To imagine another five words that might have raised more questions with such unsuspecting simplicity is a challenge. It’s a confusing question: “Can women have it all?”
Beyond the subjective interpretation of exactly what, “have it all” might mean to a particular person—the question also begs for an answer about “women” specifically.
Are we to immediately infer the question to be about modern gender roles and the traditional role of women as housewives and homemakers? The query seems almost an innuendo. Has the feminist movement trivialized motherhood to include all women?
Yes, motherhood—as in childbirth—is the exclusive domain of “women.” But aren’t there “women” who’ve chosen not to pursue motherhood? Aren’t there many women who’ve been denied the blessings of motherhood through no fault of their own? How can these women "have it all" if the question contemplates the modern role of a housewife or homemaker?
Isn’t motherhood a distinction—a title of significant honor? Beyond the overly broad gender description, isn’t motherhood a calling, an aspiration deserving of something more? Would anyone seriously argue that motherhood doesn’t have the greatest potential for good or harm in human life? After all, doesn’t the first assurance that there is love in the world come from a mother greeting her newborn? She is more than a women, she is a child’s realization that there is affection, tenderness, comfort and sympathy.
Speaking before the National Congress of Mothers in 1905, President Roosevelt said, “No ordinary work done by man is either as hard or as responsible as the work of a woman who is bringing up a family of small children.” His speech gives recognition to the weight of a mother’s responsibility.
If anything has changed in the many years since Roosevelt spoke, it may be the need for money or the ability of a family to be sustained on a single income. Since the gilded age money has always been a matter of concern in American life. But since the beginning of WWII when women entered the work force in large numbers and stayed, the ability to sustain a family and realize a decent life in America seems to have diminished.
Commonplace has become the dual income family with two parents contributing to the household to meet family expenses. The economics of a decision to even have a family now may hinge upon the ability to plan for retirement, save for a child’s education and perhaps help our aging parents with some of their financial burdens.
Since 1965, mothers have almost tripled the amount of paid work they do each week according to Pew Social Trends. Fully 40% of working mothers say they “always feel rushed.”
The concerns presented today by a high cost of living, economic instability and the dynamic restructuring and downsizing of American businesses impacts the idea of choice implied in the question of whether women can have it all.
In fact, authors Elizabeth Warren and Amelia Tyagi note in their book, The Two-Income Trap: Why Middle-Class Mothers & Fathers Are Going Broke, that “the single best predictor” of bankruptcy “is having a child.” They explain, “Our data show families in financial trouble are working hard, playing by the rules—and the game is stacked against them.”
The facts according to Amelia Tyagi, are that while two-income families make more money today than a one income family did a generation ago, the basics—housing, health insurance, child care, taxes and transportation—leave families with less money at the end of the month.
Importantly, with both parents in the workforce the chances of someone getting laid off or getting too sick to work doubles. Families aren’t sending Mom into the workforce and using the money to build their savings, have more fun or go on more vacations. Today, that’s not the case at all Tyagi explains, if mom gets laid off you can’t say “we’ll just stop paying the mortgage for a while.”
Can a woman have it all—particularly for mothers—has become a question more about financial necessity and less about choice? A woman may prefer to work and some may not, but most haven’t a choice except to work since the average mortgage expense has grown 70 times faster than the average father’s income, according to Tyagi.
A generation ago American women and their families may have had a choice in their interpretation of “having it all,” so maybe the question was never confusing or as I suggested an innuendo. The answer may have always been obvious—right on the face of the question.
I think the question turns simply on the word “can.” So, my answer is “yes”—as long as a woman has a choice—economic or otherwise.