Should women be able to have it all? Yes. Do we have to?
We’ve talked a lot — well, women certainly have — about superwomen and CEOs, about women with high-octane careers, families, influence.
There was Hillary Clinton’s effort to “power through” a bruising campaign schedule while suffering from walking pneumonia.
And there was the revelation that women on the White House staff employ a deliberate strategy of “amplifying” one another’s ideas and observations in high-level meetings to make sure they command as much attention as their male counterparts.
Bottom line: Having it all is no cakewalk, and the culture we live in too often handicaps women who are trying to juggle multiple roles (political disclaimer: I’m not crazy about Clinton, but I’m about 50,000 times less crazy about her opponent, so I want her to get well in a hurry).
Look, this isn’t (entirely) about conventional politics. Consider the late Phyllis Schlafly: After baiting communists fell out of vogue, she had it all for decades by telling other women why they couldn’t have it all, and shouldn’t want it.
There’s every reason to support policies that make the high-wire juggling act of home and work easier and more equitable. Those include more opportunity at the top, better child care options, workplaces that value women and men equally, recognition of family obligations.
Ideas abound: Lean in, shine theory, amplify. Be strong, more confident, more assertive. Be a mentor, a trailblazer, a leader.
I want these things to be more possible, more fairly achievable. But what about those of us who don’t want it all?
It’s a little embarrassing, but I feel compelled to bring this up. What if, in trying to further those very legitimate goals, we’re just creating an updated one-size-fits-all standard for how women should be?
By nature, I am not an outgoing person; no paragon of energy and organization; not the stuff of which leaders are made. I’m no misanthrope, but rather an introvert. Quiet and a little reserved, I would rather read on a plane than chat with my neighbor.
At times an excellent unitasker, I am a uniformly inept and easily overwhelmed multitasker.
And as a person who is neither a parent nor a CEO — and has never wanted to be either — I don’t want those to be our exclusive definitions for fulfillment and success. I don’t want a constant round of frenetic activity to be the barometer for achievement.
In short, I am not a superwoman. I would rather jump off a building than try to be one.
Sometimes, as part of my job, I am asked to give speeches — repetition has helped me conquer stage fright — and when Q&A time comes up, somebody will often pose the Q: “What do you do when you’re not working?”
They sit forward a little in their chairs, waiting for a Successful Woman resume, waiting for me to describe a busy or inspiring or perhaps slightly exotic life: They’re primed to hear that I play rugby, mentor orphans, tour Cambodia by bicycle. I keep urban goats and spin the hair into vegetable-dyed yarn and craft my own artisanal chevre.
“I read a lot,” I tell them.
On lucky days, this segues pleasantly into a cozy group discussion about favorite books and authors. On unlucky days, somebody will find that answer woefully inadequate and press for more.
“Oh,” I flounder and stammer. “I, ah, collect vintage dishes.” No point in soldiering on with my observations about Streamline Moderne aesthetic in the prewar applied arts because the audience is now lost, vamoosed, staring at the ceiling and thinking about lunch. Even to me, it sounds as if I lead an existence of startling underachievement and glacial dullness. I depart with a worrisome sense of not having given satisfaction.
But I admire bona-fide superwomen. My favorite this week (perhaps ever) is a woman who lives in Grand Prairie, Texas.
A genuinely awe-inspiring photo that went viral shows a professional photographer named Melissa Wardlow as she worked a recent high school football game. In the photo, she’s carrying an infant and a toddler in fore-and-aft slings; she wields a heavy camera in one hand and a baby bottle in the other.
She’s my favorite not because she’s a superwoman (as I said, awe-inspiring), but because she was so calm and matter-of-fact in explaining that she is exercising her own choices, not trying to rise to an arbitrary standard.
“What’s to say?” she asked. “Everybody is different.”
Oh, blessed words: Yes, everybody is different. Some of us want it all; some of us don’t.
What we should all have is the freedom and the flexibility to choose.
Jacquielynn Floyd is a columnist for the Dallas Morning News. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.