The Stress of Not Having It All, guest post by Fran Melmed

by franmelmed on December 2, 2010

[One of the special joys of blogging and tweeting about progressive movements in organizations and leadership is the relationships we make as we find kindred souls. These kindred souls are often tucked into niches other than our own, but because their approaches share the our fundamental values and because they are working with a shared purpose, we discover them as allies and friends.

Fran Melmed, who writes the blog free-range [communication], is one of those kindred souls. In one of our econversations about work+life+meaning, striving to be authentic to our full selves, and making a difference in the world, Fran offered to put pen to paper to try and capture that acute set of contradictions. I’m delighted to share it with you all as a guest post from Fran.]

The Stress of Not Having It All

Welcome to my confessional: I’m feeling the stress of not having it all.

What should be amusing about this is that I don’t even believe in the notion of having it all. But let me tell you, I’m not amused. I know that I don’t have it. And I want it.

A little background

201012020719.jpgAbout two years ago, my kids hit their tweens and were no longer the suction cups they once were. At the same time, I began hitting my stride in my chosen line of work: helping companies better engage their employees and their families in healthier living. Should be cause for celebration, right? Wahoo! My kids are growing up; they don’t need me. Away I go, soaring ever higher into the never-never land of wondrous, satisfying work.

Not so fast. Many moons ago, I made the personal decision to contain my career while I had kids in the house. (It’s based on my emotional baggage, to be sure, so don’t take this as my way of saying my choice is the choice.) When I became a mother while working at Hewitt, I worked part-time and then full-time, but flextime. When I left Hewitt, I started my own company to maintain, if not expand, the work-life balance Hewitt so generously supported.

I’m ready. Depression.*

And it’s wonderful. I have all that I want…except. Except for the ambitious, competitive and adventurous career side of me that aspires to growing my independent consulting firm tenfold. To implanting myself on the speaker circuit. Or taking that tantalizing mega-job at a start-up that’s nailing health engagement. Of my own choosing, these exciting paths beckon but are barred. I can’t have it all.

And so I feel like a part of me is untended and underdeveloped. I feel torn and stressed. And sometimes angry. After speaking with several friends, I realized I’m not alone. Our backgrounds and our choices may differ, as does what we’re missing or pining for. But to a person, we all felt the frustration of not having it all.

A false choice


Generally speaking, the notion of having it all is something women have embraced because for too long we couldn’t even have what we wanted, let alone it all. Perhaps, initially, having it all meant having the right to choose, as would have benefited my mother, who was told by her father that he’d financially support only nursing or education studies—studies suitable for a woman destined for marriage. With time, having it all became the Holy Grail, and just as elusive and mystical.

I think it’s time women recognize that we’re never going to have it all. We’re not going to have it all if we do fewer dishes. We’re not going to have it all when men wipe more babies’ bottoms than we do. And we’re not going to have it all when we storm the C-suite, like they stormed the Bastille, and rout the place.

I think it’s time men recognize that they, too, are never going to have it all. Not when a man pushing a baby in a swing at the neighborhood playground gathers no accolades. Not when more companies “man up” and supply paternity leave, either.

None of us—men or women—are going to have it all. Because we can’t. The entire concept is a farce—a snow job.

Is it the terminology or the elusiveness?

Every one of us has to make decisions that deny us elsewhere. Sometimes we’re forced to. Sometimes we choose to. Every one of us longs to have it all. Most of us know that it’s an impossibility. So, why does having it all have such a stranglehold on our consciousness?

Since communication is what I do, I can’t help but examine whether it’s the terminology. Are we stressed by the choice of words: “have it all”? Does our continued use of the phrase lead us to believe it is, in fact, possible and we’re the only ones who haven’t cracked the code? Or is the allure of having it all so strong that it blinds our reasoning?

And because employee health is what I encourage, I have to ask how not having it all plays into our work performance, our feelings of engagement and our health?

I’m left with more questions than answers.


* If you saw The SpongeBob SquarePants Movie, this phrase needs no explanation. If not, watch this.
You might also enjoy this post by Fran: no predictions, no resolutions. only courage.
See also: Work-Life Initiatives Are the Foundation of Authentic Organizations

Images: Blue + green from dichohecho , photo11_7A – Green + Blue from dichohecho, Green and blue from Raoul Pop


Paul Smith December 2, 2010 at 9:41 am

Fran–I’m with you on the language piece of this. People share vernacular that convinces them there is an “all” to be had. Rarely do I hear people say they have “enough.”
I try to think reasonably. However, in the past year, my ambitions are getting in the way of this. Which is an annoyance in itself.

virginia Yonkers December 2, 2010 at 9:54 am

What a great post, and one that echos my own thoughts these days as my son applies to colleges and I work at finishing my dissertation. I don’t think it is the phrase of “having it all” as much as it is an American cultural value that we should WANT to have more and not be content with just what we have.

I have lived in other cultures where they have difficulty understanding this need we have to have more. Interconnected with this is the concept of “hope.” Hopelessness or “settling” is something our culture does not value (and as a result we value less those cultures that seem to value “settling”). It is this eternal optimism that there is more that an individual can do (the thought that we can “have it all”) that many other cultures admire in the American culture. And yet, we just take it for granted, then become disillusioned as we grow older when we realize that 1) we don’t have it all, 2) we may never have it all, and 3) even if we did “have it all” it still wouldn’t satisfy us as we would want more. It’s a cultural oxymoron, I think.

Jocelyn Canfield, ABC December 2, 2010 at 9:57 am

Fran, I hear and understand the struggle. I have never really wanted to have it all…just mastery over what I do have…and even this is elusive. Time famine is the tie that binds most of us in our failure to have it all.

The biggest issue as I see it is that we have too many choices today. There are too many methods of communication, gathering information and staying in touch. (What used to be writing a letter now includes email, facebook, twitter, cell phones, skype, etc) There are too many choices for how we support our children’s growth. (We used to just make sure the homework was done, then send the kids out to play. Then came organized sports, math tutors, marching band, travel teams, SAT prep classes, play dates.) There are too many choices about how to market our business. (What used to be a choice between an ad or a PR release has expanded into email newsletters, public speaking circuits, social media campaigns, etc…and even if we did them all it would never be enough.)

I think having it all demands a confidence in the choices we make and the limits we set in our lives…which by definition means we don’t have it all. Have you ever sat down to define what it is that makes you happy/content/satisfied? What is on your absolute yes list? If those are met, then you do indeed have the “all” that matters most to you.

Erica December 2, 2010 at 10:03 am

Fran, This is well put. I too feel this pull between everything I want to accomplish while being a good Mom. My kids are babies, though, so I think I’m in more of that phase you were in previously. I know I can’t accomplish everything right now, and I don’t really have it together enough to be thinking about that time when the kids don’t depend on me as much. I totally agree about the language. What does it even mean any more, “to have it all”?

franmelmed December 2, 2010 at 10:44 am

paul, i think you just summed up my dilemma. it’s holding the “reasonable” front and center in my head and heart that’s tough.

virginia, i agree. i lived in the UK for a spell, where my “pit-bull aggressiveness” (i’m quoting a friend here!) was quite tempered by experiencing their emphasis on home and relaxation as much as career ambition.

jocelyn, i absolutely have all that matters most to me. and that makes me damn lucky. here i was trying to express the yearning that comes from knowing i leave behind other things to keep these things tight and sacred.

erica, i can relate to where you are. when my kids were babies, this was not even on my mind. keeping all of us reasonably sane and well fed was *more* than enough!


Julie Daley December 2, 2010 at 11:17 am

Great post, Fran. CV invited me over and I’m so glad I had a chance to read your post. I love the way you turn it into a question, and really ask what’s under it!
In some ways, I think ‘having it all’ is just a shell game that keeps us from feeling the emptiness, the lack of control, the feelings of not being good enough, the true longing for something deeper, something our hearts ache for.
Not to get too esoteric or anything, but trying so hard to have something we can’t have is just another way to keep pushing that rock up the hill, even though we know we’ll never get it to stay at the top.

Cali Yost December 2, 2010 at 12:24 pm

Hi Fran!!

I love that you and CV are partnering…perfect! You so eloquently describe the shift we all need to make in our mindset and our language. There is no one right way to fit work into our lives–that proper “career path” hasn’t been reality for decades only now we are beginning to realize it. As your own story illustrates, the work+life fit that worked when your kids were little isn’t what you want or need today. And it will change again. What’s key in your advice is the need to reflect, to consciously make choices and redefine success over and over again. This is a conversation we all need to be having…there is no “all.”

Your fan,

franmelmed December 2, 2010 at 6:17 pm

julie, thank you. i want to make sure i understand what you’re saying — are you saying that we use the concept of “having it all” as a way to distract or berate ourselves?

cali, i originally had something in here about the chapters of our lives. i’m sure that you can relate to the fact that there are days where knowing there are new chapters ahead with a completely different work+life mix is small comfort.


cv harquail December 3, 2010 at 4:50 pm

I was rereading a post about quitting NaNoWriMo, by my tweep Allyson Robinson, when it hit me how connected her insights are with Fran’s. I’ve stolen a paragraph from Allyson, below, and urge you to check out her whole post at

It took me until the next morning, sitting on the couch in the quiet hour before dawn, to get comfortable enough with that idea to actually fold down the screen of my laptop and stop writing. But in those intervening hours I learned some things about myself and the nature of the universe and the miracle of creation and the mystery of love. I learned that perseverance can be a vice and giving up a virtue. I learned that my ability to be present in the moments that make up my life has very real limits. I learned that in order to succeed at one thing, I might have to fail at another. I learned that a thing can be eminently worth doing, and at the same time eminently worth abandoning.

franmelmed December 6, 2010 at 9:29 am

CV, what a perfect line: “I learned that a thing can be eminently worth doing, and at the same time eminently worth abandoning.”

thanks for letting me talk here–with you and your friends.


Melissa December 6, 2010 at 11:19 am

I’d like to say the idea of having to choose isn’t just between kids and career… it can be between any two things. I’m not even married yet, but I expect within the next year to have to choose between two career options… and I’m still not comfortable admitting that choosing one means giving up the other.

franmelmed December 6, 2010 at 11:31 am

melissa, when i wrote this, i was concerned it was going to come across as a “women’s” post. i was really heartened to see how many men shared it on twitter and commented here and on my blog.i agree with you that the difficult act of choosing extends beyond a women’s or parents’ thing. all we need are competing choices or forces — and these can be anything. good luck with your career decision. hope you know that going down one now doesn’t mean you can’t go down the other later. my careers to date include positions in theater management, marketing, (almost) high school, corporate HR and global consulting before landing where i am today. and i’m pretty sure i have more careers ahead of me.


Jason Lauritsen December 7, 2010 at 8:03 am


This is a really great post. I read it once, let it bounce around in my mind, and then came back to read it again. I can feel your struggle through your writing here.

This is a great message and I suspect that every person has a similar struggle. I’m left with a couple of thoughts.

First, I think that part of the issue for most of us is that we are letting others define what “having it all” means for us. Generally, when I get out of whack in terms of where I am in my career, it’s usually because I’m using someone else’s measuring stick on my own progress. I, at least, haven’t always done a great job of defining exactly what “having it all” means for me, on my terms.

Second, “having it all” points to outcomes, to stuff and things–to keeping score. I know that’s not how you specifically intend it, but perhaps that’s part of what is so frustrating for us individually. Perhaps the key really is to focus on the journey, on the process of getting where ever it is that we seem to be headed. Perhaps it’s not bad to desire to have it all so long as having it all doesn’t become the measure of our success. Maybe we can short circuit this issue if we are really present and embrace the journey along the way.

Great post. Thanks for sharing your thoughts.


franmelmed December 7, 2010 at 12:51 pm

jason, you’re spot-on in your observations. i suffer less from your second point than from your first. interestingly, on my blog we were talking about this post, too. and we were talking about the idea of “enough” and what is “enough” for each of us. i commented that i think we evaluate “enough” related to what we might not have gotten enough of earlier in our lifetime, whether that’s recognition or money or what-have-you. it connects with your thought that we’re often driven by things that aren’t internal or important to us, but are connected to other people and experiences. i don’t know that this is right, but i’m still pondering it.

thanks for reading, cogitating and commenting.


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