Forget Having It All. Let’s Try Having Enough

6 minute read
Mukhopadhyay is the former executive editor of Teen Vogue and former executive editor at Feministing. As a writer, her work has appeared in New York Magazine, The Cut, Vanity Fair, Vogue, and The Atlantic Monthly. She is the author of The Myth of Making It: A Workplace Reckoning

I had the perfect job—a high-powered magazine editor. I sat in the front row at New York Fashion Week, got to work on interesting stories and photoshoots, and had dinners on the company's dime. On the outside, it looked like I had it all: an office on the 25th floor of the World Trade Center, an apartment in a luxury building, and a new designer handbag every season. I was the executive editor at Teen Vogue, and I was living the dream. 

Well, at least someone’s dream. 

Behind the facade of hair, makeup, and designer clothes, I was unhappy. I hadn’t dated in months. My father was sick and dealing with his care made me resentful. I wasn’t taking good care of myself, and I could feel it. And I was managing an increasingly agitated team. This all came to a head in 2020 when the pandemic hit, and I realized that for me, having it all meant I was doing it all—and not particularly well. I didn’t want to do it anymore. 

I wasn’t alone. In the last few years, we’ve seen a series of workplace trends, from the Great Resignation to quiet quitting. But what has been most notable is how these trends have either been led by and impacted women, especially mothers, who left the workforce in droves during the pandemic. While their employment numbers have now been restored and surpassed pre-pandemic levels, women’s desire to submit themselves to the hamster wheel of ambition is slowing down. And it’s not because women are less ambitious; it’s because our ambitions have not been met with enough support for them to truly come to fruition.

The debate about whether women can “have it all” has plagued discussions about women’s career progress for decades. As much as we acknowledge that it is a flawed concept— first coined by longtime Cosmopolitan editor Helen Gurley Brown in her 1982 book Having It All: Love, Success, Sex, Money—Even If You’re Starting with Nothing—every few years, it reemerges through a series of think pieces and debates about what it means and how, even though we all know it’s not really possible, we are still expected to strive for it. Rarely do we talk about what “all” means.

Brown’s definition of it was, as her subtitle suggests, about professional success while also having fun (sex). Today, it’s become a stand-in for women who are trying to juggle care work (usually parenting, but also elder care) with their careers. (Ironically, Brown was not impressed with the idea of having children at one point, claiming that it made you “fat.”)

But despite its origins, “having it all” continues to be a myth force-fed to women. It promotes the idea that life is about the abundance of infinite choices we make. Of course, we can have it all— as long as we are willing to do it all. 

Read More: There’s No Such Thing as Getting Ahead

When the pandemic hit, I realized I wasn't in my dream job, especially without the glitz and glamour of fabulous events out on the town to distract me. The job was a dream I never thought would become a reality, so I never felt I had permission to say I didn’t want to do it. I had to do it; after all, what did I work so hard for? “This is what it means to be successful,” I’d tell myself, coming home late from the office, my feet hurting, my body stuffed into Spanx, another takeout dinner on the horizon. 

So, I did the unthinkable and I quit, hoping to find a better way to balance what I believed and how I could execute it. I quit because I realized I alone can’t overcome the obstacles ambitious women face to have happy, sustainable, creative lives and careers. I quit because I wanted to learn what it meant to have enough

We are now four years out from when a global catastrophe fundamentally shifted our lives, and our desire to work as hard has faded: people have resigned themselves to their jobs because most of us have to work. But you rarely talk to someone who loves their job these days.

People's dreams have shifted (they do not dream of labor!), and the ethos of pulling yourself up by your bootstraps to get everything you need has come undone. Younger generations, in particular, aren’t willing to sacrifice their health and well-being in the service of a job that ultimately won’t help them pay off their student loans or allow them to one day buy a house. Work-from-home employees aren’t interested in returning to the workplace regularly, and employees generally appear to favor work-life balance over working with no boundaries. 

What if we took it one step further and started considering what it would look like to have enough? What if instead of asking can women have it all, we ask them—do you have what you need?

After I left my big fancy job and tried to live life on my own terms, I still had to face the reality that to live and eat, I needed to hustle. I had to patch together enough work to sustain myself, ideally with work that I didn’t hate. I needed health insurance. And I also had to work hard to sell a book—and then write that book.

My hustle is far from over. But I’ve grown comfortable knowing that I alone can’t fix the plague of inequality in the workplace. As I have taken myself off the hamster wheel of the endless scrabble to make it to the top (I still have a job; I just don’t feel the need to “dominate” at it.), I have started identifying the places where I can change my own circumstances and where we need to work together to create the reality we deserve. 

Asking women what it means to have enough in their lives does run the risk of suggesting that women settle for less, something we are already expected to do. Women’s ambitions regularly face barriers at work: bad parental leave policy, unequal pay for equal or better work, and no pathway to promotion. If we stop fighting and trying so hard, will it turn back the clock on women’s progress?

Not if we all do it together.  What if instead of striving to “have it all” (and in turn, do it all) we started to ask if we have enough? What if we took an internal journey to reassess what it means to be ambitious and what success ultimately look like in each of our humble lives. What if we, together, said “I have enough, I don’t need or want anything else.”

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