Because there are many female experiences beyond ‘destined to be a mother’ and ‘hard-headed career woman’.
Ever since middle-class women first began to break out of the confines of the home and join the workforce, questions have lingered over whether it’s really possible for them to – shudder – ‘have it all’.
At first, ‘all’ meant a job, a comfortable domestic life and a reasonably contented husband and children. Over the last 50 decades or so, however, that definition has expanded and swelled to encompass a fulfilling and high-powered career, a strong romantic relationship, a beautiful home, happy and well-adjusted kids and a packed social life.
It’s a hell of a lot of pressure, and it’s hardly surprising that increasing numbers of women are choosing to lean back, rather than in: to accept that success doesn’t necessarily mean ticking every single box on that list.
Of course, the ‘have it all’ question is acutely gendered. Nobody ever asks if men can have it all, because a) the assumption is that they can, and b) there are fewer items on the average man’s ‘all’ list to begin with. (A single, child-free, antisocial man in his 30s or above is not regarded with the same suspicion or concern as a woman in the same position, while men in heterosexual relationships generally don’t do as much housework or caregiving as their female partners.) It’s also closely tied to class: poorer women have always worked, but you rarely encounter the suggestion that ‘having it all’ is open to them.
In summary, the idea of having it all has its problems. And in a new interview, Tracee Ellis Ross has highlighted another pitfall in the narrative: the way it frames marriage and children as the ultimate goal, and suggests that if a successful woman doesn’t have those things, it must be because she’s ‘chosen’ to focus on her career.
Speaking to Deadline, the Blackish actress explained that while some women make a conscious decision to prioritise their work over getting married or becoming mothers, that wasn’t her experience.
“Even someone today really, truly meant to be supportive in what she was asking, but unconsciously still framed it in a way that was, ‘I know that you’ve chosen your career over having a family,’” Ross said. “And I was like, ‘No, I haven’t!’
“I was like, ‘There was no point in my life where I chose career over a relationship, or over having a child. This just happens to be where I’ve landed,’” she continued.
These kind of judgements are not the fault of the individuals who make them, Ross observed. “I think it really is a systemic response to culture’s way of having an expectation of women within patriarchy and all of that,” she said.
“I think we are one of the first generations of women that have a lot more choices and that can actually make some of those choices [carefully]. You know? Which I find both daunting and exciting.”
At this point, it shouldn’t be refreshing to hear a famous woman pointing out that there is a wealth of nuanced female experiences beyond the binary choice of ‘destined to become a wife and mother’ and ‘independent, hard-headed career woman’. But it is.
Motherhood and marriage are things that some women want intensely, some don’t want at all, and others feel ambivalent or indifferent about. Many women stumble into life-defining relationships when they thought they’d be perfectly happy being single forever, while others find that the anticipated yearning for motherhood never comes knocking.
Equally, as Ross notes, life unfolds organically for some women, but others actively choose to concentrate on their careers rather than romantic relationships or children. Many, many others juggle work with family responsibilities – and while sometimes they feel like they’re killing it, at other times they feel like the pressure is killing them.
It’s high time we made space for all these experiences, rather than presenting women with a checklist of accomplishments to achieve before they’re 40 or a binary choice of ‘career vs. family’. Women’s stories are more complicated than that – and they’re all equally valid.
Images: Getty Images