We’ve been asking the question for decades — can women have it all?
Translation: Can women lead successful careers, raise strong families and feel fulfilled as individuals?
Some say yes, under the right circumstances. Others argue that something will necessarily suffer en route to this supposed perfect life. Still others believe that women can have all these, just not simultaneously. There will probably never be a consensus.
What I’ve yet to see in this conversation is an explanation of why this “all” — the trifecta of career, family and personal fulfillment — is the thing we women are supposed to be chasing. Who decided that? And how do we know they’re right?
If we belonged to the world, we could expect to find ourselves made whole in it. But that’s not how we were created. Pope St. John Paul II, in Mulieris Dignitatem, writes, “To say that man is created in the image and likeness of God means that man is called to exist ‘for’ others, to become a gift” (No. 7).
It’s taken me a while, but I’ve realized that when we strive after the world’s criteria for having arrived as a self-actualized adult, we often refuse the identity given at our baptism — that calling to be a gift.
After I graduated from college, I worked in Manhattan. When introduced to someone new, inevitably the first question asked was, “What do you do?” For a time, the answer was easy: I was an editorial assistant in the children’s department at Simon & Schuster.
Soon, things changed. By age 24, I was adulting in a big way. I was a wife. I was a mother. I was launching a freelance editing business, but didn’t know if I could call myself an editor, much less a writer, quite yet. I struggled to identify myself.
I recognize now that any judgment I felt came mostly from within my own heart, fueled by the parameters the culture had impressed upon me. I was thinking more in terms of what I could show than in what I was called to be. Truly, the only thing we are universally called to is holiness. That should have been my starting point.
In Lumen Gentium, Pope Paul VI explains, “all the faithful of Christ of whatever rank or status, are called to the fullness of the Christian life and to the perfection of charity” (No. 40). For some of us, that’s going to mean pursuing a career and raising a family. But we shouldn’t expect it to be so for everyone. God created us as individuals, unique and irreplaceable, each with our own path to him.
It took me another couple of years to realize my vocation was as a wife and a mother; my calling was to be a writer and editor. My identity was as a daughter of God. It was my Father who had gifted me the skills and circumstances to allow me to work with words. It was my Father who had blessed my husband and me with children. And serving my Father, glorifying him, was the purpose of everything else.
A few years ago, The Atlantic published an article that created a lot of buzz. In “Why women still can’t have it all,” Anne-Marie Slaughter cites a study indicating that, “although women as a group have made substantial gains in wages, educational attainment, and prestige over the past three decades … women are less happy today than their predecessors were in 1972, both in absolute terms and relative to men.” The solution, Slaughter holds, is that women need to “wield power in sufficient numbers.” Then, she argues, we can “create a society that genuinely works for all women. That will be a society that works for everyone.”
Would it be great to see more women in leadership roles in our society? Sure, if that’s what they’re called to, but a shift in numbers isn’t sufficient to initiate the attitude adjustment our culture so desperately needs. We need to celebrate the beauty of following the paths God sets out for each of us, to glory in their diversity, rather than comparing them.
Today, I can describe myself in a way that makes it sound like I’ve accomplished a lot. It’s these things that people comment on when they ask how I do “it all.” What they don’t see is that the list of things I haven’t done is a lot longer than the list of what I have. And so many of the opportunities I’ve had were out of my control. The best I can do is be grateful for them and look to give as much as I can of what I’ve been given.
Too often I scroll through social media and conflate other women’s gifts and achievements into those of one imaginary woman that I am not. I forget that my insecurities have created this woman. I know I’m not alone. Why do we do this to ourselves? What stands in the way of trusting our all-loving God?
I wish I had a good answer for that, but I don’t. What I know is that I am a woman called to the Lord and consecrated through his mother, striving every day to serve him in the ways he’s asked me to. Single, married or consecrated religious; working, at home or in the convent — wherever God has called us, that’s all any of us really needs to have it all.