In reflecting on this summer, the stories that stick with me most were the London Summer Olympics and the “having it all” debate that has stimulated so much conversation. The latter was initiated by Anne Marie Slaughter’s article in The Atlantic and was continued by the appointment of Marissa Mayer as the new CEO of Yahoo. Let’s start there.
In her piece in The Atlantic, Anne-Marie Slaughter, a political science professor and former US State Department senior executive, put forth her views on “Why Women Can’t Have It All.” She candidly described her overwrought life working as a senior policy director in the Obama administration and offered many useful insights into the challenge of balancing work and family in a very senior, highly demanding role. Her teenage son was having difficulties and acting out as she worked countless hours in a job that also had her living away from home every week.
As a result, Slaughter felt she needed to return to her tenured position at Princeton which she described as follows: “I teach a full course load, write regular print and online columns on foreign policy; give 40 to 50 speeches a year; appear regularly on TV and radio; and am working on a new academic book.” Yet somehow in spite of this seemingly Utopian, highly prestigious, and obviously demanding job, the comments of her colleagues when she left the State Department made her feel “less than.” Really? This isn’t having it all?
Then there was the case of Marissa Meyer, the new Yahoo CEO who is in the “unimaginable” situation of being pregnant. That this is worthy of more than a small footnote in her story is the first problem. The last time I checked, in order to deliver children women need to get pregnant, and all of us are here thanks to that series of fortunate events. Yet this is seen as newsworthy. To counter any skeptics of a “pregnant CEO”, Ms. Meyer announced that she will only take a few weeks off for the birth of her child and will work throughout that time. Is this necessary in order for others to feel that Yahoo made the right choice? How about pointing to her degrees from Stanford and her stellar track record at Google, one of the world’s most successful technology companies? Shouldn’t those suffice? Ms. Meyer has a husband and personal worth in the hundreds of millions of dollars, yet feels compelled to show that she can work through the birth of her first child. With all she has going for her, this doesn’t allow her to “have it all?”
The other story was this summer’s Olympics, which I loved. But despite my thorough enjoyment in watching this amazing event, I was troubled by the syndrome often expressed that you either win gold, or you are somehow “less than.” I had difficulty watching some members of our Olympic team receiving their silver medal as if it was an unworthy consolation prize. The media plays into this notion that the athletes “disappointing performance” must be an inconsolable loss. Imagine those silver medalists are only second best in the world at what they do. How can they live with that? How do they bear up under the weight of knowing that they couldn’t have it all?
No one believes more than I do that striving to have a full life is a noble and desirable goal. We all want to have career success, rich family lives, and rewarding personal experiences. But at what point do we say – “This is enough.” At what point do we realize that we do have it all? At what point do we, who are blessed with good educations and good jobs, comprehend that making trade-offs or not reaching the pinnacle in everything isn’t a tragedy, it’s simply reality.
I’m sure there are those that, quite rightly, would see Michael Phelps as the great Olympic icon. After all, he’s the person with the most hardware in Olympic history and virtually every medal Phelps won was gold. But to me the person who best symbolized the Olympic ideal was Oscar Pistorius, the South African sprinter who was the first double amputee to participate in the Games. Losing his legs as a child obviously meant he would live in a world with limits, yet somehow he achieved his dream of making it to the Olympics. He raced in the semi-finals of the 400 meters and finished last. Yet he earned the respect and admiration of fellow athletes and the world because of his spirit of optimism, courage, and good sportsmanship.
Pistorius’s motto is, “You’re not disabled by the disabilities you have, you are able by the abilities you have.” To paraphrase his words in the spirit of the “having it all” debate, I would suggest: Don’t measure your life by the things you can’t have, but rather, by the many blessings you do have.
That is having it all.
Brad Harrington is the Executive Director of the Boston College Center for Work & Family. This post originally appeared in our member newsletter.