We Asked Our Working Moms Whether They Think Women Can Truly "Have It All"

We Asked Our Working Moms Whether They Think Women Can Truly "Have It All"

On her first day as a working mom, my mother often tells me, she was sobbing at her desk by lunchtime. For the first few years of my life, she'd planned to be a stay-at-home mom, taking care of my sister and me. But on her first day back at work, I got pink eye. With no one else available to pick me up, my mom was forced to duck out on day one because she had no other choice. 

My mother, like many women of her generation, had no idea how hard it would be to be a professional and a parent at the same time. She had grown up believing she could "have it all" — i.e., family and a career — only to discover that aiming for both made it all the more difficult for her to have either. 

While the idea of "having it all" has hung over the heads of working moms over the past few decades, it's evolved over time from an inspirational slogan to a frustrating cliche that's impossible for women to achieve. As Anne-Marie Slaughter pointed out in a recent New York Times op-ed, many working mothers are effectively precluded from having both kids and a career, forced to pick one or the other when there's not the time, energy or funds for all of it. 

That might be one reason why today's young adults — young women, in particular — have so much anxiety about being able to achieve a work-life balance, especially as their careers progress and they begin families of their own. A recent Pew Research analysis found women are more likely than men to adjust their careers to care for their families' needs. Research has also shown millennials are increasingly delaying marriage and parenthood, partly in an effort to give ourselves the best chances of "having it all" — or at the very least, having it a little easier than our parents did.

That's why we wanted to know: In this day and age, is "having it all" actually possible? Should we even keep asking ourselves this questions in the first place? To find out, Mic decided to ask the people who know best: our moms. We spoke with six working mothers between the ages of 40 and 60 — lawyers and executives, primary breadwinners and single parents — about their jobs, their kids and what it means to them to have it all. Here's what they had to say.  

Colleen Jones, 55

Source: Mic/Colleen Jones

Jones was already married with a child when she became one of the few female attorneys practicing in St. Louis in the 1980s, at age 24. Six years later, while she was pregnant with twins, her boss gave her an ultimatum: she could continue with her pregnancy or continue with the firm. She was fired, with little recourse. 

Did you always plan to have kids? What were your concerns going into parenthood, specifically with regard to raising kids and having a job?

It sounds naive, but I didn't. I never really thought that much about it. I came from a family of six kids and was one of the first to go to college, and I wanted a career. But when I found myself pregnant during my second year of law school and decided I wanted to have the baby, I had to rethink things, but I was naive and thought it would work out. When a dad gets a call to go to day care and get the kid, he's a great guy. If a mom does it, they roll their eyes.

How was the idea of "having it all" translated to you, if at all? How did you come to understand it as a young, work-oriented woman?

It wasn't, really. There wasn't really anyone doing it. I think that helped me in the long run. I didn't have a rosy picture of what it would look like or a scary picture. On the best days, I felt like a great mother and great professional, and on the worst days I felt bad at both. Most days it's a mix. [But] I think it's very empowering to have a career. It gives you a lot of confidence. When you've been through it, there's really nothing anyone can throw at you.

What do you think "having it all" actually means now that you've tried to balance work and family yourself? Do you think it's possible to "have it all"?

I think it's possible to have your own all. You have to stop thinking about what that means in terms of other people. I don't compare my career to Hillary Clinton's. If that's what it means to have it all, I didn't. But I don't miss it because that's not what I wanted. I liked having a career that made me feel proud and confident, and I felt like I had skills that I could use in the world to support myself and others. And I loved the hands-on parts of being a mother. I still love it. I think you just do what you enjoy. At the end I think I had most of it. You kind of learn that the things you didn't get weren't that important to you after all.

Edith Cooper, 54

Cooper, whose daughter Jordan is director of ops and chief of staff at Mic, raised three children while also building a career at Goldman Sachs, a feat she said was possible with the assistance of her husband — and with hired help, a luxury she felt fortunate to have.

Did you always plan to have kids? What were your concerns going into parenthood, specifically with regard to raising kids and having a job?

I'm sure there was some thought in my mind [about balancing work and family], but it wasn't something that dominated my thinking. I have often been asked by women that are starting their careers, when is the right time to have children? I always push back. Having a child is a life event. You might change your job or decide you're not going to do your job, but you can't decide "Oh, never mind" once you have children.

Can you give an example of a time when it all felt unmanageable?

I work in financial services and always have, and often clients will dictate your priorities. Sometimes you'll be traveling when you'd rather go to the first-grade play. The fortunate thing is that my husband has always been very engaged as a parent, and so that was very, very helpful and important. 

What do you think "having it all" actually means now that you've tried to balance work and family yourself? Do you think it's possible to "have it all"?

I feel strongly that the definition of having it all is up to the individual to define, for a couple of reasons. First of all, your life circumstances are unique: the definition of your job on a day-to-day basis, your family structure, your partner or spouse. To suggest that I should look at someone else's definition and strive for that is almost impossible. You always want to be great at everything, and if you're assessing against someone else, it leads to more things to worry about. I think that's hard. You do the best you can. 

Jennifer Arthur, 42

Source: Mic/Jennifer Arthur

Before having children, Arthur, an IT manager, was constantly networking. Her most recent professional transition happened after she was denied a promotion she says she was all but promised — at least, before she told her boss she was expecting a second child. Arthur told Mic she can't afford additional help caring for her 4-year-old son, who has autism, and her failure-to-thrive 13-month-old daughter, which places huge pressure on her as their "primary parent."

Did you always plan to have kids? What were your concerns going into parenthood, specifically with regard to raising kids and having a job?

I wasn't worried about the health or mental health of either kid, and then they both arrived and I was suddenly worried about both of those things. I thought I could handle it all, that I knew what I was getting into, but I did not. I did not understand how displaced your sense of self becomes and how you struggle. Regardless of what people say, [having kids] does impact your career. 

How was this idea of "having it all" translated to you? How did you come to understand it as a young, career-oriented woman?

My mom and dad got married and had an agreement: He was going to make money, she was going to stay home and take care of kids. I remember her being so unhappy for so many years, that I knew that wasn't going to work for me. I wanted to be in charge of my destiny. It didn't occur to me that parenthood doesn't let you be in charge of your destiny. You think you can have it all — be the big boss, get the promotion, have the big house, make great desserts, have your kids wear cloth diapers — but that's bull-fucking-shit. If you're rich you can do all of that.

What would you change in  your own life about how you've managed work and family? Do you have any regrets?

I would be more insistent about having time for myself. It's important to your own mental balance. It can take a lot more than you think, but everyone's well runs dry. You have to be able to take something for yourself at some point.

Jeanne Lopez, 58

Source: Mic/Jeanne Lopez

While building what would eventually become a successful career at a major financial institution, Lopez left her first husband and became a single parent to her two children. Already her family's primary breadwinner and caretaker, she took on part-time work at a department store and selling real estate, in addition to maintaining her full-time corporate role. Working three jobs allowed Lopez to pay her mortgage.

What were your concerns going into parenthood, specifically with regard to raising kids and having a job?

My father worked, my mother worked part time, and so I don't think it ever occurred to me to think about what challenges might be faced. I was naive to think it wouldn't be a struggle. I got married relatively young; I was 22. I was 24 when I had my first child. I grew up in projects, so a lot of my friends didn't even finish high school, or got pregnant at a young age. I was very proud of myself for going to college and getting married and not having children until after. I thought I was on my way to living the American dream.

Can you give an example of a time when it all felt unmanageable?

When my son was about a year and a half, I was probably right in the middle of my career and was managing a large team, and I had to take the week off because the doctors thought he had meningitis. My boss would call every day saying they needed me there, but my son was in the hospital. It was hard for me to determine who could stay with my child, so I could maybe go to the office for a few hours. I had to make a decision. I think at the end of the day, for me, my family always came first. Whatever the consequences of that, I would've had to have dealt with them.

What do you think "having it all" actually means now that you've tried to balance work and family yourself? Do you think it's possible to "have it all"?

I think it means doing what you need to do to keep your family unit intact while providing a balance of morals and fun and respect. I think it's possible to have it all depending on what you believe having it all is. For me, it's having a great relationship with my children and my family, and being able to provide for them. 

Joi Gordon, 48

Source: Mic/Joi Gordon

After earning a coveted role as an assistant district attorney in New York City, Gordon's casework inspired her to connect with Dress for Success, a then-startup to help underprivileged women with job interviews and career preparation. Gordon soon found herself volunteering for Dress for Success' board and then, shortly after giving birth to her second child, joining the organization as CEO.

Did you always plan to have kids? What were your concerns going into parenthood, specifically with regard to raising kids and having a job?

I don't know if "planned" is the right word, but I've always wanted children. I'm an only child, so I always wanted to have more than one. I wanted a family. But you know, I had not one concern. I was raised by a single mom, with a loving father who I did see regularly, but my mom was primary caretaker and she worked really hard — and she made it look easy. If she could do it, there was no reason I couldn't, especially if I was married.

How was this idea of "having it all" translated to you, if at all? How did you come to understand it as a young, work-oriented woman?

It never, for me, was a question of "can I have it all?" I knew I was going to have it all, but maybe not all at the same time. "All" for me, when I was in my twenties, was having a child. "All" for me in my thirties was really building and working on my career. In my forties, it's watching my children build and create their lives. In my fifties, it'll be having an empty home and spending time with my husband. Maybe I don't have it all at the same time, but at all those different points I've had it all.

What do you think needs to change for millennials to have it a little easier, if not "have it all," as they start to have families of their own?

A lot of young women who work with me are putting off getting married and having families, because they feel like everything has to be planned and perfect. If you wait for it to be perfect, it may never happen. The best part of my life has been to start to have a family as a young person. I'm now in my late forties, and I'm really [starting to] write that second chapter of my life instead of starting [my family]. What are you waiting on? If you find someone and you have a great career and great partner, you can do both. You can be good at both.

Emily Campbell, 46

Source: Mic/Emily Campbell

Emily Campbell, a career counselor who lives in New Jersey, had the typical career of a corporate attorney in New York City when she first started out. But after billing 6,000 hours one year during her first decade as a lawyer, Campbell decided to pivot and go off the partner track, recognizing rather early that she wanted to start a family. She gave birth to twins in 2002.

Did you always plan to have kids? What were your concerns going into parenthood, specifically with regard to raising kids and having a job?

First of all, I couldn't have kids for a while. I was treated for infertility, and a lot of that was stress-related. How can you work 6,000 hours a year and still try to get pregnant? It is very hard in a place like [a corporate law firm] to have it all, because the field is absolutely client-driven, and that is where you do need a very substantial support network if you really want to make it. I just found that wasn't my ultimate career goal, so I was satisfied restructuring my career. I made my job the job I wanted.

Can you give an example of a time when it all felt unmanageable?

I have a humorous version of that: I had to be on a conference call, I was home and my daughter was making a ton of noise. I handed her my Blackberry to play with, and she was just gnawing on it. She shorted it out. I handed it to our Blackberry administrator and said, "I just need a new phone." You just do what you need to do.

What do you think "having it all" actually means now that you've tried to balance work and family yourself? Do you think it's possible to "have it all"?

It shifts. You'll have it at different times. Your kids' wants and needs can be taken care of well when they're young; if you've got family and other people around, then the kids will grow up safe and feeling secure and loved. It gets very complicated as they get older. Homework gets more complicated, friends, work, what they're doing on the Internet — it all gets more complicated. For me, having it all is producing good citizens. I want my kids to have productive work that they're satisfied with, for them to make money and support themselves and for them to give back to their communities. That's what I'm trying to model for them.

Correction: Oct. 6, 2015
An earlier version of this article misstated that Emily Campbell was a legal recruiter. That is an outdated title; she is currently a career counselor. This article has also been updated to correct a transcription error in the second reference to the number of hours Campbell billed during her first decade as a lawyer. Gordon is also 48, not 49.