How I (Don’t) Do It All

I was at a networking event the other day when a professional woman leaned in close to me after she found out I had three children in addition to my full-time job.

“How,” she asked, “do you do it all?”

I tipped my head back and laughed. “I don’t.”

It’s funny – as she asked me the question, I was wondering how she did it all. She was a Black parent with a strong career, an active church life, and multiple engagements outside of work. She also volunteered, was on several nonprofit boards, and read to her young child every night. I wanted to know her secret.

There is no secret to having it all. There is no meal planning system, no organizational method, no color-coded calendar, no green juice, no interlocking storage container mechanism, no mommy-and-me class that will magically make you feel like you have it all together.

We looked to each other the way mothers who work outside the home often do. We wonder whether there is some great secret to balancing it all that we haven’t yet discovered in all the self-help and leadership books, career podcasts, and parenting blogs.

After having this conversation over many years with many women, what I have learned is this: There is no secret to having it all. There is no meal planning system, no organizational method, no color-coded calendar, no green juice, no interlocking storage container mechanism, no mommy-and-me class that will magically make you feel like you have it all together.

Somehow, in this make-it-or-break-it culture, women are also supposed to give 100% at work and 100% at home, check our kids’ homework, and stay aligned with conventional beauty standards.

In the face of these impossible-to-reach standards, I’ve become more dedicated to Not Doing It All.

That’s because the fact that you feel tired and guilty and stressed isn’t due to some shortcoming on your part. It’s due to a convergence of many factors. People who have been socialized as female have been given an impossible task. We live in a culture where two weeks of paid time off is seen as generous and not taking vacation can be a badge of honor; where real wages haven’t risen in the last 30 to 40 years unless you’re in the top 10% of wage earners (if you’re a person of color or a woman, you are less likely to be in this income bracket); and where multi-generational households—and the communal support they bring—are uncommon to most Americans. Somehow, in this make-it-or-break-it culture, women are also supposed to give 100% at work and 100% at home, check our kids’ homework, and stay aligned with conventional beauty standards.

In the face of these impossible-to-reach standards, I’ve become more dedicated to Not Doing It All.

Despite what its name might suggest, Not Doing It All is hard. I feel the external pressure that encourages women to DO all the things we have been socialized to do (cook, clean, decorate, child-rear) and to do them well. I’ve internalized messages that say women aren’t good mothers if our kids have a jelly stain on their shirt, that we’re bad spouses if our houses are messy, or that we’ll never advance in our careers if we don’t put in a ton of extra hours at work.

It’s easy to dismiss these fears as the neurotic musings of uptight women, but the truth is, these messages weren’t formed in a vacuum. They were reinforced in those paper towel commercials many of us grew up with that featured women smilingly wiping up their kids’ spills. They are reinforced when Black women in particular and women in general get passed over for promotions and leadership opportunities. And they are reinforced when we shower women with praise for their well-dressed children, clean houses, immaculate clothes, manicured nails, and enviable careers.

So we stay busy. We lean in over dinner and ask other mothers for their secrets. We work long days and sleep short nights. We stay quiet about the people we hire to clean and babysit and tutor, ashamed that we couldn’t do it all ourselves or embarrassed that we can only keep up the façade of perfection because we have the money to do so.

In all this Doing, Not Doing It All can come as a great a relief. Not Doing It All has been my saving grace this year. My husband and I put our children in charge of their own school lunch-making, their own laundry, and their own bathrooms. Since then, I’ve been Not Doing my children’s laundry, Not Doing the cleaning of their bathrooms, and Not Doing the making of their lunches.

Not Doing It All is easier when you have certain privileges.

Not Doing It All requires a willingness to let go of perfection and the societal messages that tell us what a “good” woman, mother, and wife does. For me, it required getting more comfortable letting my kids wear wrinkled clothes sometimes (okay, all the time – I hate ironing), skipping school field trips, and bringing store-bought food to potlucks. I’m not saying that it’s easy. Even as I write this, I fear the tsk-tsking noise some readers may have at my kids’ wearing their wrinkled clothes as they eat cold pie from the grocery store.

Not Doing It All is also easier when you have certain privileges.

Not Doing It All necessitates a level of carefree-ness that I cannot always access. For example, I feel greater pressure to Do more when I am one of few Black people in a majority-white space – I feel I have to “represent” my race well by being superlative at what I do.

But privileges I do have include time, money, and community support. I can take breaks during the day because I have a job that allows me to do so. I’m not cleaning quite as much because we hired someone to clean our house once a month. I’m not cooking every day because my mother – we live in a multi-generational house – cooks a couple of times a week. I’m not washing the dishes all the time because my husband does that. I am usually late to Sunday school and forget key details about my kids’ school events, but I am fortunate to have a church and friend group that is supportive, nonjudgmental, and uninterested in forcing people into prescribed gender roles. These privileges allow me to save my energy for parenting, writing, and working; but never am I ever Doing It All.

Not Doing It All seems a fitting way to the end the year.

Over the next two weeks, I’ll be Not Doing any blog posts so I can have some creative respite. I’ll be Not Doing my day job for a few days so I can hang out with my family. And when the New Year comes, even when I go back to work and the kids go back to school, I’m going to do my best to Not Do as many things as possible.

In the meantime, Happy Holidays, my friends. Here’s to (not) doing it all.

2 thoughts on “How I (Don’t) Do It All

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