Every time I see the phrase “have it all” in a headline, I know I’m in for a deep, irritated eye-roll, and this New York Times Sunday Review essay “You Can’t Have It All, but You Can Have Cake” by Delia Ephron, is no exception. Her point is basically that American women (and men, too!) should stop whining about “having it all” because the idea of wanting marriage, work, and children is pathetically narrow, and in other countries “having it all” means “walking to school without worrying that you might get raped on the way.” (What?) Also, she adds that we’re all stuck in high school, where Sheryl Sandberg is our reigning “Prom Queen Have-It-All.” Because we can’t talk about women and work without mentioning someone with whom most women have nothing in common.
First, let me express my sincere wish that no one ever use the phrase “have it all” ever again. It’s meaningless and usually condescending. Furthermore, I agree with Ephron that there are people in the world far worse off than Americans. But by dismissing the whole idea of wanting to work and have children as something only frivolous wealthy people struggle with, we’re conveniently ignoring the real problems that the majority of working Americans are dealing with: the lack of affordable or even available child care; the crazy, growing expense of college; and the lack of paid maternity leave.
It’s a boring bummer to talk about how lots of Americans, especially working-class ones, are struggling to support their families in a system with very little safety net. It’s much sexier to just tell rich ladies they’re dumb and “depressingly American” for being concerned about work-family balance and to shame them for not spending all of their brain space on rape in foreign countries (which ones Ephron’s talking about, I’m not sure—she ever specifies). Even girls who are still in high school can hold two different thoughts in their pretty little heads at the same time.