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Women can’t have it all? Bollocks


By Kelly Exeter

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There is nothing that irks me more than someone telling me I can’t do something.

So when I see this rhetoric in the media:

“Women can’t have it all”

“Women CAN have it all, just not all at once”

I get irked.

For those of you wondering what the heck ‘all’ is, well the media tends to boil it down to being both a top mother and a top careerist. So, every time a female CEO decides to turn her back on her career and head home to be there for her kids, it is seen as proof that women can’t have it all. Every time a female CEO declares that she will return to work two weeks after having a baby, it is seen as proof that women can’t have it all.

Which bring me to the three beefs I have with the concept of ‘all’.

The first is that apparently ‘all’ is the same for every woman who values both their career and motherhood. I don’t even know where to start with the wrong-ness of this assumption so I’ll just say this – everyone’s ‘all’ is different because we all have different priorities. End of story.

Which segues nicely to my second beef. The concept of ‘all’ ignores the fact that when you become a parent your priorities change drastically. Which means your definition of ‘all’ changes drastically too.

I was one of those women who was a bit scared of losing their identity when they had their baby. I really liked being a business owner and an athlete and didn’t like the thought of being ‘just’ someone’s mum. In fact I told my husband if he wanted to be a stay-at-home-dad, then I would LOVE to be the person that got to go to work every day.

Then my baby arrived in the world and I did not want to be away from him for once second.  I remember the first meeting I had to go to after he was born – my sister literally had to push me out the door and bundle me into the car. I planned to be back in the office three months after the birth but when the day came, I just couldn’t do it. In the end it took closer to 10 months before I felt ready to truly cut the umbilical cord.

So when a female decides to walk away from her career for a little while in order to concentrate on her role as a mother – this isn’t an example of her not being able to have it all, it is an example of her changing her personal definition of what all is.

My third little beef is that many people create a perfect world scenario, think that’s their all, and then get really unhappy because “see, it’s true what they’re saying, I really can’t have it all.”

My own perfect world features a butler, a cook and a chauffeur but it is pretty well removed from reality unless I win the lottery. My ‘all’ on the other hand involves a life that is financially secure, relatively stress free, challenges my mind and affords me a certain number of hours each day to hang out with my husband and child.

And I am happy to report that, generally speaking, this is my reality. This life hasn’t just happened though, I have made it happen. I have actually worked really hard to make it happen by first identifying my true priorities and then actively seeking the help I needed to achieve my goal. This help comes from outside my home (childcare, cleaner, eating out etc) and inside my home (awesome husband and family).

So while I realise that not everyone in the world has access to the same choices and resources I have and while I am sure many would consider it irresponsible of me to sit here and preach to other women that “for god’s sake, of course you can have it all” … consider this and tell me if you think it’s true:

Women are the ones who make things happen for everyone else. Maybe it’s time to start making things happen for ourselves.

Got some thoughts on the above? Share away in the comments below!

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Kelly Exeter - to view all of Kelly's blog post click here

Kelly Exeter is a blogger, designer and writer who has contributed to Marie Claire, Mamamia and The Hoopla. She believes that a busy life need not be a stressful life and enjoys the challenges of being mother, wife and person while juggling three businesses and several creative pursuits. She blogs about this and more at A Life Less Frantic.


  • So true Kelly. What we consider ‘all’ changes. When I had Elliott and went on maternity leave, I told my employer I would definitely be back after six months. My mindset changed and I took a good 12 months. In fact all my priorities changed. You can have it all, you just need to make it happen (while having help doing it)! Love it Kelly-great post.

  • I love this Kelly. I don’t live my perfect life but I do feel most days that I have it all and more! And it is because I am clear about my priorities and I make careful decisions about how much I work, how time I spend with my kid and even how important is housework. It doesn’t mean I always get to spend every day just as I wish but I love my life – I love my work and I love being a mum.
    Like you that hasn’t been easy and some days it doesn’t even seem some of my choices are sane but I am happy and my son is happy and we are always moving a little bit closer to that perfect life we dream of.

    • It’s a moving feast right? But so long as we feel we’ve got choices about where we are at, and that we’re living the life of our choosing, that makes all the hard work and tougher times worth it doesn’t it?

  • Great article Kelly. I agree with all your beefs. I guess in a way I am working out what direction to take to be able to feel fulfilled. With me, it has always been a process of elimination to work out what doesn’t work, and then try the next thing. I’ll get there in the end, with my own personalised definition of what ‘all’ is.

    • I know exactly what you mean Cathy because I have just spent the better part of a year doing exactly all of that. And really, you do have to try something sometimes to determine that ‘no, this actually is not what I want to be doing!’

  • Em

    You know I’m a fan of your writing Kelly – and you have done it again… hit the nail on the head!
    When I couldn’t get a part-time job at the career level I left at when I had my babies I was really disheartened and disappointed with the world. But, as you say, I decided in the end to make my own job that satisfied my desire to be a more contributing member of society, have my mind be active, and be able to spend time with my kids and pick them up from school, etc. And I am glad to report that I am very happy with my choices, and when I do feel stressed about an imbalance in any one area of my life, I think about and act on changes that will create balance again – and, boy, what a difference that makes to my happiness levels.
    Once again, it is your perspective on life that matters, not the outside world’s perception of what life should be! As Shakespeare so eloquently put it “To thine own self be true” – my personal mantra!
    Great post! Thanks!

    • I love it Em – seems I really am preaching to the converted here 🙂

  • When I got pregnant at pretty much exactly the same time as my dream promotion came up, I decided that if anyone could “have it all” that person would be me. I did go back to work 4 days a week when he was 3 months old, and for quite a while I was really happy. I had hated being home… I was lonely and bored and I really enjoyed the stimulation and social life of the office. And I loved my job. But things changed. It’s taken quite a while to realise that most of those were out of my control, and the reason why I “failed to have it all” was not all my fault. Oh, mother guilt!!!
    Now I run my own business. I have loads of time to spend with my son, even though he is now at school. We have had the BEST time! It has given me a whole new perspective of what “all” is. Maybe, because I’ve had more hands-on mum-time, I have changed that perspective. There is no better incentive to work hard and get the business off the ground than to preserve this lifestyle… to be able to pick him up from school, have adventures during the school holidays and have enjoyable, engaging work. In other words, my new version of “having it all”.

    • Thanks again Kelly for such an insightful article. I do wonder how you do it “all” sometimes!

      • Ha Cath – well I don’t want to be that whole cliche of ‘do what you love and you’ll never work a day in your life again’ … but I don’t really agree with it! But having a lot on your plate is much easier to handle when the ‘lot’ is of your own choosing AND feeds a passion!

  • Clare

    It seems the women that really manage to “have it all” are the ones that really work hard at setting up their own business or freelance their services. In my experience being an employee has been tough with commuting and your kids getting ill etc. I am pregnant with my second and determined to be my own boss and start my own gig.. It seems to me, to be the best way to get the juggle right. Wish me luck!! 😉

    • Hey Clare – I am actually going to write a follow up on my blog tomorrow about what you have just said! Stay tuned!

  • This is a topic that is close to my heart. I’ve been stay at home mum for some time and my apparent failure to “have it all” lead me to start looking closely at the women around me who were juggling career and family and doing business there own way. I’m currently working through a series of articles on these inspiring women on my blog.
    The common thread is alot of juggling, alot of long hours, complete support from husband and extended family. However the most important ingredient in the recipe for “having it all” is a love for what you do.

    • Yep – hit the nail on the head I reckon – a love of what you do and the ability to make choices around what you are doing 🙂

  • Great article Kelly. I think it is important for women to realise that key element that ‘all’ is different for each of us. Someone’s all may be the total opposite to another person’s all – and that is okay.

    Me, I’m still trying to figure it ‘all’ out!

    • Sometimes I think that’s the funnest bit – the figuring out 🙂

  • Karen

    You know I enjoy your writing Kelly, but the issue is more complex than you suggest.
    I agree with Anne-Marie Slaughter of The Atlantic who wrote “the women who have managed to be both mothers and top professionals are superhuman, rich, or self-employed”. What you seem to be implying is that the women who don’t have it all, obviously aren’t ambitious or aren’t trying hard enough. Not everyone can control their working hours, and this is the key to maintaining a good balance between work and family life. It’s not just a matter of point and shoot. There are so many other factors – societal, cultural, familial – that influence one’s ability to have it all, and Slaughter is advocating for changes in our thinking to allow greater flexibility for everyone’s work/life balance.

    • Hey Karen – I do agree with you. It’s hard not to take a simplistic route when writing 750 words. I was trying really hard NOT to imply that women who don’t have it all aren’t trying hard enough … but clearly I failed! I really just wanted to highlight that we shouldn’t let the fact that other women can or can’t do something inform whether we can or can’t.

      BUT – I am going to write a couple of follow up posts on my own blog because I do want to explore that Atlantic lede on the Anne-Marie Slaughter article … because it is of course quite true.

  • Tash

    I totally agree Kelly. After taking a “break” from a successful career in IT to have children and focus on them (although still worked from home as a consultant), I have recently gone back to uni, changed careers and am in a fantastic place with re-establishing my career and continuing postgrad studies. Personally I have found what I think is a good balance as I still work from home 4 days/wk but travel now and then. The problem I have is that my family doesn’t agree. Both my husband and the kids resent that my focus is no longer purely on them and I don’t get the support I’d like, or need. Now that dad has to go to school events instead of mum sometimes and I am away sometimes for 2 or 3 days all I cop are the guilt trips on my return. Funny how the kids don’t complain when my husband goes away fishing! Although I’m happy with where I’m at, it would be nice if the family were too and I didn’t feel like I was such a bad mother all the time now that I am putting a bit more focus on what I want.

    • Aw no Tash! That kind of sucks … and is related to a post I have brewing in my mind around the topic of “the guilt involved in living the dream/having it all”!

      • Tash

        Can’t wait to read that one Kelly. I know that no-one can make us feel guilty, that it is our own response to situations that causes feelings of guilt, but it’s hard not to feel guilty when Child#3 says “all the other mummies come to reading except you” and Child#1 says “you’d rather go away for work than spend time with us” and when you have to miss a birthday because you are interstate presenting to 500 people at a conference and you are the WORST mother in the world (Child#1 again!)… Motherguilt was actually one of my favourite books!

        • Guilt from our kids is definitely the hardest to get over!

    • Hi Tash, I’m sorry to hear this. Sadly I hear this story too often. Why are women’s/mother’s needs considered secondary? It’s not on really.

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  • I agree whole-heartedly, we are expanding our business and I am sitting here waiting to go into labour with #3 and sometimes we have to work really hard to get our balance right but really I have most of the “all” I need most of the time and I know that I will have everything I want if I make it happen. However many people take a passive role in their own life and don’t end up with much let alone all!

  • I don’t think we can have it all at any stage in our lives and I will address this only as work/career and mothering. We need to choose what is important and let the other things go. I used to work and I have 4 kids. People would ask me how I did it and I said I just do what I have to. In reality, every couple of months I would go crazy, let it all out and then start again. I don’t think we can work in a successful career and have the family as well. We have to make a choice. That doesn’t mean we give up the career altogther, that can be returned to at some stage, but you can’t give both 100% everyday, personally I don’t think its possible and I can personally testify of that.

    • I can understand how you would go crazy. I would imagine that the juggle gets more difficult with the more kids one has too.

  • Thanks for the article Kelly I also agree that as a mum our priorities change, and therefore our perspective of ‘all’ also shifts. The one thing I I just can’t seem to reconcile in this whole ‘have it all’ argument is the notion of simply wanting too much. I agree with Slaughter that maybe the paradigm of the working structure has to change to enable women (or men) to be both carer and careerist. However, given parenting is such an important role if we are raising the next generation to take on the complex global problems we are/have created, it could be argued parenting is a career in itself, similar to that of lawyer, gp etc. If that’s so then why are we trying to take on two careers at the same time? Not many people – men or women try to be the top of the game in say both law and medicine, or blue chip CEO and Olympic gymnast, they do one or the other because that’s what is humanly possible. Why is it that motherhood is not regarded as important as a career, especially if there is enough in the family coffers for mum (or dad) to concentrate on parenting?

    In some ways I do have it all under the terms that are being described in this general discourse – the career and the child but I actually don’t want it all. I’m a single full-time working career mum about to finish additional post grad study. I do it because I have to pay the bills and if im going to have to work i need to do something stimulating and get paid as much as i can per hour to make it worthwhile. My daughter suffers because i’m not there the way she’d like me to be but im determined to have a good quality of life, so I choose to work for that reason – its either that or live in poverty however I would absolutely love to take a back seat from my paid working career for a while and focus on raising a fulfilled, unharried resilient child – its such a short period of our lives.

    • Honestly – the world would be an amazing place if “stay-at-home-mum/dad” was recognised as a legitimate JOB. Don’t know how this would be achieved but would definitely stop people having to do two demanding jobs at once!

  • Dear Kelly,

    I have a brain crush on you.

    ” So when a female decides to walk away from her career for a little while in order to concentrate on her role as a mother – this isn’t an example of her not being able to have it all, it is an example of her changing her personal definition of what all is.”

    SPOT ON how I am feeling.


    • Aw Gem – now THAT is a really lovely thing to read just before heading to bed. And well you know, the feeling is mutual 🙂

  • Hi Kelly.

    I just saw this – I love your post and comments. I think we must be soul sistas! I am so passionate about this topic that I wrote I book on it 🙂 called Getting Real About Having It All (out November 1). We need to step away from listening to what society and other people think having it all is, and decide for ourselves what we want. And then we need to make our own choices to create that life for ourselves, and roll with the changes as they come (‘cos we know they will). And we need more women like you and Jane, empowering women to do it for themselves.

    Megan x

    • Oh wow Megan – I can’t wait to see and read your book! It definitely sounds like we are soul sistas … on this topic at least!

  • Fiona chandler

    absolutely I agree. It’s the not having it all at the same time… life is hopefully long. the challenge is keeping the momentum going. each of my first 3 children were at phootshoots ( on the side lines not in them) days after birth. At the time I thought i had to keep going or lose all contacts. Now I write , illustrate, design, create windows and the list keeps going. Priorites changed ( scary but great) and my fourth child didn’t even need daycare… our family is evolving.