Recently, Esquire Magazine’s article “Why Men Can’t Have It All” (by Richard Dorment, in the June/July issue) caught my eye, because I’ve been feeling like I’m not having it all, and wanting more. But as a stay-at-home dad I’m coming at the argument from a different point-of-view than many men, because by “it” I mean money and work time, not more opportunities for father-son bonding.
But this got me wondering: Have I ever felt like I had it all?
I’ve made what many would consider irresponsible choices in my adult life. Just out of college — where I eschewed science, math, or computers to study literature and film — I landed a great job at Hearst Magazines, but left corporate life because I didn’t like the chilliness of the culture. Instead, I taught under-privileged New York City kids, which I thought would warm my heart and leave me emotionally fulfilled. It did, but I also became resentful: being a great teacher takes your all, and I had personal, creative pursuits eating at me. So I left teaching to get an MFA in Creative Writing, and, when my son’s birth corresponded to my graduation, slipped into the role of stay-at-home parent since I had no job to go to, and was the one home all the time anyway.
In each instance, I felt something lacking from my situation the “all” in “having it all” — and made a decision to change my life. What I never did was consider the long scope of a career, or that one might have to toil, either in corporate life or at an educational institution, through years of just so-so work in order to get to work that one really enjoys. Or, that there is no such thing as work that you really enjoy, that it’s all work. And there’s always an aspect of work that is boring, and monotonous, and that you’d really rather not do.
No, I followed my heart, and I’ve always been happy about that. I just haven’t made much money. In fact, I made the most money of my life at age twenty-three, and my income’s been downhill from there. For my first two and a half years as a stay-at-home dad, I made zero bucks.
This is lucky, believe me, I know. My wife has graciously supported my barely-employed butt while I pursued these dreams, and has been happy to have me chip in around the house, but not to our bank account. (Except for draining it, which I’m all too good at.) I’ll be forever grateful to her for that freedom.
All the while, my wife followed a more practical path: she selected a place where she wanted to work, and then chose jobs that eventually lead her to that place. Now, she’s generally happy at her job, and happy to have me at home with our son. Still, like most working parents, she’s perpetually tired and a bit stressed, and wishes she had more time for hobbies and exercise.
So it doesn’t strike me at all gendered, these discussions of people “wanting it all.” The struggle to create the perfect life, where all aspects of a person’s personality feels well-fed and content, is one that every American is engaged in, and probably has been the case for a while, what with our parents chasing “The American Dream” of home-ownership. (A dream that I, a consummate New Yorker, have basically rejected. This is a city of renters.)
When I read “Can Men Worry About ‘Having It All’ Too?” on New York Magazine’s The Cut, a thoughtful response to Richard Dorment’s Esquire article, one passage jumped out at me in particular:
When men “mentor” other men, I can tell you it’s mostly about making money, feeling or looking awesome, or getting away with something scandalous. There aren’t exactly Lean In groups for late-twenties dudes with solid careers who want to figure out how adoption or child care works over a few beers. Let alone whether paternity leave feels emasculating or unfulfilling [sic]. Or how to deal with aging parents. Or who does the hypothetical laundry if your partner makes more money. Men simply aren’t talking about these things in any regard — even those who already have children.
Actually, these are exactly the conversations I have with my buddies, especially the ones who already have children. And these kinds of conversations have always been the ones I’ve had, though I’m friends with many writers, artists, and educators — creatives, not corporates — and maybe these are the kind of people who don’t worry so much about making money and looking awesome, but are more interested in emotional payoffs. Or perhaps this is a result of class. I grew up working class, but attended a prestigious college and so know many people who worry about money, but aren’t exactly clinging to solvency. Could be that this is just a spoiled guy’s take on things, I don’t know.
What I do know is that while men and women have different biologies that might lead them, in general, to desire certain things, I don’t see a strong correlation in my life between gender and behavior. I know women who are career go-getters, and men like myself who are not. I know women who keep slobby apartments, and men — single, straight men — who have meticulously clean ones. (I can’t believe we’re still talking about cleanliness standards and gender, post-Seinfeld.)
Some men want kids, some women want careers, we all want money, and we all seek some kind of balance between our work and family life, our public and private personas. But like walking across a tight-rope, balance comes with tension. Whether a man or a woman, it’s hard to stay steady for very long, hard feeling like everything is just right in life. That’s the case for even single folk, and kids only complicate a person’s ability to be an independent operator.
No, men can’t have it all. And women can’t either. I wish that would be seen for the gender-neutral, human situation that it is.