Being a freelance consultant and full-time mom, I’m always interested in how parents (men and women) juggle their professional and personal lives. Not surprisingly, I’ve been following Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg and her recent book Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead. More fascinating than the book itself is the reaction it has garnered in the media: from very positive reviews praising her stance on balancing work and life issues to very negative reviews that bash millionaire Sandberg for not understanding a more modest woman’s struggles.

All the arguments seem to boil down to one simple question for working parents: Can they “have it all” – the rewarding challenge of a full-time career and the joy of raising a child in such a way that you can be there for all the “little moments?”

And therein lies the problem. By framing the question “Can you have it all?” I believe a person is setting themselves up for disappointment. Here’s why:

Life is full of prioritizations and decisions.

No matter who you are, if you are faced with a decision based on limited time, you have to make a choice on where to apply yourself. In the child-rearing case, you either decide to spend more time directly with your child or more time directly on your career. Even if you try to “balance” it out to equal time, there will be moments where you will miss a business opportunity or moments where you will miss an emotional moment in your child’s life.

I’ve seen this myself in my personal situation. I decided to quit my job and do part-time work from home, meaning that I get more valuable time with my child. However, because I only work so much, I’ve had to pass up some very interesting work contracts I would have enjoyed doing. On the flip side, my husband works full-time and has missed out on my daughter’s first steps and words, but he is advancing faster in his career. There is no right or wrong decision here, simply a matter of priority and how we decided to split our time.

“Having it all” is an extremely vague goal…

Even if you have no interest in raising children, “having it all” is a pretty vague, and therefore, near impossible goal. “All” could include (but is not limited to): great wealth, time to travel, time for personal projects, career advancement, family time, professional satisfaction, improved health, spiritual or meditative time. If you intend to maximize all these things, you will fail since you will always find someone else who has more time to spend on one aspect than you do.

…which is why no one person truly “has it all.”

You could name every person on the planet, and it would be easy to see that he/she does not, truly, “have it all.” People who earn great wealth often receive it by giving up family time or health. Most people I know with spectacular careers tell me they wish they had more time to do personal travel, but can’t due to the nature of their jobs. Stay-at-home parents wish for career fulfillment, while working parents yearn for more time with their kids.

To me “having it all” equates to perfection in life, and no matter how great of a person you are, no one is perfect. So does that mean we should just give up?

Define life in how you prioritize.

In lieu of “having it all,” I go back to prioritization and decision-making as a way to define yourself. Don’t worry so much about “having it all” because that’s not possible. Focus your efforts, instead, on finding true balance for yourself, the right mix for you. Determine the things that are truly important to you and work backwards from there.

It’s important to note that what works for you will not necessarily work for others. On the contrary, comparing yourself to others can be silly at best and harmful at worst. If you gain a lot of satisfaction from your working career, becoming a stay-at-home parent would make you miserable. It’s just not an option for you. Anyone who tells you differently doesn’t truly appreciate what makes you happy in life, and so trying to emulate their lives will only make you more dissatisfied. So don’t try to have it all; try to have what’s right for you.

What works for you now may not even work for you long-term. In my case, I’ve decided to go on a semi-career hiatus while my children are young. I still do some work, but it’s only a fraction of what I used to do as a project manager and writer, and that’s okay for me for now. As my children grow, I suspect I’ll itch for more professional time, and then my life will balance in a different way. That’s okay too.

I’ve always respected and still very much do respect professional women like Sheryl Sandberg. And while I do respect her decision to “lean in” to work, I have to say it just isn’t for me right now. I know deep in my soul that I would have regretted not being the primary caregiver in my children’s young lives, and since I am fortunate enough to have the opportunity, I’m going to take it. So my career will take a hit for now, but I don’t plan to be away forever. And that works for me.

Please share your own experiences in “having it all” and other balancing decisions you’ve had to make in your life.

Photo by creative1the

Deborah Fike

Deborah Fike is the Director of Educational Outreach for Spotkin, an educational games company that marries fun with learning.  She’s also the founder of Avalon Labs, which provides marketing consultations and writing services for start-ups and online businesses.   She carves out a significant portion of her time to raising her two younger daughters.

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