Uuuuuuuuugh, "having it all." Enough already, right? I'm so goddamn sick of talking about "having it all" and who can "have it all" and what "it all" even means and whether wanting "it all" is the ultimate feminist goalpost or if it's just a reductive construct meant to keep women dissatisfied, unfulfilled, and cheerfully night-vacuuming for their entire lives. Yawn/barf. But a recent survey—which found that men and women have very different visions of what "having it all" means—actually got me intrigued. This is a concept that's discussed almost exclusively within a feminine framework, so what would it look like for a dude to "have it all"?
According to the survey—published last week by Citi and LinkedIn—79% of men think that "a strong, loving marriage" is essential to the concept of "having it all," while only 66% of women feel the same way. And over just the past 15 months, the number of women who don't factor any form of relationship or romance into their definition of success has doubled. All of that indicates, in the Atlantic Wire's estimation, that "men have a more specific and simpler definition of success, while women have more fluid goals (and, not coincidentally, far more hurdles to climbing the career ladder)."
It got me thinking, why would a disproportionate number of men value a strong family structure in their conception of an ideal, balanced life? My suspicion is this: For a lot of men, a traditional family includes a "wife," which is a kind of sexy butler that you also love. Even if wives aren't performing every single domestic duty with their own hands (like, maybe you're the kind of landed gentry with a nanny and a housekeeper or whatever), in the traditional model women are at the very least expected to be the stewards of the domestic sphere. They're manning the calendar. They're getting everyone out the door. There's a whole lot of invisible mental work that goes into keeping a family running, and I have a feeling that (even in the most egalitarian couples!) those tasks don't make their way into very many men's visions of the "perfect" life.
But, by virtue of that very same expectation, women have no choice but to factor that domestic sidework into their pursuit of "having it all," unless they want to abandon the family structure altogether (hence, perhaps, that 66% figure). It is built right into the question: "Having it all" for women means having a career and running a family. That's why, as has been said so many times, what women really need if they want to "have it all" is a wife—which, by extension, would make "having it all" for women more like "doing it all." A daunting and exhausting impossibility, not a fun and glamorous eventuality. With that in mind, "having it all" for men means...what, exactly? I decided to ask a few dudes and see what I could find out.
(I want to make it clear that this isn't a judgment—it's merely speculation about the way that our societal structure impacts people's implicit biases and expectations. As a product of the same society, I'm not exempt from these forces myself. I happen to be the primary breadwinner in my family at the moment—it's called "being in love with an experimental artist"—and it's a role I'm happy to play, but I can't say that's how 10-year-old Lindy assumed her future family structure would turn out. And I also can't say that the idea of being a stay-at-home mom doesn't have some sparkling appeal when it's 4 am and I'm grinding away against a morning deadline and I'm down to my novelty underwear because I haven't had time to do laundry in a month. So anyway, dudes, no blame here.)
I chatted with four male friends about what "having it all" looks like to them. In case anyone cares about demographics: Two are married, two are in longterm relationships, two are black, two are white, two have kids, two don't, and all are in their 30s or 40s. What I'm trying to figure out, I told them, is whether "having it all" for men usually implies having a wife who takes care of the lion's share of the domestic stuff, whether they factor those practical concerns into their pipe dreams about the future, and whether the thought of "having it all" fills them with excitement or dread.
Here are their answers.
Man #1: Charles
Charles: You are right in that reading. Having it all for men means money, family, and freedom from family. In short, fun.
Me: Charles, that's so succinct right off the bat!
Charles: I read something recently that argued that women are becoming more like men—and what that implied was that women are beginning to seek freedom from family. Not freedom from paying and caring for family—that's something else altogether. I have been really rethinking the whole economy (and its history) in terms of men-centered family structures, capitalist division of labor, the continued exploitation of free female labor, and the male pursuit of prestige. What men want most is the freedom to pursue prestige. The family and its direct needs get in the way of this pursuit.
This is really for me the source the sexual division of labor. What society wants from women then is a kind of banal superwoman. Go to work but do not pursue prestige—meaning, take care of the house as well.
Me: Now I'm depressed.
Charles: Those are my thoughts.
Man #2: Bruce
Bruce: I guess I don't even think about "having it all," like, that concept never crosses my mind, really. At least not that I'm aware of.
Me: Well, you don't have to, right? That's kind of the idea. It's something we only apply to women.
Bruce: I guess there's the stuff like, "What do you get the man that has everything?"
Me: Some fancy shaving cream or some shit probably!
Bruce: A tie and this old book of cliches!
Well, as much as I would love to fancy myself a non-materialistic person, I get caught up in stuff, like, one day I really want to own a BMW. Because driving one feels AMAZING. Not the feeling I get from having one, but the way it actually drives.
Me: Right. So, I suspect, when you ask most women this question, they wouldn't say "a BMW" right off the bat, because there's this huge stumbling block in the way. Which is children. It's a while before women get to the "luxury goods" section of "having it all."
Bruce: Well, a BMW wasn't actually my answer...
I think we've discussed this before, but my fiancee makes way more than me and I think it's rad. I did offer to be a stay-at-home dad when the time comes, if she's still the bigger breadwinner. So is it weird that I don't picture myself being a stay-at-home parent even though I'm willing to do it?
Me: I suspect that even the most egalitarian people have some deeply-ingrained assumptions that we can't get away from.
Bruce: I mean, I do. I guess I always assumed I'd be the guy bringing home the bacon.
Me: But you don't mind that assumption being flipped.
Bruce: Not at all. But the fact I automatically assume it is interesting.
Me: Plus, hey, FREE BACON.
Man #3: Paul
Paul: Well, I'm not sure I'm a typical man, what with the hating sports and all. And the reading books. But the truth is, I never really think about having it all.
And I was thinking about this a while ago, and I wonder if I never think about having it all because I'm a white dude, so I pretty much get what I want. I think maybe the question of having it all is an intrinsically sexist question. I realize I'm not the first person to ask this.
I mean, I'm in a happy relationship, we split the domestic duties, I have a job that I love. I guess I'm having it all. Hooray! (But I'm not interested in procreating, so maybe I'm not having it all. Booooo.)
Me: It is definitely an intrinsically sexist question.
Paul: I do know that a lot of men, the kind of men I can't handle being around, are very concerned with making sure that other people know that they're living the dream. Hence trophy wives and fancy cars and so on. I was talking with a guy once about riding around in a Delorean, and he said to me, "Doesn't every guy want to go down the street with something that every other guy wants?" And that had never crossed my mind. The conversation didn't last long.
Why is this coming up so much these days? Why are we in the renaissance era of having-it-all? Is it that Lean In book?
Me: I think so. Yup.
Paul: I read that book. It felt like a semi-convincing argument for a very specific type of person.
Me: WHY ARE YOU SO AFRAID OF POWERFUL, LIBERATED WOMEN, PAUL?
Man #4: Aham
Me: Full disclosure: You are my boyfriend.
Me: What does it mean for men to "have it all"?
Aham: I think "having it all" for a man is way more of a fantasy than it is for a woman—I think a guy's idea of having it all is like, "Uhhh...I'm going to have a gold-plated staircase... and a LION!"
Me: Right. Bruce immediately said, "A BMW!" Whereas, as a woman, my concerns go to the practical right away. "Oooooh, a housekeeper! Free childcare!!!"
Aham: Yeah, even for me, when I was a single dad with two babies and the most sensible thing would have been to wish for free daycare or something, my vision didn't change. I would still have said, "Lion. Hands down."
Me: Hahahahaha. So, women are taught to be mired in practical concerns and men are taught to dream big? To the point where even if men ARE mired in practical concerns, they still don't conceive of their lives that way?
Aham: I think so. And in terms of wives picking up the slack domestically, the idea of having a bunch of women at your beck and call is so entrenched in the male brain. In the male brain, the fantasy isn't even having one woman to take care of all your shit—it's having a team.
Aham: Don't worry, honey. You're doing great. I'm sure you'll fit right in with the rest of the squad.
Aham: I'm joking! Can you put in that that is not representative of my true feelings? Put that it's merely an extrapolation of a deeply hidden seed of culturally-engrained selfhood.
Me: I think you've said enough, buddy.
Image by Jim Cooke.