How to Have It All

I love women.

Because only a woman, in all her multi-tasking glory, would believe that we can have it all. That we should have it all. Big jobs — hell, big careers — perfect homes, brilliant children, happy marriages, wrinkle-free faces, thin thighs, well-groomed and exceptionally well-trained pets; organic, homeopathic, BPA-free better living through less chemicals (or more, depending on who you are and how you roll).

And we Gen-Xers have certainly elevated the practice of allowing life to should all over us to a fine art. First, according to a recent New York Times article by Judith Warner, “The Opt-Out Generation Wants Back In,” a big chunk of us X-chromosomal beings took a powder round about the turn of the millennium and at the height of our early careers to raise kids.

I was no exception: that face-first nosedive from chief ass kisser to chief ass wiper was jarring, to say the least. And yet, I’ve always known that was a privilege, and so my early mantra (often uttered through gritted teeth), “I wouldn’t change it for the world,” has become a simple, true fact.

But now it’s over a decade later, and the kids are all right; they are actually growing up not because of us in all our overzealous parenting shenaniganzas, but in spite of us.

And so, let the opt-back-in begin!

Although I love the New York Times and its inspirational/cataclysmic articles, this all or nothing thing — “she stepped off at the peak of her career, making $500,000 as a CEO/CFO/Ruler of the World, to raise her four children in a well-appointed, 10-bedroom house, and then through her new connections made selling truffle brownies at her son’s private school bake sales, has now nabbed herself a higher-six-figure job running a restaurant consortium…” — is really just good journalistic storytelling.

The truth for most of my friends and certainly for me is that we lead our lives and make our livings not in the black and white extremes, but somewhere in between. What I call the fuzzy gray area that’s as comfortable as old sweats, and just as unreliable as the waistbands that hold those suckers up.

This past week I had several mini-reunions with women I’ve been friends with for going on two decades. And from this field work, I can tell you that the New York Times may over-exaggerate some things, but they got something right on the money: whether we stayed home or worked, no matter: we are all ready to opt-in hard and kick whatever level we’re at up a notch. Because from braces to college, the expenses are bearing down now, and they are not remotely as negotiable, as say, the debate over whether it’s better to buy baby’s crib bedding from Pottery Barn vs. Target.

We’re talking futures here, and from our early training in competitive parenting, we all know this home stretch is going to the most important leg of the race.

Beyond that, we are collectively one teen eye roll from committing Hara-Kari; the saving grace may just be diving headlong back into the well of the high-powered working world.

Me, I’ve kept my big, phat toe in that water almost since I stepped off. Like my own mother before me, though, I’ve made sure that my business is flexible and can neatly be put away in time for the afternoon crush of carpool, homework, sports practices, doctor appointments, healthy snacks, and home-cooked meals. In my “opted-out” phase, if you can call it that, I’ve become a master contortionist who for years has been cramming creative projects, physical fitness, and personal growth in the cracks of my day.

And you know what? I am not remotely alone. Listening to my BBFs describe how parenting has gone full-contact with tweens and teens, and yet somehow they manage to dream up businesses, pull on interview suits (and the requisite Spanx), and do the deed. And I am in awe.

But I’m also worried.

Maybe former CEOs/CFOs/Rulers of the World have some magical powers, including limitless confidence, razor-sharp skills that haven’t been dulled by time and shifts in industries, and the perfect solution for childcare (which is a continuing issue even as the kids get older and need to be hauled more far-flung places and require help with subjects like Algebra XI and Advanced Mandarin), but my friends and I just have our pretend Wonder Woman magic lassos made of ephemeral materials like pluck and ambition, sewn together by financial realities.

In other words, our only tool is just enough rope to hang ourselves.

At dinner the other night with a BBF/former work colleague who was in town on business, we commiserated over how when we opted-out of our former careers, we were both immediately forgotten with nary a Christmas card wishing us well in our new lives as at-home moms. Similarly, we both then struggled to cuddle up in that gray area sweats world, only to find that it’s hard to get comfortable when you’re haunted by the phantom limb of a former working girl self — for her, it was kicking ass in sales, for me it was using my left brain in a right-brained creative space.

But getting back in the game, which we both have, also has its moments: as I watched her field a weepy bedtime call from one of her little ones, I could read the guilt on her face much easier than I could make out the scrawl on the menu. (So much for aging like a rock star.) I saw the joy, too, though, and the sense of relief in being paid well to use her brain, connections, and skill in other ways than say, getting grass stains out of white baseball pants or making sell-out chocolate chip cookies (pun intended) for the fundraising bake sale.

So if you see me whirling my lasso and kicking my work hours up to full-time, just follow my lead, and you’ll find the key to having it all. Spoiler alert: having it all is not the same as doing it all, and it doesn’t mean that anything is easy, neat, or simple by any stretch.

But owning the choices we make and valuing wherever we are on the continuum is literally all we have. And when we do, we have it all.