Defining “All”

The last week or so, two articles about “having it all” by women connected with the State Department have been making the rounds. Why Women Still Can’t Have It All by Ann-Marie Slaughter and How to Have an Insanely Demanding Job and 2 Happy Children by Dana Shell Smith. I’ve read both, and discussed them a bit with friends (as has practically everyone, apparently).

My conclusion? HUGE eye roll.

Not that they weren’t both good pieces. Especially Slaughter’s. I’ve rarely read an opinion piece by a high-powered type on this topic that was as thoughtful and considered as hers. I didn’t agree with everything she said, but I give her a lot of credit for stepping back from her own ego and addressing both her own situation and the big picture while acknowledging that she is one of a pretty rarefied group of women who actually have these choices. (And she didn’t brag about how crazy her life is as so many women do. That gets kind of old.)

I guess my question is: why do we have to “have it all” anyway? Where is it written that you get to do everything that you want to do in life?

I know I have kind of a simplistic brain sometimes, but it seems to me that it’s just about making choices, every day. For example, choosing to have a baby. I mean, really, who tells these women that children will have absolutely no impact on their careers? I know men often think like this, but please. I thought we were smarter than that.

I had an interesting discussion about Slaughter’s article with my daughter a few days ago. She and her equally accomplished friends have all read and discussed it as well, and it seems that her generation of young women are actually smarter than that. They are absolutely considering how they will have a career that works with family life. They seem to understand very clearly that choices will have to be made. Good for them.

I also find it interesting that they are thinking about this regardless of their mothers’ career situations. Most of her friends have high-powered working mothers. According to her, they are consistently surprised to hear that she does not. Because, I guess, the only way to raise a highly successful, ambitious woman is to be one yourself?

For the record, I have worked my whole life, since I was old enough to babysit. And, I have a degree from a top-flight university. But I have never held a full-time salaried position.

And yet, I think I “have it all” because I am where I choose to be.

I chose to marry an FSO.  I chose to have kids young. I chose to work part time for two decades, not just to be able to manage their raising myself, but to have a relatively sane household and time for my own interests. I own these choices, for better or for worse.

I’m not losing any sleep over my lack of a lengthy resumé  I like my part-time job (content manager for a non-profit) but if I lost it, I would just find another. It’s not the center of my universe, not by a long stretch. Some people live to work, some people work to live. I suppose I am in the latter category.

Full-time work is an obvious option now, since one child is in college and one is finally settled in his new high school. But you know what? I’ve already been working hard for the last two decades. Two kids, uncounted moves, an unaccompanied tour, a part-time home business, two home renovations, and then some.

Like Slaughter, I have also dealt with a “troubled” teen. This affected not only my personal and working life, but—surprise!—my husband’s career.

We were pretty content in Washington, DC for several years. When we finally decided to bid out, one of my primary reasons was that I would like to enjoy just one overseas tour without small children. Loved the little buggers, but they definitely affected my ability to get out and enjoy the countries where we were posted. I got pregnant during our first overseas assignment, and we had returned from our previous one when our kids were 7 and 11. So, there had never been a time when we were overseas when I had not been subject to the constraints of either pregnancy or motherhood

I am still working part-time, still keeping house, still getting dinner on the table, still keeping the home fires burning while my husband goes on frequent business trips. The difference is that now it is actually pretty easy. The difference is now that I have nearly total control over my own schedule. I have plenty of time to play in my craft studio if I want. I take German lessons twice a week. I can go to the gym regularly. I can go to lunch with a friend at the drop of a hat. If I want to play hookey and go out of town for the day, I can do it. My teenaged son gets himself to school and back, has a key, and can heat up his own pizza!

I never have to chase a toddler around an Embassy event, find a babysitter before I can go out at night, or rush home to pick up a kid from school. I can even blog if I want to.

And to top it off, I’m in Vienna!

So, rather than drop everything to go be an assistant CLO or security escort at the Embassy, or take the Foreign Service exam (because every intelligent person dreams of being an FSO, right?) I am really enjoying this reward period in my life.

Not that I am completely oblivious to career considerations. I am currently managing editor of a book project, and am planning to take online courses toward a copy editing certificate. I already produce newsletters, so this dovetails nicely with my existing skills. My plan is to keep working part-time in this general field for the rest of my life. That’s the path I have chosen, and it is a career direction just like any other, even if it doesn’t pay a fortune. I am very lucky that I am married to a person who has a steady job and makes good money so I can reasonably assume this will be possible.

And you know, even the arrangement did come to a crashing end, I’d be OK. Let’s say something did happen to my breadwinning husband, and he passed away. Well, that’s what a hefty life insurance policy is for, right?

Or how about if he had a middle-aged bout of insanity and ran off with a secretary. Assuming I wasn’t in jail for killing his sorry ass, my earning potential would of course be quite a bit less than his. But that doesn’t mean I am an idiot. My name is on everything. I have my own bank accounts, my own credit cards and credit rating, and my own work history. Sure, my standard of living would be affected, and sure, I’d need to go find a full-time job, but I wouldn’t be out on the street.

This is how I define “financial independence.”  It’s not a question of whether you could live exactly the same way if you were on your own.  It’s a question of whether you would be able to get by. I mean, let’s face it, if either of the above catastrophes happened, whether or not I could still afford my mortgage payment probably would not be the first thing on my mind.

It’s a shame that women like Ann-Marie Slaughter have apparently been brainwashed into thinking that it is possible or even desirable to have a very high-powered career without having to make choices when it comes to their families. Actually, I think it’s a shame that anyone would think that, male or female. It’s just that men can usually get away with it for longer.

As for Dana Shell Smith, well, I just hope that her two young kids stay happy. If she thinks the Foreign Service is a job that is full of surprises, she ain’t seen nothing yet.


  1. Love it! Well written.
    Having it all, in my opinion, is a state of mind more than anything else. A person can be happy with very little and a person can be miserable with everything they ever dreamed of.
    Oh, and as much as I love my children, and I do, I am so excited to do one tour sans little children. I am glad you are having a good time in this time of your life. That is a spectacular accomplishment.


  2. I am also going to get a copy-editing certificate, I hope. Did you apply for the development fellowship to pay for it? If so, jinx!

    Seriously, though, there are several of us who do this editing/writing thing professionally, we should network. I do mostly academic and government editing, what is your forte?


    • So will I, which program were you looking at? I am looking at the UCBerkeley or UCSD. I have been working as an editor for a while, but I want to get more gigs, especially from grad students and young authors, rather than government stuff. I find the variety of writing is more interesting in students, both more diverse, and more amusing errors. I will have to get a new computer if I go big time though, as the iPad won’t cut it 🙂 .


  3. I’m looking at UC Berkeley. Not really sure where it will lead, but I’d like to do it just to improve my skills. It bothers me not to actually know the rules. I’ve been winging it for quite a while now!


  4. I really, really enjoyed this post, especially the part about choosing to marry an FSO, choosing to have kids young, etc. It really resonates with me at this time our our lives and it’s so good to hear that you are still so happy with your choices with kids in college and high school!


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