many meals still to be eaten.
So how do I reconcile these competing desires?
Well, like Jack Donaghy, the fictional CEO in NBC’s 30 Rock, I like to imagine my life as a pie chart divided into a number of sections. In no particular order, my ‘Wheel of Domination‘ comprises: Work; Family; Writing; Blogging; Relationship; Friends; Exercise and Health; Sleep; Travel; and Household.
At times when I am failing spectacularly in any one section, I remind myself that I am not going to be able to do all of them perfectly at once: there just aren’t enough hours in the day. And I allow myself to be OK with this.
So I compromise. As some areas need more attention, I move some sections temporarily to the back burner, knowing that I will need to address this imbalance in due course. I prioritise where I put my energy and I avoid feeling unhelpful guilt about any of it – that’s what my mother is for!
However, two areas I cannot overlook are sleep and exercise. I’ve neglected both in recent months and have learned my lesson: if I don’t get enough the wheels come off and I can’t function properly. So they’re non-negotiable now and if it means giving up other nice but non-essential activities then so be it.
My experience is not unique – most working parents will be able to relate to the constant juggling of priorities and tasks and rarely feeling well-rested. Some days days I look at my To Do lists for the day, week and month and I feel like one of those Chinese acrobats spinning dinner plates on tall steel rods: one false move and it will all come crashing down.
Still, I wouldn’t have it any other way. Sure, there are times when I fantasise about having a shack by the beach in which to write, uninterrupted, for a month. But the reality is that ideal circumstances and timing rarely coincide – there’s never a good time to start a new job, get married, have kids, write a book, move house, get divorced, fall in love, go back to study or start a new business. We do these things in spite of the chaos and uncertainty around us and this is how it should be.
So to all you amazing people out there worried about not Having It All: next time you fail spectacularly, take a deep breath and remind yourself that you are Having It All. Just not all at once.