I blame the eighties.

Before the eighties, people, especially women, understood there were sacrifices to be made to support one’s lifestyle of choice. If you chose to live on a hippie commune and bake your own bread, you weren’t going to have a lot of new clothes or watch a lot of movies. If you chose to be a career woman, then you were going to be an emasculating ballbreaker with androgynous suits reminiscent of something that would have been standard-issue attire in an Eastern Bloc country; someone else would raise your kids, or you just wouldn’t have any. If you chose to be an artist, you would have to give yourself to your art with a single-minded dedication that precluded any consistently responsible engagement with civic duties, family, or relationship, and if you had a “life partner,” that person would either be another artist who didn’t mind if you disappeared into the studio for days on end or a long-suffering homefires-stoker who’d keep the scaloppine warm for you.

But somewhere around 1985, all of that changed. Suddenly, a career woman was supposed to also zip home in her Audi to scoop up a sniffling toddler and cuddle him on her massive shoulderpad. An artist was supposed to also get enough sleep and keep the house clean. Communes across America started selling their wares nationally, franchising, getting cable TV and materialist yardsticks for personal success. And as our mass media became ever more mass and ever more commodified, so did our ideas about lifestyles. Why buy one when you can buy two? You don’t have to settle. You can have it all!

Most particularly and most damagingly, you women can have it all, the TVs said. You do not have to choose between being successful at a career and being a good parent. You can get up, drop the kids off, go to Jazzercize ™, go to work, come home, relieve the nanny, whip up some tagliatelle with sun-dried tomatoes and arugula pesto, put the kids to bed with an intelligent, literate reading of some juvenile classics, and relax with your handsome spouse and a glass of Chardonnay. This is the eighties! You can do it!

As I recall, this was also the era when Barbie generated new personalities most frenetically: Workout Barbie, Western Barbie, Rocker Barbie, Career Girl Barbie (you know, the one with the suit and the briefcase). I’m every woman, Barbie crowed! And every woman was supposed to buy into the idea that all she needed was a different outfit and a phone booth to get changed in. The Baby Boomers (them again!) both propagated and suffered one of the biggest bullshit myths of the twentieth century, and not just (though most egregiously) for women, but for anyone trying an undertaking that involved sweat, effort, time, and its own unique culture or lifestyle (and that’s most of them):

the idea that You Don’t Have to Choose. You can DO BOTH.

And so in the nineties, when I came of age, we had women getting tenure or making huge deals on Wall Street while also trying to make organic mac and cheese for their toddlers and read The Atlantic and The New Yorker and check out all the most cutting-edge sushi bars with their loyal spouses who were also trying to wear three or four hats — men who had lucrative careers and were squash champions and squired their kids to music lessons and wrote speeches for their senators. And then everyone had to take vacations to The Hamptons or The Poconos and do some power playing with their kids while talking on their enormous car phones to the office.

I had a great view of this particular cultural turn, as I was in college in NYC, and a Barnard Babysitter, for most of this time. I helped grease the wheels of dozens of families on the Upper West Side as they went about their overprogrammed, overachieving business. I paid my way through college on the paychecks of these Power Couples who needed a literate babysitter to get their families from point A to point B with minimal collateral damage. And I saw my own future plans, and those of my peers, shaped by the expectation that we, too, would have successful lives like this: urban orgies of busyness, big paychecks and big expenditures and big culture and quick changes, in those phone booths, from Workout Barbie to Career Girl Barbie to UberMom and back again.

Now it’s the aughts and I’ve been a parent, in a city, with a full-time job, for nearly three years now. And I have my writerly ambitions, all of which are being wholesale neglected in favor of survival. And I can say, unequivocally, this one thing:

You can’t have it all. And you are crazy to even try.

Think about it, people. Those stereotypes — cookie-baking mom, tough-as-nails career woman, crazy reclusive artist, etc. — exist for a reason. The reason is they work. They create a lifestyle paradigm that fosters the life in question. They give excuses and built-in safety valves so that, when a person’s life is focused on success in a particular area, that person is allowed to fuck up or neglect other areas (oh, isn’t it charming that the crazy artist can’t remember to pay taxes, or even: oh, isn’t it cute that the career woman doesn’t know how to open a can, much less cook a meal). These stereotypes are protective. They function. They are not inclusive and hardly p.c., and I hope very much that none of my readers have so little imagination that they understand me to be saying that (for example) a woman can’t both make a home and be good at her job; of course she can. I’m proof of that myself. The issue is that people can’t try to be, to quote my hometown schlock rocker Art Alexakis, “everything to everyone.” Oh, you can do it for a while…

But it’s not so great for your mental health, not in the long term. There are costs to serving two masters (and I haven’t even made a token effort to “stay in shape” or “keep up my creative efforts”; if I were attempting that on top of everyone else, I promise you would be finding dead bodies on 60th ave., in a trail from my house to the bus stop). And you know how I know it’s not just me, but the truth, that the shining promises of “having it all” were a huge load of crap our parents sold us because they wanted to believe they hadn’t really failed at one or the other?

I’ll tell you: all those women I babysat for in college, those bright, successful, culturally literate, attractive women: they’re all on antidepressants. And perhaps some of them are no longer “succeeding” in their marriages or their parenting or their careers, which is sad, but unsurprising.

It’s taken a while, but I think we’re finally ready to not buy the myth. The question is whether we can create a new paradigm more interesting than the one that caused our mothers (and fathers) to create it.

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