Those Three Little Words: "Having It All"

“Having It All” is a phrase that haunts women. In brief, it means: having the career, the family, the kids, the body (always, for women, it comes back to the body)—all these things, but never, not once, the complaints, the cursed weariness, the baby’s vomit on a sweat-stained shirt that you were definitely wearing this same time yesterday. Having it all, in this respect, is its own ideology: three words that encompass the scope of what we expect women to be—that is, everything, and preferably smiling.

Writing in the New York Times, Jennifer Szalai points out that although many credit Helen Gurley, then-Cosmopolitan editor, as the originator of the phrase—it was the title of Gurley’s 1982 book: Having It All: Love, Success, Sex, Money…Even if You’re Starting With Nothing—Gurley didn’t even like the phrase. Her preferred title? The Mouseburger Plan, “a book by a near-loser who got to be winner,” as she wrote to her editors. (They weren’t convinced, and an ideology found its phrase.)

Today, writes Szalai, “the built-in vapidity, the vagueness with which ‘having it all’ specifies everything and therefore nothing, allows us to talk as if we know everything we need to know about working mothers while saying nothing substantive about the particular challenges they face.” The woman who has it all promises an impossible image of success in lieu of the messy decisions that all of us, and women in particular, make on a daily basis to balance competing parts of our lives—and the support (child care, living wage, attainable health care, affordable housing) to make the balance easier for more people. Observes Jacqueline Rose in the London Review of Books, “One of the most striking characteristics of the discourse on mothering is that the idealization doesn’t let us up as reality makes the ideal harder for mothers to meet. If anything, it seems to intensify.”

The ideological staying power of “Having It All”—its durability, its refusal to yield to more spacious images of what female success can be—has its roots in the 19th century, with what scholar Barbara Welter identified in 1966 as “The Cult of True Womanhood.” The ‘cult’ referred to the core attributes that women were expected to adhere to: piety, purity, submissiveness, and domesticity. “Put them all together and they spelled mother, daughter, sister, wife-woman,” explained Welter. In a telling omission, she did not specify to whom these roles were articulated—if they were for male relatives or partners, the family unit, or the women themselves.

The only women who were “true” in this image were white women, repeating the longstanding pattern of white women receiving advantages—mixed though they are—ultimately denied to women of color and trans women. As Kimberly Seals Aller writes for Slate, “Throughout history, white women have used the labor of women of color to reduce their own domestic burden and free themselves up for corporate and civic pursuits.” In the aftermath of World War II, married middle-class white women began the slow ascent into corporate America and relied on other women—poor women, women of color, and female immigrants—to shore up the domestic and child-care chores, so that they could fulfill the expectations of “True Womanhood” with a reassuring, well-manicured hand: Honey, I’m going into work, but here are your eggs, there are the kids’ lunches, and don’t worry, dinner will be ready at 6:30.

When you’re trying to have it all, it helps to have privilege—financial, of course, but also racial. In 2016, The Guardian reported that although the wage gap between white men and black men is still the largest pay disparity, the gap between black women and white women is growing the fastest, going from 6% in 1979 to 19% in 2016. Nobody has it all. But as Cry It Out reminds us, the ability to be comfortable, financially speaking, may well be the closest women can come to achieving the illusion of “all,” for the blunt fact that money can offer an exit from an otherwise locked room. And the economics of motherhood, like all economics, are framed by policies that define who gets what, and at the expense of whom. It’s a cruel reality, made even crueler when you consider that in a world where the female body is judged, policed, and violated, motherhood may seem like an antidote, the maternal “glow” its own reward for a lifetime of routine degradation.

Having it all, as an ideology, doesn’t allow room for ambivalence or difficulty (let alone stretch marks), or the uncertainties that strike. If you can go back to work, if you can pay your rent, if your healthcare covered that emergency C-section, if you can get paid time off, if you are the one who tucks your child in at night. It’s a difficult, precarious acknowledgment, that what’s often billed as the ultimate realization of female ambition—motherhood, in all its iterations—has both very little to do with agency, in terms of a mother’s ability to own what happens to her post-pregnancy career, her post-pregnancy reputation. Who “gets” to stay at home? Who is a good mother, a “true” woman? These are questions to which we presume to know the answers; when we have it all, I suppose we’ll know for sure.

Sarah Cooke