Editor's note: Join CNN Opinion on Facebook for a live discussion about women and the workplace on Tuesday from noon to 1 p.m. ET. Watch CNN's special coverage of "What Women Want" throughout Monday and Tuesday. Plus, watch Soledad O'Brien's interview with Sheryl Sandberg on "Starting Point" at 7 a.m. ET on Monday, March 18.
(CNN) -- "Having it all" is having another cultural moment, with the media suddenly awash in the controversy over a new book on women and leadership from Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg, just weeks after the furor over Yahoo CEO's Marissa Mayer calling telecommuting employees back into the office -- and presumably pulling women that much further from their work-life balance plan.
But plenty of women have pondered the question long before this.
CNN.com's Opinion section asked a group of women to describe when they realized they could -- or could not -- have it all.
Sen. Patty Murray: Flexibility to put family first
Whenever the topic of women in the workplace and work-life balance appears in our nation's dialogue, I always think back to when I started in the Senate over 20 years ago. It was 1992, after an unprecedented number of women had been elected to Congress. It was a typical, hectic day in the Senate, with several votes scheduled.
My office received a phone call from the school where my young son was attending, with the news he had a nosebleed. Without thinking, I grabbed my coat and headed towards the exit. On my way out, I was stopped by one of my male colleagues who asked, "Where are you going?" I explained the situation to which he quickly replied with disbelief, "Wow! You've gotta be kidding." I simply brushed it off and told him my family takes precedence. Well, a few weeks later that same senator approached me and confessed I was the first person he had seen in the Senate that didn't think twice about putting their family first. But for me, it was a no-brainer.
There will always be a need to make sacrifices when it comes to our jobs and our families. However, our workplaces and our country will thrive when employees are given flexibility on what matters most
Patty Murray, a Democrat, is the senior United States senator from Washington
Ana Navarro: 'Having it all' debate is silly
I've been asked to answer the question: "When did I realize that I could or could not have it all." The answer is, I don't know. I never really ask myself that question. I just live life, seize opportunities, try to be content, and try to make sure those I love know it. That's about it. I was born missing the "let's stare at our navel and ponder the meaning of life" chromosome. I often think the biggest obstacle to enjoying life is over-thinking.
The question strikes me as rather silly. First of all, I've never heard a man get asked if he "can have it all." It seems to be a question reserved for women. I also don't know what the question means. Who defines "all," society? Ourselves? Our family? I don't know what "all" means. At the risk of channeling Bill Clinton at his worst moment, the answer depends on what your definition of "all" is.
Hell, this question is too complicated. And it perpetuates the pressure on women to chase the nebulous "all." I'd like to think that if you have it all, you know it. And if you don't have it all, you also know it. In the latter case, please seek professional help. Sorry I could not be more more insightful and provide words of wisdom. Maybe next week, I'll try to find the cure for cancer.
Ana Navarro, a Republican strategist and commentator, was national Hispanic campaign chairwoman for John McCain in 2008 and national Hispanic co-chair for Jon Huntsman's 2012 campaign. Follow her on Twitter @ananavarro.
Lauren Wolfe: It's not about having what men have
I was around 5 when I knew that I would one day be an adult. That meant that one day, like my father, I would wear a suit, carry a leather briefcase, and return home each day to my daughter.
It's taken more than 30 years for me to accept that I don't resemble the man in the suit with the briefcase, or a man really at all, and that maybe being such an adult didn't actually mean "having it all." That maybe being an adult meant being a woman, in all its complexity, and "having it all" meant figuring out how to be the journalist I want to be, loving my family and friends, and understanding how to exist fully in the world. I'm not sure now that my father had those things.
Being a man in his generation meant providing comforts for his family. It meant striving for wealth and decision-making power. At this point in my life, I am trying to comprehend how to be a woman in a world that does not always permit us to achieve success in that way. More and more, though, I'm not convinced that I ever actually wanted the template.
Lauren Wolfe is an award-winning journalist and the director of Women Under Siege, a Women's Media Center initiative on sexualized violence in conflict. She is the former senior editor of the Committee to Protect Journalists, and blogs at laurenmwolfe.com. Follow her on Twitter, @Wolfe321.
Donna Brazile: Reach out to give and receive help
My mother believed she had it all. When she passed away, she gifted "having it all" to me. Only, it took me awhile to figure out what that would mean for me. After all, my mom, Jean, worked several jobs to make ends meet, raised nine kids, and had some flexibility in her schedule at the end of the week to spend time with friends. That wasn't quite my idea of having it all.
For starters, I wasn't ready for the responsibility of motherhood or helping to raise my younger siblings or my niece, whom my parents had adopted. Having to shoulder new responsibility, while maintaining my own "single ladies" lifestyle, meant finding people to lean on. For women to have it all, we need to reach out for help, accept it when it's offered, and be ready to offer it to others. In my case, starting with getting a babysitter for times I worked late and needed someone to be there for my niece when she arrived home. Of course, I had to find my way around the kitchen, though that part took no time.
That "responsibility shift" has lasted a lifetime and helped define me: I learned to take care of others, while enabling others to succeed. Being a mother and big sister is the lens through which I view "having it all." Successfully having it all in this way is the most difficult thing to do, but also the only thing to do. We can have it all and help others to get there too if we enable or empower one another.
Donna Brazile, a CNN contributor and a Democratic strategist, is vice chairwoman for voter registration and participation at the Democratic National Committee. She is a nationally syndicated columnist, an adjunct professor at Georgetown University and author of "Cooking with Grease: Stirring the Pot in America." She was manager for the Gore-Lieberman presidential campaign in 2000.
Jennifer Baskerville: Company flexibility makes it possible
I am lucky to say I got my all -- thanks in large part to being able to telecommute. I am a communications strategist living in San Diego and my company is 2,400 miles across the country and three time zones away in Washington, D.C. I work from home 75% of the time and travel to Washington once a month for client meetings. Two years ago, I told my employer I was getting married and moving across the country to San Diego. He said, "We value you and want you to stay with us. Why don't you telecommute and travel as needed for client meetings?"
It's been a win-win for the company and me alike. I would estimate that not having to commute or put on office outfits saves me three hours a day. Not to mention saving the time lost on water cooler chats, office gossip and meetings for the sake of meetings. That is an extra three hours I can spend on my clients. Since I've been working from home, I have been able to double my client load and expand our client base.
Thanks to a company that values their employees, the wonders of technology and an understanding husband, I have my all -- my dream job, living in paradise with my amazing husband and a happy dog.
Jennifer Baskerville is the managing director for Qorvis Communication, a PR agency based in Washington.
Valarie Kaur: Well-being is what matters
I come from an immigrant family where women have been "leaned on" for generations. My mother fought hard for me to become the first to follow my own path. So when I started to fall violently ill every month in my late 20s, I just leaned even harder into my career as if nothing was wrong: I went to Yale Law School, worked in the U.S. Senate, took on high-profile legal cases, produced four films with the man I married, and founded a faith-based social justice initiative, for which I commuted from New Haven to NYC each week. I was on the path to "having it all" -- until I got so sick, it landed me in the hospital.
I was diagnosed and treated for advanced endometriosis, an excruciating disorder. As I woke up from surgery, now with a second chance, I realized that "having it all"-- possessing as many goods as possible, plus career, children, husband, house -- was not what mattered. Being well mattered. Spending each day being productive and creative, earning enough money to live without fear, making the world a better place, loving our family and friends, and most importantly, caring for our own bodies matters. Like millions of young women whose voices are missing from this debate, I am learning to embrace not just my career but my own fuller vision of what makes a good life.
Valarie Kaur is an filmmaker, civil rights advocate, and interfaith organizer. She is senior fellow at Auburn Seminary, where she founded Groundswell to help mobilize faith communities in social action. Kaur founded the Yale Visual Law Project. Follow her on Twitter @valariekaur.
Ai-Jen Poo: Constant tension between possibility and reality
Growing up, I watched my mother learn English while finishing a graduate degree, working full-time and raising two children. She's a successful doctor today, but it hasn't been easy. In every arena, she had to fight to receive basic respect or recognition for her work. Among her sacrifices was missing out on a year of my early childhood while I lived with my grandmother in Taiwan. My mother paved the way for me to have many more choices and more support to pursue my dreams.
I am extraordinarily fortunate. I have work that I love and a supportive family. Yet there are still days when I'm exhausted by negotiating the gap between my expectations of what's possible and the reality. How does one have it all? With more than 15 years working in nonprofit organizations, I have often felt like our organizational cultures have not caught up to women's lives. It's everything from lack of workplace flexibility and space for women who are breastfeeding, to how we treat one another, how we value one another's contributions, and how we define leadership. As a young activist I often felt like I had to be aggressive, authoritative, stoic -- someone I was not -- in order to lead.
To survive and succeed, we must somehow not be fully human. We can't show vulnerability, emotion or pain, and we can't ask for help. And it's not just an issue for women; it hurts all of us. Women are just on the frontlines of it because we are often primary caregivers, we give birth, and we experience domestic violence and sexual assault and we are taught to second-guess ourselves more.
This has inspired me to create leadership programs and an organizational culture that prioritizes healing from trauma, providing childcare, and support for personal development. It's built into our organizational mission. We believe that having an impact in the world begins with cultivating the best of who we all are, in all of our diversity and humanity. I don't know if it will lead to a world where women can have it all, but at least we might finally understand what it will really take.
Ai-jen Poo is co-director of Caring Across Generations, a national coalition of 200 advocacy organizations that promote quality care and support and a dignified quality of life for all Americans. She is also executive director of the National Domestic Workers Alliance and was named one of Time magazine's Most Influential People in the World.
Roxanne Jones: I wrote my own script for success
I recall the day I decided that I could have it all -- that I could grab the power and success I envisioned for myself and still have a home and family. It was 3:30 on a cold winter's morning when I tip-toed down the stairs, careful not to wake my husband and 7-year-old son. My driver was out front, waiting to take me to the studio.
ESPN brass had hand-picked me to help create and launch its first morning show, "Cold Pizza," now called "First Take." I was working double-duty as a senior news producer and on-air personality on the show. I'd asked for this dual role to experience both sides of television. The TV assignment was in addition to my main responsibilities as a founding editor of ESPN Magazine. For years, it was normal to put in 14-hour days and travel constantly. But I wanted to have it all and I was willing to do the work. I embraced it.
Before going over to launch the show, I'd asked my boss for -- and received -- a raise; a new title: vice president (I was the first black woman to hold that title in the company), and larger responsibilities in the company. Sadly, I found that it was the women at work who criticized my rise to the top most. They called themselves feminists -- a label I deplore -- but always seemed threatened when their "sisters" went off script and found success. I write my own script. The one that says women don't have to feel guilty about their success.
That morning, there was no guilt about leaving my son. I knew I loved him more than anything. No career could ever change that. But I also knew if didn't push myself to my full potential that I would be a poor example, a hypocrite. Today, he's in college and we have a strong, loving relationship and mutual respect for one another.
Turns out all those early mornings were well worth the journey.
Roxanne Jones is a founding editor of ESPN The Magazine and a former vice president at ESPN. She is a national lecturer on sports, entertainment and women's topics and a recipient of the 2010 Woman of the Year award from Women in Sports and Events. She is the co-author of "Say It Loud: An Illustrated History of the Black Athlete," (Random House) and CEO of Push Media Strategies.
Katherine Lanpher: Can you have it all when old gender norms hang on ?
Like Sheryl Sandberg, I breezed into adulthood believing the heavy feminist lifting had been done. The seemingly unmanageable trifecta -- career, marriage, children -- was going to be mine.
This was in the 1980s. I would get married at the end of that decade, but even before then I began to hear rumblings from other women, friends of mine closer to the front line, who relayed back stories of otherwise wonderful men who thought of time with their children as "babysitting,'' of promises to share housework that crumbled into, well, dust, of women who stayed in the workforce only to spend most of their salary on child care.
I would hear the same tinny, acrid notes of anger, sometimes accompanied by the low notes of betrayal: Whoever told us we could have it all had been lying. We hadn't accounted for a culture that wasn't training men for change as well as women, for a corporate culture that needed to go through its own revolution.
A constellation of factors led to my eventual divorce in the '90s, but I remember that it was fueled in part by my desire to not be that angry. If I couldn't have it all, then I was going to make choices. If I was going to be angry, then it was going to be about something else.
Ilyse Hogue: Having choices better than having it all
I don't think anyone can have it all. Who would want it? Having it all sounds like a lot of maintenance. Life is about priorities and choices, not just ones externally imposed on us as women, but ones we are able to define for ourselves. I've led a pretty great life. Born into a loving and supportive middle-class family that prioritized education, I found I was well-equipped to go out into the world and write the story of my own destiny.
I traveled internationally to protect the environment and human rights, worked grueling hours at political jobs for causes I loved, and now lead a national organization fighting to preserve some of those possibilities for other women by making sure they have fundamental control over the decision of if and when to bring a child into the world.
I encountered sexist attitudes along the way, and sometimes I shrank back. But I try to change cultural institutions that encourage and perpetuate sexism. I also made choices. I put off partnership and parenting, and now my partner and I will have to get to parenting soon if we are going to get there at all. To me, it's not about having it all at once, it's about, as a woman, having it all to choose from and then making your choices.
Having women in the workplace makes for better work. Having women in government makes for better governing. But we'll get nowhere close to there unless we also have the structural support for all women to have the choices I had. That means equal pay, childcare, education, and yes, the freedom to decide when and how to have children. I don't want all women to have it all, I just want them to have what I had, which is enough choices to be what they want to be -- whatever that is.
Ilyse Hogue is President, NARAL Pro-Choice America
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The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the authors.