The Pressure to ‘Have It All’ and the Need to Redefine Success

We all get the same 24 hours. How you prioritize your time involves trade-offs of one kind of success for another.

In 1963 Betty Friedan articulated “the problem with no name” as the pressure women experienced to feel fulfilled only by their roles as wives and mothers. I contend that nearly 50 years later we have a new problem with no name, the pressure to feel fulfilled only by “having it all.”

The New Male Mystique describes the conflict: “The ideal man today is not only a good employee working long hours to be a successful breadwinner, but is also an involved and nurturing husband / partner, father and son.”

And what does all mean? It is an ambitious list. It means not only to have a challenging career but also to get to the top of your game professionally. (Anne-Marie Slaughter‘s back-up job was returning to a tenured role at Princeton.) It requires being a devoted mother and ensuring your children are successful. It demands being attractive and fit as we recently saw with the Wisconsin television journalist Jennifer Livingston who was criticized for being a poor role model because she was overweight. It means staying in touch with an ever lengthening list of professional and personal friends.

No wonder we feel so stressed all the time. The pervasive sense is that we should be able to have it all as educated, modern American women. The should keeps us stuck and makes so many amazing and talented women feel awful asking themselves, What’s wrong with me? Why can’t I do it all? Aren’t I supposed to be able to have it all?

For several decades women have felt the stress of combining careers with raising children. As men feel the desire, and in some cases the societal pressure to be more involved with their children, their experience of work-life stress has skyrocketed. The Families and Work Institute’s report The New Male Mystique describes the conflict: “The ideal man today is not only a good employee working long hours to be a successful breadwinner, but is also an involved and nurturing husband / partner, father and son.” The Boston College Center for Work & Family’s 2011 report The New Dad: Caring, Committed and Conflicted aptly characterizes men’s struggle.

I used to think that men could have it all, great work and advancement as well as the wonderful aspects of family life, with a spouse at home to manage the day-to-day complexity. But I was mistaken. Many men have paid a steep price for their professional success in terms of their relationships with their family as well as the quality of their health and well-being.

The reality is that, despite our love affair with multi-tasking as a way to manufacture time, each of us of gets the same 24 hours in a day. Many experience greater energy by playing multiple roles—professional and parent—because they feel complementary. But energy, too, has its limits.

Women’s new problem with no name is born of outsized expectations at work and at home. And men trying to walk that path are confronting the same difficulties. Nobody “has it all” in the way we currently define it. For all of us, life requires trade-offs and choices.

In conducting research for my book The Libra Solution, I heard many hopeful stories of women and men finding deep fulfillment through their approach to work-life management, one characterized by a strong partnership in managing child and home care and a drive for moderation. This gender-flexible approach enabled men more room to develop their nurturing capacities and women more room to pursue their career goals.

We need to redefine success in more human terms rather than the fantasy of women—or men—that have it all. Real success—the true definition of having it all—is getting clarity on what success means for you and putting your energies there.


This was previously published on The Huffington Post.

Read more: Why Men Can’t Have It All

Image credit: Kevin N. Murphy/Flickr

About Lisa Levey

Lisa Levey is a diversity and work-life consultant, working to make organizations better for women and men. She speaks and writes about gender roles and is the author of The Libra Solution: Shedding Excess and Redefining Success at Work and at Home, focused on a gender-flexible approach to career and family management. Both her professional work and her personal life provide ongoing laboratories to better understand gender in all its complexity.


  1. Valter Viglietti says:

    Well said, Lisa!
    “Having it all” is a true myth, and a toxic one. And it goes for both genders.

    Everything has a “price” (be it money, energy, time or anything else); for anything we want, we should take into account what the relative price is. Sometimes it’s just not worth it.
    The dream that you can “have it all”, comes from the delusion that there are no consequences to our choices – but there always are.

    “All magic comes with a price!”
    (Rumplestiltskin’s iconic phrase)

  2. “Women’s new problem with no name is born of outsized expectations at work and at home”.

    Therein lies the question: was “having it all” was ever really the key to a woman’s (or mans) happiness?

  3. In a consumer society, there are inevitably two kinds of slaves: the prisoners of addiction and the prisoners of envy.

    — Ivan Illich


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