Of all the unintended consequences of feminism, this is probably the most discussed one. Since women won the right to be breadwinners in their own right; won the right to choose what they wanted out of life, there has been an unspoken expectation that they must ‘have it all’.
The ‘ideal’ life consists of getting a good University degree, working hard and progressing nicely in our career until about 30 or so, then meetingMrPerfect. Kids come somewhere between 33 and 40. After that women are not only expected to work while raising perfect kids, we’re expected to keep spotless households and ferry our kids to numerous after school activities and help them (read- make sure that) they are top in their classes of everything at school and will never be tempted to break any rules. All this while still progressing in our chosen career and (hopefully) furthering the feminist cause by reaching the pinnacle of success in our job. Oh and of course we’re supposed to be up for red hot sex several times a week and look completely fabulous 24/ 7. At least, that’s the message I get about the perfect life for women.
Any deviation of this ideal is met with, “But of course its your choice,” said in a slightly condescending tone, meant to convey understanding but actually conveying the message that somehow, you aren’t tough enough, or that somehow, you are letting down women as a whole for choosing not to have kids, or choosing not to have a career, or choosing to have a simple job so that you can actually spend time with your kids.
The scariest thing is that it isn’t men who did this to us. We did it to ourselves. Behind every marketing push, every magazine article, every expectation is the underlying competitiveness of women. We want to be better then the next woman. We want to have better kids, a better husband, a better car, a better house, be more beautiful, take better care of ourselves- you name it, deep down inside we women want to be and have the best. Which in and of itself isn’t a bad thing. Of course we should expect the best for ourselves and aim for the highest we can achieve, but at what cost? If it isn’t the best is it still good enough? And if only a few can truly have the best, where does that leave the rest of us? It leaves the rest of us in a kind of purgatory of un-achievement- of settling. And one of the greatest crimes a woman can commit is settling. Settling is ‘giving up’. Its taking the easy way out. Its about not trying hard enough, all of which seems to be more important than actually being happy. Feminism came out of a desire for happiness, but it has given us more things we need to be happy. And settling seems to be mere contentment- not the giddy achievement of true happiness.
Probably the best thing about this unintended consequence is that the pendulum is swinging back the other way. In defense of feminism, ‘having it all’ was never really a goal anyway. It was just a byproduct. Also, it doesn’t only apply to women, it applies to men as well. Now more and more women are stepping up and saying that its humanly impossible to be everything and do everything. And in our heart of hearts we hate those women who accomplish it. Never mind that they are women who have achieved something extraordinary, gone above and beyond the call of duty for their partners, children and themselves. They have shown dedication, determination and deserve admiration. What we women see is someone makes us look bad. If she can do it then why can’t I?
In the 21st century though women are claiming back their right to not have it all. More and more women are opening up about not wanting children, or about not wanting a career and being perfectly happy raising their children. More and more women who did attempt to have it all and fail are admitting that trying wasn’t satisfying. The pendulum is swinging towards doing just a few things really well, instead of trying to do everything.
The heart of it though, lies in one thing- the value of women. ‘Having it all’ syndrome was born out of our desire to be as good as men at their own game while, at the same time, keeping what was best of womanhood. The lesson we have learnt is that we can’t be all things to all people. And we can’t expect men to either. Quite simply we need to learn for ourselves and teach the male half of the species, that our value doesn’t need to be earned. Our value as half the human race is intrinsic. What ever we choose to do with our lives should have no bearing on our contribution to society. Mothers have felt the need to defend their value and have offered up many humorous emails and jokes about the value of what we do. Career women feel the need to defend their decision not to have kids. ‘Having it all’ syndrome won’t have truly faded away until no woman feels the need to defend her choices in life and till each and every women feels valued simply for existing.
Originally Published on Rusty Lime on 9th July 2008