Work-Life Balance Debate: The Stress of Not Having it All

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Dec 6, 2010

Welcome to my confessional: I’m feeling the stress of not having it all.

What should be amusing about this is that I don’t even believe in the notion of having it all. But let me tell you, I’m not amused. I know that I don’t have it. And I want it.

Here’s a little background: About two years ago, my kids hit their tweens and were no longer the suction cups they once were. At the same time, I began hitting my stride in my chosen line of work: helping companies better engage their employees and their families in healthier living.

This should be cause for celebration, right? Wahoo! My kids are growing up; they don’t need me. Away I go, soaring ever higher into the never-never land of wondrous, satisfying work.

Not so fast. Many moons ago, I made the personal decision to contain my career while I had kids in the house. (It’s based on my emotional baggage, to be sure, so don’t take this as my way of saying my choice is the choice.) When I became a mother while working at Hewitt, I worked part-time and then full-time, but flextime. When I left Hewitt, I started my own company to maintain, if not expand, the work-life balance Hewitt so generously supported.

I’m ready. Depression.*

And it’s wonderful. I have all that I want…except. Except for the ambitious, competitive, and adventurous career side of me that aspires to growing my independent consulting firm tenfold. To implanting myself on the speaker circuit. Or taking that tantalizing mega-job at a start-up that’s nailing health engagement. Of my own choosing, these exciting paths beckon but are barred. I can’t have it all.

And so I feel like a part of me is untended and underdeveloped. I feel torn and stressed. And sometimes angry.

After speaking with several friends, I realized I’m not alone. Our backgrounds and our choices may differ, as does what we’re missing or pining for. But to a person, we all felt the frustration of not having it all.

A false choice

Generally speaking, the notion of having it all is something women have embraced because for too long we couldn’t even have what we wanted, let alone have it all. Perhaps, initially, having it all meant having the right to choose, as would have benefited my mother, who was told by her father that he’d financially support only nursing or education studies — studies suitable for a woman destined for marriage. With time, having it all became the Holy Grail, and just as elusive and mystical.

I think it’s time women recognize that we’re never going to have it all. We’re not going to have it all if we do fewer dishes. We’re not going to have it all when men wipe more babies’ bottoms than we do. And we’re not going to have it all when we storm the C-suite, like they stormed the Bastille, and rout the place.

I think it’s time men recognize that they, too, are never going to have it all. Not when a man pushing a baby in a swing at the neighborhood playground gathers no accolades. Not when more companies “man up” and supply paternity leave, either.

None of us — men or women — are going to have it all. Because we can’t. The entire concept is a farce — a snow job.

Is it the terminology or the elusiveness?

Every one of us has to make decisions that deny us elsewhere. Sometimes we’re forced to. Sometimes we choose to. Every one of us longs to have it all. Most of us know that it’s an impossibility. So, why does having it all have such a stranglehold on our consciousness?

Since communication is what I do, I can’t help but examine whether it’s the terminology. Are we stressed by the choice of words: “have it all”? Does our continued use of the phrase lead us to believe it is, in fact, possible and we’re the only ones who haven’t cracked the code? Or is the allure of having it all so strong that it blinds our reasoning?

And because employee health is what I encourage, I have to ask how not having it all plays into our work performance, our feelings of engagement and our health?

I’m left with more questions than answers.

* If you saw The SpongeBob SquarePants Movie, this phrase needs no explanation. If not, watch this.

Regular TLNT contributor Fran Melmed originally wrote this for the Authentic Organizations website.

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