No One Gets to Have It All

Anne-Marie's Slaughter's controversial "Why Women Still Can't Have It All" examines why women continue to face barriers in career advancement that men don't. 

After I read it, I felt angry. 

I wasn't exactly sure why. I believe structural discrimination against women exists in corporate culture. I believe this bias extends to the evangelical church. And I believe stereotypes that Asian American women are submissive and compliant aren't helpful to career success either.

And yet something about the article really bugged me. 

But today I figured it out. In a New York Times blog post, Michael Winerip's "He Hasn't Had It All Either" hit it on the head. He articulated exactly what I've had trouble expressing.

Who gets to have it all? Where did this assumption come from that we can get everything we dream about?

Like Winerip, a writer who worked from home in order to be more involved with his kids, I've traded career advancement in exchange for greater involvement with ministry and family.

I got my first job in 1997 working at IBM as a business analyst as a 21-year old with a UC Berkeley business administration degree. During the recruiting process, I felt called to return to my home church and thereby eliminated more glamorous options like investment banking.  I narrowed my choices even more when I decided to pass on management consulting because I felt the constant travel would affect my ability to serve in my church. I love meeting new people but I knew I had to give it up if I wanted to work with the youth group and be mentored by my pastor. Ever since high school, my dream was to become a missionary to China. My plan was to work for two years and then go overseas. But soon after I started at IBM my ambitions diverted to my corporate career.

Since this was the dot com boom of the late 90s, half of my start group left in the first year for start-ups like In awe of the entrepreneurship craze around me, I found my job mindless and boring but I chose to stay out of my church commitment. I did well and two years later, I was offered the team lead role for a multi-million dollar project. I turned it down because I thought it would jeopardize my personal and ministry life (this sounds more honorable than it really was, I still worked long hours,  neglected my wife, and had a resentful attitude towards my church).

I revived my dream of becoming a missionary only to discover my dream had shifted. At the suggestion of my pastor, I started taking seminary classes and I seriously contemplated becoming a pastor myself. Judy and I had our first child in 2001. As I began taking more classes, my marital and parental life suffered as I tried to juggle school, work, church, and family. All the while, I dreamed about becoming a manager because I enjoyed people and hated the organizational details that project management entailed.

After the birth of our second child in 2004, I asked and received permission to work part-time. I took a pay cut so I could better negotiate all my responsibilities. It freed me up a little but I still worked about 40 hours (evidence that money does not motivate me as much as the fear of disappointing others) and my balancing act took its toll on my marriage and young kids.  It was at this point that I let go of any corporate career ambitions. Part-time employees don't get put on major projects and therefore receive none of the visibility necessary for promotion. In 2006 I wanted to leave Hitachi (formerly IBM) but Judy asked me to stay one more year to ease the transition of having our unexpected third child.

As a pastor, I have significant flexibility in how I spend my time. It is freeing and at times, nerve-wracking. Right now, I'm debating whether to return this fall as a tutor in our home school cooperative. I love being a tutor but I would like to be more focused in my ministry and on my children. 

Throughout my working life, I have constantly made trade-offs between advancement and ambition and marriage and family. I recognize they are not mutually exclusive. I recognize people more talented than me have given up less in order to gain more. But aside from moments of doubt, I don't regret what I've given up in comparison to what I've received. 

The image the self-empowerment movement would have women buy into is that men have it all because we enjoy both successful careers AND successful families. But this is illusory because as men, we prioritize our careers differently. Most of us are just fine not seeing our children everyday.  We love our kids but we don't have the same attachment to them that mothers crave. We enjoy the competitiveness of the workplace and aren't naturally predisposed towards nurture. That same aggression can lead men to ruin their marriages and neglect their children. Do women who want it all want that wreckage too?

And if I have a successful family and career, it is largely because my wife has sacrificed in order to be support my career while staying at home to raise our children. Raising four children demands time, energy, and money. And I would argue that she has paid far more than I have in giving up her ambitions.

Has it been worth it? You'd have to ask her. But she scoffs at the notion that any person can have it all, much less that "having it all" is even desirable. 

All ambitions have a price. And I'm humbled by what my wife's choices have cost her. She didn't want it all. She only wanted what was most worthwhile. But the message of our society is that being a stay-home mom is settling for second best. She should want more. She should lean in.

It's not that it's wrong to have ambitions - to pursue a career and a family - but let's not pretend that we're entitled to everything our heart desires and let's not pretend our pursuits come for free. 

Jesus entreated us as his disciples to deny ourselves, take up our cross and follow him. He says that when a kernel of wheat dies, it produces many seeds. And Jim Elliot famously said, "He is no fool who gives up what he cannot keep to gain what he cannot lose".

No one get to have it all. You choose what matters most even it means giving up what matters less because you decide what is most important is the only thing worth having.


  1. Very true. Focusing on a few important priorities in our life and letting the other stuff go is so much more rewarding anyway! ;)


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