You can’t have it all – but why do you want it?

In journalism, the job that everyone aspires to is to be The Editor.

And yet, I have twice turned down an offer that would have given me that title.

Both times the offer was to be the editor of a South African news website, and both times I said no because I didn’t trust the person making the offer.

At least that’s what I told myself at the time. Thinking back on it now, I think that lack of trust was well-placed, but I also know that I feared the responsibility that such a post would bring. I wasn’t sure I was up to the job. I know my strengths and they are in operations rather than visionary leadership.

The arc of the years took that career away in any event, and now I live peacefully, running my own small business.

But I thought of those career-driven days when reading a piece on Nieman Lab by Katherine Goldstein, who writes eloquently of trying to build a successful podcast business while also parenting three small children. The experience leads her to this conclusion:

It was true before the pandemic, but it’s glaringly obvious now. If you have significant caregiving responsibilities (like most moms), you can’t have it all. I’ll say it again: You can’t have it all.
Take these three things: A job that makes good money; a job that is impactful and meaningful to you; a job that’s not super-demanding and supports a flexible lifestyle well-suited to care responsibilities. If you’re relatively privileged, you can pick two out of three, max.

And I thought, yes that’s true. But I also think it is problematic to frame this discussion in terms of the phrase ”having it all”. For many millions of people there is no all, and no having – there is just survival.

But looking at this in the context of privilege, it seems to me that men don’t have it all either. If they are breadwinners in the traditional mould they get to earn the money and take things on the chin. They certainly don’t get to spend time with their children, nor do they get a flexible lifestyle. They are given and carry a heavy burden of responsibility, both to that job they are a slave to, and to their dependents. That burden of responsibility is the one that I turned down when I said no to being an editor. Because I am a woman there is much less pressure on me to meet this particular set of expectations.

And if men are also the holders of traditional patriarchal power, lording it over all they see, there is something precious that they don’t have: a connection with the humanity of their families. The confines of that patriarchal role mean that others must be treated as things – including one’s family.

So if the “all” that women can’t have is the “all” that men have, why would women want it?

The “all” is just capitalist nonsense. As far as I can tell the myth is that a woman can be a mother who is present for her children plus have a successful and lucrative and fulfilling career with the prestige and security and luxury that comes with that. What the myth does not take into account is the grinding day-to-day demands of maintaining that career. I’m not sure what the “all” myth promises men. How often are men asked how this works for them?

The thing at the heart of this problem is the nature of employment and the way in which we frame it: that it holds the keys to the kingdom. All it does is enslave all of us.

My dream

That we could all find work that sustains us both financially and emotionally.

That anyone who wants to can walk away from a career and into quieter spaces where they can spend time with their children and their families and friends.

That people who want the responsibility of high-prestige careers, whatever their gender, can have that.

And that we can stop the pursuit of “having it all”, once and for all.

Contact me if you would like to chat about how I can help with all your organisational or communication needs (coaching, editing, writing, social media).

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Main picture: charlesdeluvio, Unsplash


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