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Redefining Having It All

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What does “having it all” mean to you?

I love this question because it forces you to hone in on what feels important and essential to you as an individual and clarify your core values. Values-clarification is a huge part of what I do in my virtual programs, and my one on one business mentorship, so I was proud to be featured in the Redefining Having It All project, founded by research and strategy leader, Etienne Fang.

Etienne’s goal is to celebrate the beautiful diversity of women’s ambition through storytelling, and to support female empowerment through education. I was thrilled to have the opportunity to chat with her about this inspiring project and ask her about her biggest takeaways.

Let’s get into it!

Q. Tell me about “Redefining ‘Having it All’”

Women are constantly being told by society that they are not enough. Redefining Having It All reclaims the once-galvanizing feminist mantra “you can have it all” by challenging today’s stereotypes and encouraging women to see realities different from their own, freeing them to create the lives they want—aware, guilt-free, and full of gratitude.

Redefining Having It All project

(photo: Cathrina, Monrovia, Liberia)

What started as a photography project with friends has expanded to a website that explores how women from all over the world answer the question “what does it mean to have it all?”. Redefining Having It All is a non-profit organization that celebrates the beautiful diversity of women’s ambition globally through portraiture and storytelling, all in support of female empowerment.

Q. What prompted you to start Redefining Having It All?

Redefining Having It All project

(photo: Nilar, Yangon, Myanmar)

When I was on maternity leave after having our second child, I chose to quit my dream job in order to focus on my family. While many women leave their paid work for a variety of reasons after childbirth, I felt conflicted, like I was taking the easy way.  I had always believed I would be a working mother like my own mother.

Around the time, there was a lot of talk in the media from women at the very top of their fields (think: Sheryl Sandberg and Anne-Marie Slaughter) who were defining the notion of “having it all” as the balance of work ambitions and family priorities. I found this interesting, but not entirely relatable. Too often this discussion of “having it all” made it sound easy, but I knew from my own life — and from the women in my life — that things weren’t so simple. I started to think seriously about the many different decisions and tradeoffs we all make, and the many different ways of thinking and feeling about these huge decisions.

Redefining Having It All project

(photo: Etienne shooting in Monrovia, Liberia. Photo credit: Jenny Maxwell)

It was in a goal setting group with you, Shira, where you pushed me to pursue this project I’d had for several years. Within a month, I’d interviewed forty of my female friends about what “having it all” meant to them. I launched the first installment of my project on my site, My Community, on my birthday, nearly forty years after the phrase “having it all” was coined.

Later, upon reflecting on the early days of this project, I realized that the women in my community come from privileged positions. So much of the rhetoric surrounding “having it all”  is focused on highly-educated, professional women who have the means to make choices about their work and their family. We are fortunate to have the choices that we do, but  the reality is that for many women, the freedom to make these hard decisions is substantially limited.

This realization guided me to the second phase of this project, Around the World. I visited twelve countries in twelve months, interviewing women around the world and asking what “having it all” looked like in cultures and circumstances very different from my own. I wondered what the challenges for women with unequal rights and opportunities were? And what we could learn from their perspectives.

Q. What were you surprised to learn from your interviews? What were the biggest common threads that emerged?

(photo: Fabiola, Rome, Italy)

The past year has been a whirlwind! I conducted over a hundred interviews and shot portraits of women ages eighteen to eighty in Singapore, Myanmar, India, Mexico, Italy, Uruguay, Argentina, Sweden, The Netherlands, England, Liberia, and the United States. What I discovered is that even in such diverse cultures and generations, there exists some universal truths when thinking about what having it all means for women.

Having the freedom to choose one’s own destiny by developing independence is perhaps the most common definition of having it all.  The ability to choose if and when to get married, have kids, pursue a career and passions is universal. And yes, Shira, you’re right—the idea of being happy with what you have and realizing that having more does not always bring joy is important! However, women—particularly younger women—believe vehemently in going after their dreams and creating opportunities for themselves, whether by starting businesses, focusing on their education, or making an impact through social and environmental change.  Lastly, the idea of connection—being with people we love and who love us— is another universal requirement for having it all.

Q. Were there big differences from country to country?

(photo: Mabel, Monrovia, Liberia)

For women from traditional cultures like Myanmar, Liberia, India, and Mexico, the ability to care for their parents and family members through their hard work was a common goal. Many of the women I interviewed had made sacrifices to leave their home countries or hometowns in order to find work in big cities so they could share their hard-earned wealth.  In more individualistic cultures, like Europe and the U.S., women seemed to care more about their own self-fulfillment, and yet were still connected to their communities.

Q. Any other big takeaways, lessons, or wisdom you’d like to share from your research?

(photo: Janca, Amsterdam, The Netherlands)

Don’t forget your younger self’s dreams: Remember your dream of changing the world when you were 18 years old? Those dreams you had before reality and rejection set in? Dig that old journal out and channel your younger self. You just might rediscover your truest self.

Embrace the beautiful diversity of what having it all means — to you. Thinking about what is right for yourself, rather than living up to some perceived status quo, is the first step to defining what “it all” is for each individual.

Getting older is not scary: (That’s a direct quote from Janca in Amsterdam.) The older women I spoke to were utterly inspiring with their calm and piercing wisdom. They often referred to the insecurities they had when they were young, but have since reached a new sense of confidence and resolve. I think we all have a lot to look forward to!

(photo: Violeta, Buenos Aires, Argentina)

Q. How can people learn more about the project?

You can find the site here at www.having-it-all.org, follow on Instagram at @having.it.all, and read my latest article Redefining Having It All: What I learned from women in 12 countries in 12 months 

What does having it all mean to you What does wholeness look like to you? Post a picture of yourself (in front of a white background, if you can!) on Instagram. Tag #redefininghavingitall, @having.it.all and ten women who inspire you to do the same.

Thank you so much, Etienne!

I hope you loved learning about this project, and will be inspired to dig deeper in your own life, and reflect on what Having-It-All means to you.  Xx

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