Cecilia Ford, who has been a psychologist in private practice in New York City since 1987, has addressed emotional issues for Women’s Voices in many articles over the years.


“Having it all”: Helen Gurley Brown gave us the ubiquitous phrase back in 1982. But, as a recent column in The Washington Post points out, the media has transformed the connotation from Brown’s original meaning—that women should feel entitled to whatever they want (especially sexual equality)—into an assurance that women can have a career and a family, and succeed at both. Many women have reacted to this not as a privilege, but as a standard that is impossible to meet—leading some women to feel inadequate because they have not “succeeded” at both.

As the Post article notes, not all women are career-less or childless by choice. The real problem with this phrase, however, is that while women should feel entitled to have lives that make it possible to have both, both choice and opportunity are crucial. While it might be possible for women to “balance” their lives by achieving in both these spheres, we are still very far from making this easy for them, at least in the United States.

Raising a child is actually a full-time job: Ask any new mother what has been the most challenging month of her life! If a woman chooses not to do it round the clock, she must ensure that she has help (which in itself is a major undertaking). Men in our society have had the luxury of being allowed to work and leave child care to others (almost exclusively women), but if a woman wants to work, it is often her responsibility to figure out how to do this (though obviously, some families are more balanced in this regard). 

In other cultures and in previous generations, when there were often large networks of people living together, or at least close by, it was easier to share the work of tending to children’s needs. Today’s middle-class American woman often lives isolated from her family, and even her community. Dropping your child off at your mother’s (or even a neighbor’s) is not an option.

But the most important issue is that women should be given a sense of choice, not shame, when encouraged to have it all. People differ in their talents, values, and goals, and what it takes to feel fulfilled can be as unique as each individual is herself. However, most of us need to feel we are engaged in a productive or useful enterprise, at least some of the time. Ideally, we also need to feel that those around us value this enterprise. Many women are fulfilled by childrearing and find a deep sense of satisfaction from this “alone.” There is nothing “inadequate” about them. But with full-time child care comes another set of challenges.

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  • D. A. Wolf January 23, 2015 at 3:42 pm

    Excellent piece. Also worth noting — for single parents, in particular single mothers (women already at an earnings disadvantage), the challenges can become overwhelming. An infrastructure that assisted in some greater (and more affordable) way would help relieve some of the emotional, logistical, and financial burden. And these needs do not end when a child hits age 5, as after-school programs to extend childcare are not a given between 5 and 10 or 11.

    Moreover, while we are having more discussions about work-life options and flexibility provided by employers, we cannot forget the roughly 42 million 1099 workers (“independents” / freelancers) who are not likely to be able to take advantage of any advancements in the traditional employment arena.

    We have a long way to go; at least we’re talking about it. Eliminating the shame associated with any choice or set of circumstances will surely help.

  • ellen sue spicer-jacobson January 22, 2015 at 1:18 pm

    I agree! Women need support for whatever choices they make, whether it be part-time work, full-time work, or neither. A full-time mom IS a job, but can be isolating, as noted.
    With choices come decisions. Weigh your decisions with all the facts you need before jumping into something for which you are not prepared.
    Women who have to work often wish they could stay home and many who stay @ home would rather be working. Both can create issues when supposes and children are in the mix. Part-time worked best for me, even though I could have used the money full-time would bring, but the latter was too stressful.
    We finally had a store where we lived above it & the kids helped after school That worked!