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It May Be Time to Reconsider the Meaning of ‘Having It All’

Gracy Olmstead of The Federalist was interested in the way women who had supposedly “opted out” were described in a seven-part series in The Atlantic in which two women interviewed college classmates and divided them into three categories: “High-scale achievers,” ” Scale backers,” and “Opt-outers.”

Here is how the opt-outers were described:

“Many were on maternity leave, with daycare or a nanny lined up, and found that they simply couldn’t bring themselves to leave their child with someone else. Others asked their employers for flexible schedules, were turned down, and quit.”

“Many said that they’d done the working-mother-cost-benefit analysis and the math just wasn’t on the side of their careers—their spouses earned more than they did, daycare or a nanny would eat up a sizable chunk of their earnings, and therefore the reasonable thing to do was to leave work and become a full-time caregiver. Some simply didn’t like their jobs, had spouses who could support the family, and decided to stay home.”

Does that sound like opting out to you? But it does to the two authors of the series.

When characterizing their goals for the series, the authors write, “For the world to finally see a woman sitting in the Oval Office, for women to dominate a cabinet list rather than be excluded, for the Supreme Court to meet Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s definition of ‘enough women,’ we believe that the first step is to understand what women’s lives are really like.”

But what if you are a woman who does not share the narrow values of the women who produced this series?

The series, as Olmstead notes, treats children as “booby prizes” for women of inferior ambition. Olmstead presents a moving case of motherhood as a vocation–just as valid as a career that reaches the corner office.

When IWF was new, we were constantly asked, “What do you believe women should do?” We always replied that we believed women should make their own choices, whether they decide in favor of being stay-at-home mothers or a CEOs of a companies.

In a similar vein, Olmstead says it’s time to re-think what “having it all” means and broaden the concept to women who opt for something other than climbing to the corporate or political heights:

“But I keep wondering if we’re defining ‘all’ just a little bit wrong. I wonder if this black-and-white, all-or-nothing approach to life actually prevents us from seeing the beauty in this patchwork quilt of a life: one filled with a jumbled assortment of pursuits and ambitions and vocations, one that requires constant mending and stretching—but one that is good, in and through it all.”

“Perhaps limitless career acclaim and power—being the first woman president, or the next RBG—isn’t what every woman wants. Perhaps such positions have their drawbacks, as well as their rewards, and not all women want to pursue such roles.”

“For those of us who aspire to a more quotidian, staid sort of life, Schank and Wallace’s series can be a healthy reminder of what it means to strive to be the ‘best’ you can be, to work heartily at whatever your hand finds to do. They remind us that becoming excellent at anything often requires saying ‘no,’ so that we can say ‘yes’ to the things (or people) we love most.”

Gracy Olmstead is an associate managing editor of The Federalist and the Thursday editor of BRIGHT, a newsletter for women. She is also a mother.

This article was originally published on

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