Why 'having it all' is an unhelpful idea and what to strive for instead

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"Is it possible to do well at work and be a good mother?"

This is one of the questions I hear most frequently from clients and friends. It underlies all of the work I do.  To paraphrase, can we ‘have it all’?

I dislike the gender politics of the question but sadly it reflects the reality of very many women with children. I have two responses. 

First, it’s simply not a helpful question. 

What does having it all even mean?  If it’s ‘can I have a job and be a parent?’ well, of course you can.  If it’s ‘can I be CEO of a FTSE100 company and spend every teatime with my children?’, maybe not so much.

And so, my second response is, it depends.

It depends on what you mean by doing well at work and it depends what you consider a ‘good mother’ to be. 

A good starting point is to accept that things will change. Beyond the obvious fact that you have had a child, economics says so. Opportunity cost is the idea that you have to give up the benefits of one option to pursue a different option. In other words you can't have it all!  if you have children you will give up certain benefits from your pre-children days.  Or put another way, you have more to do in the same amount of time so choices and compromises about how you use that time will be necessary.

There is only so much more that you can do in the same amount of time without there being some unintended consequences.

But more than that, not only do things change, but you change. Having a child changes you. How and how much varies from person to person but change you, it will. 

So, the challenge we all face is how to make sense of our lives and make choices about how we live and what we want in a context in which there’s at least twice as much to do and we are forever changed in ways that we could not have imagined.   So, nothing much then.

When framed this way, it’s not unreasonable to think that you might want to make changes to your career.

Rather than trying to ‘have it all’, I encourage my clients to think instead about their new normal.

This is more than a semantic argument.  Having it all suggests something unchanged and unchanging, where ‘all’ is everything we did before and we simply add to it.  Whereas a new normal is about taking fresh look at your life and work being open to the possibilities that change brings. 

It's about making choice about what you want and what you are willing to let go of.

The starting point is a (relatively) blank sheet.  What are you going to prioritise?  What are your top values (the things most important to you) and what is your vision for your life?  What does doing well in your career look like for you?  What would you like to achieve and by when?

Thinking about your role as a mother, what is most important to you? What is non-negotiable? What concessions will you make? 

It sounds very simple and it is; simple but not easy. But so much better to make hard choices and purposefully strive for what you want to achieve than to be carried along on a tide of frustration trying to do everything, be everything to everyone but, in reality, spreading yourself to thin and feeling out of control.

It is questions like these that we will be considering in a group coaching programme that I am running in collaboration with More 2 Childcare.  We are holding a taster workshop on Thursday 12 October. Drop me a line for me information.