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What "having it all" should really mean

Posted by Dr. Claire McCarthy  July 4, 2012 11:58 AM

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I have five children, and because of this I will not be as successful or wealthy as I might have been without them. 

I am totally okay with that.

This week I finally read the Atlantic article, "Why Women Still Can't Have It All." My son has been telling me I need to read it, especially since I wrote a post a few months ago about work-life balance. It was a great article; I think Anne-Marie Slaughter did an excellent job of laying out the reasons why there are so few women in top leadership positions--like conflicts between work and school schedules, the difficulties of entering and re-entering the workforce after having children, and how workers who put careers first are rewarded while those who put family first are not. I can relate to all of them.

It's not that I haven't achieved a reasonable degree of success, because I have. I'm a pediatrician at Boston Children's Hospital, an amazing place, and along with seeing patients I work in their Marketing department as a writer and editor. I've also been a professional writer for more than twenty years.  

It has come at a cost, though. I've taken multitasking to places it truly should not go. My alarm is set for 4:20 am--even on some weekend days. I've missed school concerts and field trips and so many other important moments. I've missed meetings I should have gone to, and not been part of projects I should have been part of. I've spent days without seeing my children at all because I've left before they were up and come home after they've gone to sleep. And speaking of sleep, I pretty much never get enough. 

And I'm really lucky. I have a wonderful, supportive husband who is willing to work nights and weekends so that he is home with the kids when I'm not--and a wonderful, supportive mother-in-law who is willing to be there when neither of us can. I have a job that has some flexibility--while I do have to be at the hospital to see patients and go to meetings, writing and editing can be done from home if necessary. Slaughter talked about how having control of one's schedule is crucial, and she couldn't be more right. (Although, for me this sometimes backfires--maybe it's my Catholic guilt, but my ability to work at home often makes it hard for me to relax and not work when I'm home.) So many women don't have the support or flexibility I do.

But at various points in my career, I've said no to something that would have brought me more success or recognition. I've limited my hours. I've limited my travel. I've let opportunities pass. Because ultimately, my first responsibility is to those I brought into this world--and to the person I promised to have and to hold for the rest of my life.

Whenever I hear the phrase "having it all" as it applies to women (interesting that it's not used so much for men), it seems to mean having a highly successful career and being a highly successful parent and partner. This makes no sense to me. In fact, it's absolute nonsense. Having a highly successful career is a full-time endeavor. Being a highly successful parent and partner is too. Until we figure out cloning, nobody can do both at the same time. It makes me angry when people talk about it that way, because it sets women up with unrealistic expectations. One of the most heartening parts of Slaughter's article was when she talked about how the next generation of women seems to understand that mixing career and family inherently involves compromises--and that women make more of them than men do.

I suppose I should be angry about that, but I'm not. I love being a doctor and a writer, but I love being with my kids too. I love being needed by them. They wear me out sometimes, but they are the point. I may be tired and overextended, but I'm doing exactly what I want to do--which should really be the definition of having it all.

My favorite line of the essay was this: "If women are ever to achieve real equality as leaders, then we have to stop accepting male behavior and male choices as the default and ideal." 

Whether it's socialization or our wiring, women have always understood that life involves compromises, that family needs to be first, that happiness and success can be defined in all sorts of ways. If more men could understand and live that (and if our culture could support it), it would open up so many opportunities--not just for women, but for men. Not only would the work be more fairly shared, but many more of us would have a chance to, well, have it all. 

This blog is not written or edited by or the Boston Globe.
The author is solely responsible for the content.

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About MD Mama

Claire McCarthy, M.D., is a pediatrician and Medical Communications Editor at Boston Children's Hospital . An assistant professor of pediatrics at Harvard Medical School and a senior editor for Harvard More »

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