Are we "airbrushing reality" when we say women can have it all?

Turns out, a lot of you are. A lively commentary ensued with the majority of readers commiserating.

While productivity certainly has its rewards, being overly busy gives us the sense that we are missing something. It knocks us off balance.  I’ve long felt that “balance” is elusive.  We may think we’re pulling it off, but are we consistently engaging with people and projects in the way that we desire and that makes our experiences meaningful? “Harmonizing” our lives, as Sheila Moeschen of HerSelf First puts it, feels more attainable, healthier. The problem is that career, family and personal harmony is only as possible as our society will allow.

I promised a follow-up to my earlier blog. Today I bring that to you in the form of what will likely be a controversial statement, a statement that goes against everything you’ve heard for the past several decades. Are you ready? Here goes:

Women CAN’T have it all.

I have a friend who routinely says this to me. At first, I disagreed, like many of you possibly.  But over time, I’ve come to realize that there is some truth in her statement.

My friend’s view is that today’s generation of women has been fed a fallacy since girlhood. 

Whether it’s come from society or a tampon commercial or your own mother, throughout your lifetime, you’ve probably heard the phrase, “Women can have it all.” And if your mother told you this, believe me, she meant well. She was excited that you would have more opportunities than she did. She was proud to see you become a career woman AND a mother AND a wife AND a volunteer…AND AND AND.  Indeed, these are wonderful freedoms and roles for which I am deeply grateful.

Where, then, is the fallacy? 

What none of us factored in was that while we’ve made it impressively clear that we can DO it all, that does not mean that we are doing it all WELL. Not all at the same time, at least. And when we don’t do it all well, we blame ourselves for not being a more productive employee, a more involved parent, a better housekeeper, etc.

In her recent piece in the Atlantic, Anne-Marie Slaughter calls the women-can-have-it-all mentality “airbrushing reality.”

When you feel “too busy,” do you also feel that you’re not being true to yourself? During a given week, how often do you feel you are reflecting your true self (your full potential, your most meaningful contributions) in ALL of your roles – wife, mother, professional, volunteer, CEO of the Home, etc. Can you relate the notion of an airbrushed reality?

I’m not saying women can’t have a lot. And maybe we CAN have it all. But are we engaged in each of our roles at a level that enriches our experiences and elevates our contributions? 

I can imagine a number of ways to mitigate the downsides of women being able to have it all, and they all center on taking more control over our schedules. I’m fortunate to have a job that allows me to work largely from home so that I can be with my children. While that can create a whole different kind of craziness, at least it increases my choices in the pursuit of harmony.

But as Slaughter illustrates in her article, it’s not up to us alone to find ways to control our schedules. There is a much greater force at play; more American businesses and organizations must make a shift that puts focus on “how we can help all Americans have healthy, happy, productive lives, valuing the people they love as much as the success they seek.”

Until then, I’m advocating for quality over quantity in our lives. It’s a step in the right direction. Say “no” when you need to; say “yes” when you want to. Trust your gut. Know when you are doing yourself – or the very thing to which you are committing your time and energy – a disservice because you are unable to fully engage. Give all of yourself to only a few things at a time. And make sure that your own health and sanity is one of those things.

Inspired Wining is an example of where I've gotten it just right. Take a close-knit group of women. Add a monthly gathering over wine. And top it off with the most significant service projects of my life – fighting a disease that is threatening my friend’s family while starting a movement among communities of women to find their own special group and cause. That’s how I’ve been able to capture a quality experience.

So, how about you? Do you think women (and even men, as Slaughter points out) can have it all? I invite you to read Slaughter’s article, if not in one sitting, then over time. I think you will find it a quality read as you ponder your own quality time. And by all means, please leave your comments. I’d love to hear from you. 


  1. Love this post. One thing that our parents, friends, mentors forget to point out to us in our search for 'all' is that we are human beings with limits--our time, our abilities, etc. Therefore, everything we have or get, we have to give up something else for, making 'all' impossible. I agree, quality over quantity, and chose your activities well.

    1. Thanks, Kelly. And just giving ourselves the freedom to accept a few limits, I think, helps us to ultimately be better humans all around. To me, that's connected to the value of being willing to risk failure from time to time, knowing that with some failure ultimately comes the better success.