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Enough About "Having It All"!

"Having it all" is probably the most misunderstood phrase since, as the late great Erma Bombeck once said about the ERA, "one size fits all." It has come up whenever there is a backlash -- and there have been many -- against the increasing empowerment of women. The implication that the women's movement promised or even endorsed that greedy notion is still with us.

Having It All is the Straw (wo)man knocked down in Anne-Marie Slaughter's article in the Atlantic that caused a hurricane of comment. In her smart and honest article, Slaughter, who resigned her position in the State Department to spend more time with her children, describes the unremitting conflicts that confront a woman who wants to have a high-reward job and combine it with her family life. And she rightly blames the system (outdated school schedules that are totally incompatible with workdays and workplace inflexibility) but, I want to ask her, who ever said it could be done and without pain and conflict?

As a matter of fact, whoever said that everyone wants the same All or wants All of anything? I, for one, would have never been happy or effective if I had spent more time at home with my children after they were born. I am just not a baby person (I have been assured that will change with grandparenthood). On the other hand, I wish I could have taken maternity leave fifteen years later, when my teenagers might have benefitted from my presence. Sure, I was exhausted, but rebalancing work and family would have caused more frustration, not more meaning in my life.

Back when Ms. was the target for anti-feminist skepticism, we often had to respond to the challenge that "Women's Lib" was pushing women to attempt a ten-course meal of opportunities; if the point was to liberate women, wasn't The Juggler, as she was called back then, just another guilt-making feminine ideal like the "perfect wife and mother" had been? The standard reply was "you can have it all, but just not all at once."

That reply falls, short. It doesn't question what constitutes All, which is what Courtney E. Martin, a young feminist blogger, and her husband John Cary did. In their Christian Science Monitor article entitled "Having It All Is So 1980s" they describe the lifestyle that they have established which rejects the more-is-better and ambition-driven model that Slaughter outlines in her Atlantic article. Their goal is to have Enough: "We don't want to have it all. We want to be happy and helpful."

We are having the same conversation about what is important to a meaningful life at the stage I am at now. Boomers are criticized for sucking all the oxygen out of the room by wanting to Have It All: stay in the workforce (taking jobs away from younger people who need them), utilize government programs (thereby sending the next generation into debt), and enjoy their grandchildren (indulge their selfish selves and take advantage of senior discounts).

Actually, while I enjoy getting into the movies for half price, I don't think it is fair to treat one group of people as if they are more in need of a break than any other. The notion that people over sixty-five "just want to have fun" and go to the movies is an outdated and, for the majority, unattainable view of life after 60, defined by the word "retirement" -- a pleasant stretch of leisure time, in which the biggest challenge is how to get by on a small pension.

More and more of us are spending these years reinventing our selves; we need or want to keep working, but we are redefining what that means. The Encore Movement describes that unprecedented stretch of found time as an opportunity for "passion, purpose, and a paycheck." Millions are reviving the life choices we left behind back at Not All At Once -- abandoned dreams and projects, reconstituted relationships, learning something new. The entrepreneurs among us may be increasing their paychecks, but many find themselves drawn to causes that won't make them rich or powerful but will, they hope, make the world they leave behind a better place. Like Martin and Cary, they are trading money for meaning.

All we want; all we are entitled to; all any citizen -- woman or man -- of any age can expect from society is the opportunity to explore their own potential to contribute to the world they live in -- and the prospect of Having Enough.


This article originally appeared at The Huffington Post.

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suzanne braun levine

Suzanne Braun Levine is a writer, editor, blogger, activist and authority on women, family issues and media. She was the first editor of Ms. magazine (1972-1988) and the first woman editor of the Columbia Journalism Review (1989-1997). While at Ms., she produced the Peabody Award-winning documentary, “She’s Nobody’s Baby: American Women in the Twentieth Century.” She is a blogger for Huff/Post50, Vibrant Nation, The Third Age and other popular women’s sites. She is an advisor to women’s groups and media organizations, including, The Transition Network and the Women’s Media Center. She is on the Board of Civic Ventures, a nonprofit think tank on boomers, work and social purpose.

Levine’s new book – How We Love Now: Sex and the New Intimacy in Second Adulthood (Viking/2012) is the “third chapter” in her on-going conversation with women in Second Adulthood, the stage she defined and celebrated in two popular books: Inventing The Rest of Our Lives (Viking/2005) and Fifty Is the New Fifty (Viking/2009).

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