Like many young girls, I spent a lot of time during my childhood playing with dolls. There were no limits to what the female dolls could do under my jurisdiction. They could be astronauts or soap opera stars, lawyers or singers. They always had a male doll to keep them company and support them, and sometimes they even had kid dolls to take care of.
My dolls had it all, and why wouldn't they? From a young age, I was always told that having it all would be an attainable reality when I reached adulthood. I am a woman, I am equal to a man and I can achieve whatever I put my mind to. I constantly heard this amazing message both at home and in school.
But there was one element of “having it all” that these early messages of empowerment failed to account for: the constant state of guilt.
When Myth Meets Reality
When I entered the workforce, I had a life plan: Establish a high-powered career, get married, have children and be a badass working mom. I knew that, in order to achieve those goals, I needed female mentors to guide me.
Those mentors were the ones that ultimately changed my perception of what “having it all” really means. On paper, they had everything figured out. Internally, however, they struggled with self-doubt. Once you looked beyond that shiny veneer, it seemed like they were constantly riddled with shame.
On the one hand were women who had dedicated so much time and effort to their careers that they felt guilty for not spending more time with their families. On the other were women who had spent more time with their kids — either with early departures or work-from-home days — but nonetheless feared their flexible schedules gave their bosses a reason to overlook them at raise and promotion time. Not to mention that their social lives were reduced to an early departure from happy hour every couple months.
Even the few women who opted out of family life found reasons to feel guilty. They worried they were too aggressive in meetings, or that they weren't making enough time for their friendships.
When I started asking friends if they thought women could have it all, I quickly realized that we had all encountered the same messages as children and were starting to feel disillusioned as adults. What's more, we were already starting to feel the guilt factor ourselves.
Why do women feel so guilty for their choices? Is this narrative of “having it all” playing into how hard we are on ourselves?
Most important, can Millennial women break the cycle of guilt?
The Origins of Guilt
Let's do a little exercise. When you go through your day, how often do you find yourself feeling ashamed of something? Do you beat yourself up when you eat a piece of the office birthday cake? Do you feel uncomfortable if you leave work early? How about when you stay late and neglect your relationships?
If you're a woman, the answer to these questions is likely an unequivocal yes.
As the Daily Mail reported, a 2010 survey found that 96% of women feel guilty at least once a day. To make matters worse, the poll uncovered that about half of the female participants lost sleep over their guilt, with roughly 75% of respondents reporting an elevated sense of guilt after giving birth.
How do these stats stack up to your daily life? Though many Millennial women haven't yet become mothers, we're still putting pressure on ourselves. We shame ourselves for not working out enough, not putting the “right” food in our bodies, wearing too much makeup, wearing no makeup and a barrage of other negative thoughts.
As a part of the “Guilty All The Time” generation, we're constantly dealing with a dangerous trifecta of feelings: guilt, shame and stigma. Since we're taught that there is an idea of the “perfect woman,” we somehow feel like we've failed if we don't achieve that archetype. No wonder we're losing sleep at night — it's an impossible standard to live up to.
But when our generation hits motherhood, this collective shame sadly seems only to intensify.
We all want to believe that we've come a long way in eschewing the idea of traditional gender roles. In fact, a Pew Research poll found that 79 percent of Americans say that women should not return to those roles.
But ask how that break of tradition has affected the development of children, and a different story emerges. More than half of respondents said they believe that children are better off if a mother doesn't work and stays at home. Perhaps more surprising is that only 8 percent believe the same of fathers.
In the wake of the Great Recession, it's been more important than ever for women to have an income. But what happens when they do is enlightening. According to a Forbes study, stay-at-home moms have started feeling guilty for not contributing financially — yet working moms feel guilty for not being at home with their kids.
Talk about unrealistic standards. We're damned if we do, and damned if we don't.
Breaking the Cycle of Guilt
In the summer of 2012, Anne-Marie Slaughter blew up this conversation when she published her famous Atlantic article, “Why Women Still Can't Have It All.”
Slaughter wrote the credo after going through her own crisis of feminist confidence: Despite achieving the highest level in her field and garnering a prestigious job at the State Department, she decided to leave the White House to be more present for her teenage sons at home in New Jersey.
This was a decision born out of guilt, but Slaughter felt a different type of shame after making it. After all, the women of her generation were perpetuating this idea that you didn't have to sacrifice any one part of your life for another. But that wasn't Slaughter's experience. And since then, many more women have come out in agreement.
Slaughter wanted to make it clear, though, that she hadn't lost hope. While she did think it was possible for women to achieve the balance of “having it all,” she posited that doing so would require an overhaul of how we treat motherhood in the workplace, not to mention a lot of help from our male counterparts.
Let's take the issue of paternity leave, for example. Right now, 96% of men are back to work within two weeks following the birth of their children, NPR reports. But mothers are typically out of the workplace much longer, causing them to lose ground to their male peers. And that still doesn't account for all the time they'll likely take off in the future to care for their children.
But that doesn't mean fathers don't want to care for their children. According to the “The New Dad” study conducted by Boston College, men want to be more involved with their families, and when they are, there are positive long-term effects for the entire family. Men want to more, and they need to. (Just remember not to feel guilty when they help out.)
Saying Goodbye to Guilt
But how can women stop feeling guilty about other aspects of our lives? We can say that the messages women are taught from a young age need to be more well-rounded and less tied to our traditional place in society.
We can say all of that. But realistically, how long will it take those things to change?
It comes down to believing and embracing the fact that we're more than the sum of our societal demands. We are not perfect people. So what if we don't have it all?
It's about living life unapologetically. It's about owning your choices. There isn't a one-size-fits-all life for a woman.
In short, do you.
And please: Let's stop apologizing for our choices.