Global Politics

Columbia University professor says ideal of 'having it all' is impossible

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Lee thinks America’s fixation on constant self-improvement and narratives of people with a perfect work-life balance push people to impossible standards. (Photo by Victor1558 via Flickr CC.)

Having it all. It's the dream of a generation who fought for equal rights in the workplace.

Earning an income, raising a family and maintaining a social life became the ultimate standard of balanced success in the modern era.

But who's to say when you have it all? What standard are we measuring against? And who says there's an ideal life, anyway? In June, Princeton University Professor Anne-Marie Slaughter published a piece in The Atlantic headlined Why Women Still Can't Have It All. Within a week, it had garnered over a million views online, and is now the highest-read piece in the magazine's history.

In the article Slaughter said there's no shortage of ambitious women or devoted mothers, but outdated social policies and career tracks that still treat "male choices" and "male behaviors" as the norm are stacked against working mothers and parents.

She said that negotiating between work and family life is the key to leveling the playing field for women in the workplace.

But Marie Myung-Ok Lee, a novelist who teaches at Columbia University, thinks we're missing the point. In a world that throws so many curveballs, uniquely challenging each of us, why are we comparing our lives to anyone else's? Her family history, her son who has a variety of medical problems, her career, and her observations on modern culture make her wonder who, exactly, ever promised us "it all."

"The way society works, we have to have a judgment with (anything)," Lee said.

She’d like to get rid of the “having it all” label because life “isn’t about having everything,” she said.

Lee’s 12-year-old son, Jason, has various autism spectrum problems, needs constant supervision, and has uncontrollable temper tantrums. But this is normal for her. Not only is that all right, Lee said, it’s also beside the point.

"A lot of people would say, ‘I don’t know how you bear it’,” she said. “When other people say ‘I can’t do what you do,’ I have kind of learned to say, ‘Yes, you can’t do what I do. You would do what you do.'"

Lee think much of the unhappiness and discontent people feel in their lives is fueled by expectations of rewards and the fear of missing out on something important. In general, human beings don’t really have a choice as to what life we’re going to live, she said. We’re in our own lives and we either have to accept that or spend a lot of time hoping for something else.

“The idea to me of having it all is less about having it all and feeling really fulfilled. I think what happens is you’re in this kind of conundrum where ‘having it all’ is sort of a gloss for a fear of missing out on something,” she said. "Once I had my child, it has just been what it is. I guess I feel that comparing my experience with others, it just isn’t really practical."

Growing up, Lee said she felt her life was all about avoiding catastrophes. When her son began having developmental problems, one parent told her that she was living her worst nightmare.

But she said she embraces every moment and finds comfort in knowing that the worst has already happened.

"I do so appreciate the finiteness of life, how things can change, and that what we have is now," she said. "No one’s guaranteeing you the next minute, so I will take it."

However, Lee does worry about America’s fixation on self-help and constant self-improving — the idea that you can always improve yourself and your life. She said that by being bombarded with these narratives daily, people end up internalizing them and trying to live up to an impossible standard.

“It’s the inwardness, I think, that we’re losing," she said. "Instead of taking a moment to sit in your garden or do whatever you want to do, it’s sort of like, oh, I could go on Twitter, or there’s something I could do. I almost feel sometimes it’s sort of, ‘What can I worry about next? What’s missing for me? What am I missing out on?’ And there is always an answer for that.”

Lee sees how people could look at her experience as a mother of an autistic child with behavioral problems and wonder how she could ever cope. For her, however, her experience is just that — hers and hers alone. From her perspective, she has everything that she needs in life.

"I definitely have enough, and I'm grateful," Lee said. "I have more than enough."

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