Is having it all impossible?

One of the things I'm liking a lot about this new community at Scientopia is the fact that it has helped me find some cool new blogs that I might not have found in the vastness of the blogosphere. (It's not the blogosphere's fault -- it's just that there's so much out there, and there are all these other things people keep wanting me to do besides just reading blogs.)

For example, check out Sanitized for Your Protection, a blog about "academic life and all the adventures that accompany it" by Rebecca Montague. In a post today, On being Superwoman, she writes about the challenges of the work-life balance thing, and notes that some of the advice one gets from eminent scientists is just not that encouraging. Specifically, an essay by Lynn Margulis struck her as more of a kick in the pants than a helping hand. Rebecca writes:

In the essay, Margulis discusses her roles as a mother and wife, and how they’ve conflicted with her scientific career. She relates this to the movie “The Red Shoes”, where a prima ballerina feels forced to choose between her life as a dancer and the man she loves. Margulis opined:

At age 15 I was certain that the ballerina died because of a silly antiquated convention that insisted that it is impossible for any woman to maintain both family and career. I am equally sure now that the people of her generation who insisted on either marriage or career were correct, just as those of our generation who perpetuate the myth of the superwoman who simultaneously can do it all–husband, children, and professional career–are wrong.


I disagree with her blanket statement that no one can “do it all”—plenty of scientists can and do combine success in their career with very happy home lives, raising well-adjusted children within supportive partnerships. Are they the exceptions that prove the rule? ... But there are definitely days when I feel like I can’t handle it, and that despite knowing intellectually that it’s impossible to be a SuperEverything all the time and something’s gotta give…and I wonder sometimes, amongst the stress couched in chocolate wrappers and stacks of papers, if she wasn’t on to something.

While I don't want to pretend that balance is brutally hard, I can't help but wonder if part of our problem is setting the definition of "success" too high. The thing that's done the most to reduce my parenting-partnering-work stress is to become comfortable with the idea that "good enough" (rather than perfect) really is good enough for most contexts. Sure, this means Casa Free-Ride has more dust bunnies than it might otherwise, but I'm comfortable letting that go if I can spend more time with my kids and my better half, and if I can get papers graded without staying up until 3 AM.

At the same time, I don't think the burden of lowering standards ought to rest solely on the people trying to combine career, partner, family, and whatever else. It's really hard to assert, "This is sufficiently good parenting/housekeeping/devotion to my relationships," in the face of a whole society that sets the bar several notches higher (or in the face of a differing view of what would be sufficient, for example, from the people with whom you are in those relationships). It's even harder to confidently assert, "This is sufficiently good teaching/research productivity/service," when your retention-tenure-promotions committees have the final say on what's sufficient (and where they may care not a whit that you are concerned to have a life outside of work).

Sometimes having multiple facets to our lives becomes impossible because we insist on trying to live up to unrealistic standards for each of those facets. Sometimes it becomes impossible because other people, or organizations, or societal structures, impose those unrealistic standards upon us. Working on the problem from both ends seems to me like the only hope if we want to make progress here.

Although judicious use of chocolate might help, too.

Anyway, go say hi to Rebecca and jump into the conversation on her blog.

6 responses so far

  • Pat Cahalan says:

    > Sometimes having multiple facets to our lives becomes impossible
    > because we insist on trying to live up to unrealistic standards for
    > each of those facets. Sometimes it becomes impossible because
    > other people, or organizations, or societal structures, impose
    > those unrealistic standards upon us.

    And sometimes it becomes impossible because our peers perform to unrealistic standards (at least for a finite length of time), thus perpetuating the belief that the unrealistic standard is in fact reasonable.

    Not quite the same as imposition, but the practical effect is similar.

  • Mike Dunford says:


  • Hope says:

    Frankly, I think more people could use a kick in the pants. What I hate most about the you-can-have-it-all zealots is that while it’s OK to admit that your house is not so tidy or that you finished your talk/presentation/paper at the eleventh hour, you must never, NEVER say that you think the quality of your science has suffered, or that your relationship with your SO/husband/kids has taken a hit. Because even if you make it perfectly clear that you are only relating your personal experience and not generalizing about all women, you will find no shortage of people – mostly women – popping up to tell you that you are wrong about your own life, that your science or relationships have not suffered, that you are setting feminism back and scaring young women away from science, etc. As if the young women seriously contemplating these issues were delicate flowers who have to be “protected” from a diversity of opinions. No, I think a kick in the pants is exactly what’s needed in this PC-bullshit climate that attempts to silence women whose lives don’t fit the you-can-have-it-all narrative.

  • GMP says:

    I agree with Hope's point. No one discusses the issues that would really bring a judgement storm around -- I don't spend enough time with kids, my science is taking a serious hit. Rather, we admit to untidy houses -- which is actually heartwarming and further perpetuates that of course you can do all the important stuff perfectly, while the minor stuff "suffers: showing your quirky and carefree nature and making you seem cool /relaxed.

    Why does no one say "My children get on my nerves; I have a big proposal deadline and would rather work than have to read Goodnight Moon 7 times a night," or "I wish my husband would get off his ass and do the dishes every so often so I can finish grading before 1 AM" or "Prof Rising Star has half of my intellectual capacity yet he's so successful, and it's all cause I spend too much time with my family and his wife does everything," or "My children will hate me and need years of therapy to make up for all the neglect during my tenure track."

    No one says these things 'cause actually admitting you have doubts about your choices is not allowed.

  • BugDoc says:

    GMP, I'm sad you took your blog down. Someone should say those things! Maybe no one says such things because when we do, there's inevitably some klown who will call "whiny bitchez" on us.