There has been a passionate, disorganized discussion over the last few months, on whether or not women can “have it all.” Anne-Marie Slaughter’s Why Women Still Can’t Have It All from the July/August 2012 Atlantic Magazine became the most widely read piece in the Atlantic website’s history. Why?
Why does something like this go viral? It never would unless it strikes a chord that, if not universal, is at least widespread. My guess is that the virus invaded by the time we finished the title. Slaughter’s was a long article that I expect many never read in its entirety. It doesn’t matter. The title alone granted the possibility that “all” is unattainable, and relief that maybe, just maybe, we can stop trying and, I don’t know, have a cup of tea.
If you did read past the title, Ms. Slaughter’s piece was a thoughtful exploration of the difficulties that remain for women who “want it all.” Her conclusion was that women are not both able to have a successful career and a happy family at the same time—and won’t be—until our social structure changes. (Oh good. Something else for the “to do” list).
By the time I was deep into the article, I was struck by the interpretation of “all” that I expect many of us share. “All,” all too often, seems to mean “successful career” plus a family—presumably a happy one.
While this may indeed be the definition of “all” in modern society, it most certainly was not, in Vedic tradition. There we learn of four stages of life, and only one has to do primarily with career and family: second stage of life—grihastha, or householder.
Brahmacharya, the first stage, requires a youth become educated about the laws of nature, physical, emotional and spiritual fitness, and immersed in the practice of dharma—personal ethics. The grihastha stage involves collecting all the stuff that is easy to identify with: prestige, money, possessions, family, career and the accouterments of this busy stage of life.
Once the kids are grown, menopause sets in, or our emerging gray hairs remind us that we are not destined to remain here forever, we enter the vanavasa –literally “forest dweller” stage of life. Here we begin to retreat from the busy grihastha arena and spend increasingly more time in seclusion, finding physical restoration and renewed spiritual depth. This naturally yields into the fourth stage of life: moksha—or release from illusion, detachment from the worldly affairs and, ideally, the experience of spiritual liberation.
These four stages of life cover not only successful career and happy family, but include physical fitness, spiritual welfare, quiet retreat time, and consideration of global as well as personal affairs. If we can’t, as Slaughter suggests, even expect to enjoy both a career and family, then what is the hope for success in these other areas?
Many of us have learned to think that, if we just work long and hard enough we can have everything, whatever “everything” means to each of us. Sometimes that is not the case. Sometimes, the harder we strive for one, the more damage we inflict on the others. If I work 40-60 hours a week for five decades on my career, will I really have time to cook healthy food for my family or myself, exercise, meditate?
The fact may be that we cannot have it all, unless we change our fundamental definition of “all.” If our ambitions are simplified so that we find joy in retreat, in solitude, in reveling in good company, engaging in ethical work, enjoying the simple pleasures of life, then perhaps we may be able to have it all, after all.
I’ll have that cup of tea now.
Dr. Claudia Welch is a Doctor of Oriental Medicine, an Ayurvedic practitioner and educator, and the author of Balance Your Hormones, Balance Your Life: Achieving Optimal Health and Wellness Through Ayurveda, Chinese Medicine and Western Science.