By Leslie Bennetts

As the lunch program was called to order in the New York offices of the global investment bank Lehman Brothers, the room was packed with an overflow crowd of animated, attractive women. The National Council for Research on Women had assembled a group of high-powered executives, academics, social scientists, and other experts for a program entitled “Opting Out—Myth, Viable Option or Media Spin?”

The women in the audience were as accomplished as the speakers. In fact, the contrast between the subject at hand and the lives of the women in that room provided an ironic exercise in cognitive dissonance. If it’s really impossible to combine work and family successfully, how to explain all these energetic, confident women buzzing excitedly about their children, their grandchildren—and their own fascinating careers?

During the question-and-answer period after the speakers’ presentations, a Lehman Brothers vice chairman stood up and told the audience that she had raised four children with her doctor husband while advancing to her present level of professional achievement. “It can be done,” said this paragon of having it all, “but nobody ever writes a story about us. Why isn’t the media talking about the success stories?”

Why indeed? Ever since the 1970s, the mainstream media have harped endlessly on the downside of “having it all.” Even as millions of women succeeded in combining work and motherhood, the news coverage focused obsessively on the logistical challenges of the juggling act, rarely exploring the rewards. And yet the labor force is full of women who love their families and enjoy their jobs and who have somehow managed to combine the two—to the benefit of all concerned.

Such women are usually too busy living those lives to worry about the chronic biases of the media. But when the glorification of full-time motherhood prompted a new generation of young mothers to reject the idea of work, many of us became alarmed. As far as we were concerned, “having it all” was the best idea since women’s suffrage. Why on earth did younger women believe that it couldn’t be done, or that it was too difficult to be worth the effort, or that the attempt would wreck their marriages and ruin their children?

The first problem might well have been the catchphrase itself. “Having it all” was an unfortunate misnomer from the outset; it struck many women as insufferably smug, reeking of an elitist self-righteousness that belies the messy realities of women’s domestic lives. Although most of my friends are working women, many with noteworthy accomplishments, none of us feels as if she has it all; our lives are imperfect and often chaotic, we have fallen short on many of our goals, and we’ve made countless compromises in order to maintain our capacity to work without slighting our families in any irreparable ways. >>

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