Women and Happiness: The “Having It All” Paradox

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I feel like someone has been telling me to write this blog post. Sitting on my shoulder, with little mutterings of “Psst—don’t you have something to say about this?” What is a happy life? What is having it all? Women and their happiness have been all over the media lately. It’s led me to reflect a lot about my own happiness, my own choices, my own “having it all.”

And, although I don’t really have the answers, I have some thoughts of my own.

This week, Yahoo announced it would no longer allow working from home, sending women away from their children and back into the workplace. Their work/life balance is at stake and all around, people are asking: can women have it both ways? Or must they make a choice?

Last week, I listened to a Freakonomics podcast about how men and women differ— specifically, how many women are editing Wikipedia as compared to men. They broke it down into psychological factors as well as just logistical factors. Women don’t want to edit work and tell people they are wrong, they want to create original work themselves. Which explains the influx of women in social networks and blogs. Another claim was that women have more opportunities right now but are still not claiming they were happier than decades past. The question: why?

Sheryl Sandberg is the COO of Facebook and has recently written a book called Leaning In, while I can’t claim to have read the book, I have ascertained from both her interviews and her website that the idea is to empower women: show them they can ask for more money, higher salaries, and essentially do more and be more than they are told they can. She wants more women leaders and even, a female president.

Then on cnn.com yesterday, well known powerful women were asked what it truly meant to “have it all.” Many women responded with very clever and witty responses and the ending piece was: you define your all, someone else does not.

Now, just today, a co-worker handed me a This Week article titled, “What is a good life?” And I am convinced: I have officially been set up and/or some higher power is telling me: write about this, write about this, please.

And here I am. Hoping to candidly and somewhat cleverly translate a million messages from the media into one.

So, the idea of being happy and having it all kind of all fall into the same messy category where we try to define: what does it mean to live well, be happy and have a good life?

When we talk about living well as women, we picture a cleaning lady, manicures every Friday and maybe a house in some beachy place. A nanny. A chef. Okay, maybe I’m just regurgitating different seasons of The Real Housewives. But that’s clearly not what we are talking about here. What we are talking about is quality. The quality of our lives.

We talk about quality of life in very general terms. If someone leaves a high paying but high pressure job to take a slightly mediocre job with less hours, we have said that they have increased their quality of life. They have bettered their every day. They have traded hours at work for hours at home. And that means they are happier.

But measuring quality is a tricky thing. We want to measure it with time because that’s the most logical metric. So, a stay at home Mom has more time with her children and is, therefore, making a better decision for her family and is going to have better kids as a result. But, anyone who has had a full day with two toddlers where you have felt like you have yelled more than you have taken breaths knows this: quantity is not where it’s at, trust me.

So where do we go next for quality? Good job? Big house? Fulfilling marriage? Well behaved kids? We know all of these things wax and wane like anything in life. And, the more I read about what true happiness is, I’m skeptical. In last month’s The Week, they make a case that being happy is not all we want. What we also want is—meaning. And meaning, as it happens, sometimes is derived from the most difficult tribulations of our lives, the things that help us to view the events of our lives through a different lens. The things that help us to see that even when life is bereft of traditional happiness and quality— there can still be meaning. The article concludes with, “By putting aside our selfish interests and serving someone or something larger than ourselves—by devoting our lives to “giving” rather than “taking”—we are not only expressing our fundamental humanity, but are also acknowledging that there is more to the good life than the pursuit of simple happiness.”

The trouble is this. We talk about quality, happiness, “having it all” and “our choices as women” in one big, intimidating, homogenous clump. And it is not. Our choices as wives, as women, as Moms, as people are not something you can look at singularly. You can’t compare them side by side or crittique one part for being so unlike the other.

It brings me to something a therapist once said to me. When I revealed my own anxieties about a particular quality or choice of my own, she said, “it’s like you’re carrying a cup of tea across the room and watching the rim of the cup as you walk. You will never be able not to spill– even if you try because you are looking at it with such intensity.”

But yet, we do. We are struggling with the “having it all” paradox because, well, we keep asking ourselves whether we are actually happy with our choices. Even if we know, deep down that we are.

I have had conversation upon conversation upon conversation with women who feel conflicted about their choices in staying home, going to work, allowing their husband working long hours or travel— and don’t forget their desire for “me” time. Not one of us feels at peace. We will never say that our life has true quality because we think that more time with our kids/spouse/family/job would be just what we needed to “have it all.” We are kept from really seeing what is a meaningful life because people keep asking, “do you have it all?”, “don’t you feel fulfilled?”, “do you feel guilty dropping them off at day care?”, “do you feel guilty when you let them watch too much TV?”

And, as pointed out on CNN, no one ever-ever-ever, asks a man this question.

So, to combat all of these media messages that are coming out all at the same time—I ask you to ask yourself this, “what do I need for me/my family in order to have a meaningful life?” It might not be more time, it might not be a bigger house and it most certainly, I am sure, Sheryl Sandberg, is not asking for a larger salary and a better title than your colleague.

So, when you find yourself going on the guilt trip du jour of sending your kid to day care with a slight fever, plopping her in front of the TV while you take a shower or throwing away your toddler’s latest creation at preschool, ask yourself— is this all meaningful?

And remind yourself that the little people you made, the words you share, and the relationships you create are the only things that will truly make a meaningful life— even if that teacup is not full to the brim with happiness.