You’ve got your life in pretty good shape if the biggest wrinkle in a given week, as was the case for Huffington Post founder Arianna Huffington on Thursday, is that you’ve got the clear the furniture out of your newly-redecorated apartment to convene a group of women to discuss what Huffington calls the “Third Metric,” a definition of success that goes “beyond money and power.” A wide-ranging series of panels and interviews, the conversations suggested an interesting tack. Given that many of the women leading and participating in conversations about work-life balance, including Huffington and Lean In author Sheryl Sandberg are women who already have quite a lot, we might all be better off shifting the conversation from the mechanisms of how women strive to have it all — we’re not all going to be able to afford the same nannies and personal assistants, and we won’t all be soothed by the same morning meditations or supported by sharing a facialist with Candace Bergen — to the question of what actually constitutes “it all,” and who has access to different visions of it.
Over and over again, the panelists talked at least as much about what they’d decided they could do without, let go, and leave behind, as what they incorporated or added to their lives. For Sen. Claire McCaskill, (D-MO), it was housework. “I found myself divorced with three young children as the elected prosecutor in Kansas City,” she explained. “My oldest child was only six. Not only was I handling 8,000 to 10,000 felonies a year, I also had these three children, and I also had to appear absolutely invincible day in and day in….I didn’t give a shit if there were dust bunnies under the bed…All the things I’d been taught as a young girl about everything being straight and neat, I said screw that.”
Valerie Jarrett, a senior adviser to President Obama, said she’d learned a valuable lesson when she was working for then-Chicago Mayor Richard Daley, and he asked her one day what she was worried about. “I said, in just this moment of honesty, the Halloween Parade starts in 20 minutes and it’s 25 minutes away. And he said, ‘Then what are you doing here? Go,’” Jarrett explained, saying that because the parade was a particular priority for her daughter, it gained significance for Jarrett. “If I had not been there when my little darling came out with her little costume looking for me, I would not have forgiven myself. I did not make a lot of open houses, but the Halloween Parade was important to her.”
And actress Ali Wentworth and director Tanya Wexler offered contrasting explanations for their decisions about work and family. Wentworth said she had been offered a second lead role in a show that was picked up by a network this fall, and the network had said they could concentrate her filming in Los Angeles for 13 weeks to make it easier for her to accommodate her family in New York. “And I was very excited and I called George [Stephanopoulos] and said it’s 13 weeks, we can totally do it. He said, ‘You’ll cry all the time. I know you’re all pumped up.’ And [I realized] I’m going to be at LAX crying because my daughters are crying because I’m not there for the ballet recital…I think you redefine what having it all at any point in your life is.” And Wexler, who most recently directed the period romantic comedy Hysteria, said that for her, continuing to work and letting her wife be the primary caregiver for their four children had been the right choice. “I love my children, but it is a pain in the ass a lot of the time, because it’s a maintenance job. It’s a lot of work for ultimately your child to become their own person and their accomplishments,” she explained. “And going out and making stuff is awesome. I love being busy. I was talking with my assistant, who is one of the two people I mentor, and I was saying, I love making stuff. And my brain is on 24 hours day. I can’t unplug because I don’t want to.”
Finding a definition of “all,” it seems, might be critical to understanding why women who feel so much still feel under pressure to have more. As the director and author Rebecca Miller put it, “If you have ten plates on the table, you can move the plates, but there are still ten plates on the table,” and no more room to breathe or recharge. And accepting that the definitions of “all” will be highly personal and determined by circumstances might help deescalate the debates between women with very different, but closely held, visions of what “all” constitutes, and what’s the right way for professional women to live their lives. “That could have been me, except I decided to stay working,” Morning Joe host Mika Brzezinski said of Anne-Marie Slaughter’s article in The Atlantic about leaving her job in the Obama administration to devote more time to her troubled son. “This child might need me to be at home. But this child also needs the me who works. My choice was to stay…I made it for what I thought my family needed down the road. Sometimes the moment’s not pretty.”
And focusing on the “all” rather than the “having it” might help bring conversations between women who are making elective choices between careers and family, and those who have none of the flexibility and financial luxury to make such decisions onto a continuum. Much of the discussion of women in the second category at the Third Metric forum came in the form of reminders that they exist.
“Most of us are lucky here that we’re not working at low-wage job where we have no flexibility,” Jarrett said as a caveat. And McCaskill reminded the audience that “The women I represent who are working three jobs…they need renewal, too, and they are way too busy trying to survive…There are an awful lot of people who could only fantasize about this room.”
There’s nothing wrong with busy women at the top of their professions figuring out how to avoid burnout, allocate resources, and make peace with their own compromises. But if it’s true, as Madeline Albright suggested “There is a special place in hell for women who don’t help other women”–a maxim Jarrett invoked on Thursday–women like those at the Third Metric conference might do well to start an open and honest conversation on another set of questions. What are their new reserves of energy and inner peace helping them to do for women with decidedly different urgent needs? And are they making a meaningful difference not just in the lives of their direct mentees and friends, but making sacrifices across their organizations to increase the number of women who have their own access to whatever their personal version of “all” looks like?