Having it all vs. leaving it all behind

Well, it’s that time of year: the time when every single headline, advertisement, and news show shouts out the idea of “new year, new you!” with relentless enthusiasm.

They promise that 2015 will be the year you lose those last five pounds, get him to propose, get pregnant, kick-start your career, pay down your debt, find inner peace, and be your BEST YOU EVER.

I happen to like the old me just fine.

I happen to like the old me just fine.

I’m here to argue that you’re already pretty awesome. And that you’re already the best you you can be right now. And that if you do like the idea of the new year as a clean slate when you can kick a bad habit or start a project you’ve always wanted to start, then more power to you.

But my problem with the cultural messages around New Year’s resolutions is that they rarely ask you what YOU actually want to do or improve this year. They assume that the best possible life, for women, means having a high-powered, satisfying career and a fulfilling family life (usually with kids). This vision implies owning a home, disposable income for travel to peaceful or exotic places, and a supporting and adoring husband.

Unfortunately, this version of a ‘new you’ makes some incredibly privileged assumptions about race, class, sexuality, and mental and physical health. It also makes some pretty bold assumptions about what women want.

This is where some women might begin to wonder if mainstream feminism is coming around to bite us in the ass. As blog post after think piece after hard-hitting interview ask “can women ever REALLY have it all?”, nobody’s asking us if we WANT to. And over all of that noise is the implication that if, via feminism, women now CAN have it all, then we, as feminists, are obligated to make it happen.

WILD-500x351Obviously, the backlash was imminent. According to Tracy Moore over at Jezebel, the latest “hot feminist trend” is “leaving it all behind” – but in a very specific way. Moore cites popular memoirs-cum-films Eat Pray Love and Wild as examples of the way women are increasingly being written in roles more commonly seen in male-centered tales (it wasn’t Jackie Kerouac going on the road, or Henrietta Thoreau who went to the woods because she wanted to live deliberately).

But with the increasing popularity of lone female heroines like Katniss Everdeen and Tris Prior, who, for various reasons, have to fight the enemies in their dystopian worlds alone, it’s not really a surprise that real-world narratives of women who go it alone are gaining traction.

rearviewHowever, in an essay at Elle magazine, Elissa Strauss writes that the kind of freedom offered by female on-the-road, into-the-wild narratives “can only go so far”. In her essay, Strauss calls out the idea that we need to leave it all behind in order to truly find ourselves, pointing out that abandoning civilization for a few weeks, months, or years, is an impossibility for many (if not most) women, who have jobs they need to hold on to, kids they love, partners they’re committed to, and lives to which they feel an obligation.

Many women can’t leave it all behind, regardless of how much they might want to, and this is where I agree with Strauss that it can be counterproductive if the only way to transcend the limitations of everyday life is presented as leaving it all behind, whether literally or figuratively.

However, I’m reluctant to criticize the trend too harshly, as I did my own “leaving behind” a few years ago, and found it as liberating and revelatory as the memoirs promised. And I’m proposing that the next “hot feminist trend” should be figuring out your own middle ground between having it all and leaving it all behind.

See, I was kind of, sort of on my way to having it all, in the traditional sense. I had a secure job in a career that I loved, was making good money, and had a fun group of friends.

The idea of having it all is getting more and more demanding. I blame Pinterest.

The idea of having it all is getting more and more demanding. I blame Pinterest.

The next steps, based on my friends’ and colleagues’ lives, seemed to be getting engaged, buying a house, getting married, and getting pregnant (not necessarily in that order). Since three out of four of those were not in the cards for me at the time, I got myself a real estate agent and started looking at houses. I thought about mortgage rates, taxes, and interior decorating.

And then, something snapped. I’m not really sure how it happened, but I suddenly realized that by following what I saw as the rules for a happy and successful life for someone in my position, I was on the verge of tying myself to something that I was pretty sure wasn’t going to make me happy.

So I scrapped it.

While I didn’t pack a backpack and head into the woods, I did pack two (huge) suitcases and move to a different country. I didn’t know a soul, but at least I spoke the language. I was taking a risk by enrolling at a competitive (and expensive) university, but keeping a safety net by taking a leave of absence from my job, which would be waiting for me when I went back.

I didn’t go back.

I may not have it all, but what I have is pretty good.

I may not have it all, but what I have is pretty good.

See, for me, it turns out that having it all is more about freedom and uncertainty than security. At the moment it’s more about friendships than relationships or family. It’s about never being too comfortable and always changing.

And the beauty of that is, my version of having it all could change at any moment. I could find an awesome job or meet a new person and suddenly decide that having it all actually IS about routine, predictability, and job security. I could decide that I’m sick of only seeing my mom twice a year, and move back to the US to be near her. I could decide I do need a year of minimalism and spirituality and go on some kind of journey of self-discovery.

But for now I’m working several part-time jobs, living in a rented room at the top floor of a house occupied by a lovely couple and their teenagers, and spending my time with some wonderful friends.

It’s taken me a long time to be okay with the fact that, by many standards of success, I am failing. But by creating my own standards, and my own version of having it all, I’m living the most feminist life I can, for me, for now.

So what’s your version of having it all? Are you living it? Are there things you feel you need to leave behind in order to do so? I’m really curious!

3 responses to “Having it all vs. leaving it all behind

  1. Thanks for writing this. I left it all behind, and by many standards, failed. But I conquered another lifestyle, a new country, a new language. I became someone I never thought I could be, and I am happier with her than I ever could have been being who others wanted as I was before. I needed this reminder today!


  2. “If I HAD to pick one”. . . it would be to burn down the word “all” in how we [I] imagine women’s choices. My most satisfying life decisions always involve some having, and some leaving.

    I am glad you are enjoying yourself right now and having an adventure–aka, “a life”–along the way! 🙂


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