No, You Can't Have It All—& That's Okay
Young kids! Aging Parents! Ageism! If you thought life would be settled by 40, think again. Here, two media veterans reflect on how to measure success when all your major milestones collide.
We know what you’re thinking — I’m not even 35 yet, why should I be worrying about what’s going to happen when I’m 40, 45….ahem, 50. You’re going to say a pair of forty-something women frustrated with their career trajectories is just normal mid-life angst — nothing new.
But is it? Maura, 47, has been an editor at some of the most well-regarded publications in New York, but these days she’s feeling the existential dread of working at a print publication at a time when she's constantly reminded that print is dying. This also comes as she's trying to jump-start her career or shift gears while struggling to take care of a two-year-old. Alexandra (Lexy), 44, has published five books and established herself as an expert in the environmental health world. She has relocated to the Hudson Valley to raise her two young daughters in nature. She works from home, writing those books as well as helping people and companies translate their sustainability initiatives into “content.” Work is more of a hustle than she bargained for at this age. Environmental issues are her passion, but most people don’t care. She wants more clients but networking in the woods is impossible.
We might be better off than most, but it feels downwardly mobile. We both feel stuck. And seeing as we had definite designs on what our 40s would be like when we were back where you are now, we’re here to tell you that what we’re experiencing is modern; this is not your mom’s mid-life crisis. And knowing this might make you feel better, especially if you’re already tired of the rat race, or are pregnant and wondering what will happen post-maternity leave, or are waking up at night wondering how you got here. Because it’s not just that we and our contemporaries are feeling like we have less options than we used to when we were younger. It’s that despite all the Having-It-All cultural conditioning we’ve endured, we actually do have less options. In fact, the whole career landscape has changed. Technology has disrupted every industry. The cost of living is higher. The economy is shakier. Some of us are earning less than we were five or even ten years ago, in our mid-thirties, and often working even more than we were then. Those of us with (young) kids have no bandwidth at the end of the day to angle for a promotion or find a new job. It’s like being on a slowing treadmill with no way off—and all the more painful if your self worth has been wrapped up in your career.
It’s not just us, but our friends and colleagues too, who we’ve been interviewing in an effort to understand where our lives derailed. We are the girls who grew up being told if we could find a meaningful career and gain financial independence, happiness would follow. Our moms and the second wave feminists paved the way for us to earn college degrees, enjoy thriving careers, and have families—when and if we decided to. Biological clocks were no longer ticking, thanks to egg freezing, IVF, and surrogacy. And we took advantage; according to multiple studies, women get 57 percent of the degrees in America, it doesn’t matter what kind: bachelors, masters, doctorates. Our twenties and even thirties were all about finding the perfect job, climbing the proverbial career ladder. And if and when we found a partner that we wanted to have a child with, we’d be set enough in our careers to start a family. Or not. As Gloria Steinem proclaimed: We have become the men we wanted to marry.
After years of thinking, We got this, we’ll hit all the milestones: career, relationship, maybe motherhood, and by the time we hit our forties we’ll be at the top of our game! We now realize this was an illusion. We’re not living the lives we envisioned. We’re not bringing home the bacon and frying it up in a pan. We are certainly not leaning in (Sheryl Sandberg’s corporate feminism speak rings a little hollow these days). As Michelle Obama put it on her Becoming book tour recently: “That shit doesn’t work all the time.” She also reminded us that you can’t have it all at the same time—that’s a lie, she said. Leave it to an Obama to offer the balm we need as we navigate this moment, stuck in jobs we don’t love and watching our options narrow.
But here’s the thing: when one door narrows or even closes, others open. Trite but true. As we interviewed all these forty-something women, we started to hear similar threads. We discovered that, yes, there is very real panic and desperation out there, but there are equal doses of grace and newfound wisdom. The following voices articulate all we have been feeling in ways we haven’t quite been able to.
M., a Pilates instructor, explains, “I opened up my first business when I was 27. It was doing really well. I worked all the time, was partying, and traveling.” Since life was moving along on the right timeline, M., now 43, had her first son at 32. “It felt very special initially and then I sort of fell apart from there. My husband was working all of the time. When my son turned 2, I was being pulled in many different directions.” At the very moment she could have been cultivating her brand in the exploding wellness world (she’s long had a roster of fashion world clients), she downsized and started teaching from home. “I had more time for my son, but that wasn't super fulfilling even though working from home gave me some flexibility.” She couldn’t grow her business or network and today she feels like she’s playing catchup.
The freedom of a freelance career provides more time for a child, but it can also mean around-the-clock work. Lexy’s first daughter was born when she was 31 and the flexibility was invaluable. Looking back though, she (barely) remembers endless days at the playground, fielding work calls mainly on mute to drown out the sounds of kids shrieking as the other moms sat in judgment. She felt torn to be both with her daughter and ignoring her at the same time—working mom purgatory. The bulk of her work was done between 8 pm and 2 am, the antithesis of work-life balance. But she had interesting projects and the alternatives were even less appealing: either an expensive full-time nanny and not getting to see her kid, or a gap on her resume in her prime professional growth years leading up to 40.
Meanwhile Maura was the apex of her career game— or so she thought. She had a high-profile job at a prominent news website, making more money than ever, managed a big staff, and the optics were great. But she quickly realized she was working for a mercurial leader and she wasn’t doing what she was hired to do. Four miserable months in, she decided she had had enough. “On my 40th birthday, I texted my resignation from a nail salon down the street from the office. It was not a great career move but it was empowering—I couldn’t work somewhere that didn’t align with my beliefs or work for a boss I didn’t think was a good human.”
Maura returned to a job where she could work with people she liked and valued. This proved to be a gift when her father became ill with cancer and she was free to carve out a schedule where she could be at his bedside for the last year of his life. And even as she panics about feeling stuck right now, she reminds herself that life takes unexpected turns in all sorts of ways. She’s learning to feel okay about not having all the answers or solutions right now. This is one of the big gifts of mid-life, that you can’t control everything and maybe you don’t have to.
This realization is a relief for many of us, no matter how we come to it. It doesn’t really matter what life choices you make; you end up at the same place, whether you prioritize career over kids, or kids over career. V., 42, was a total workaholic for her entire career and it paid off. A highly sought after tech guru, her personal life took a back seat. She got married, but then she also got divorced—when she realized she was gay. At forty she had a gut check, literally and figuratively. Her body shut down. She was unable to digest food and ended up at the Mayo Clinic. “For years I conflated my work with my identity, my happiness,” she says. “It came easier to me to be a good worker than a good life person.”
At forty, she was finally able to flip this equation around. She learned about nutrition, immersed herself in Kundalini yoga, meditated, and used her work ethic to try to restore balance to her life. She even left her job. “I have been on this journey: What does it mean to live a more embodied pursuit of happiness not tied to working like a maniac? It’s scary. I’m still undoing so many years of bad patterning, of thinking that sending fifty emails is being productive. No, that’s just me being a zombie.”
For E., a writer and TV producer in Los Angeles, who spent her thirties in the top writers’ rooms in comedy “enduring a lot of dick jokes,” she finally felt empowered to make her own decisions. She said no to reality show projects, bathroom humor, and anything involving trained monkeys. “In my forties, the room became more mine and I got to choose the people who'd occupy it with me,” she says.
Now when she travels for work, E., makes an effort “to take time to see this new place rather than stare at the four walls of a hotel room while on the phone with the office.” She has also learned, as most people at this stage of life do, not to cancel a dentist appointment because of a last minute emergency meeting. “You need to tend to both your physical and mental health. Turn your phone off during dinner. Have a weekend,” she says.
“Having an identity wrapped up in work is overrated,” says a former magazine creative director. “Once you let go of striving, everything flows.”
The little luxuries in life have also captivated S., a former magazine creative director who has moved on to working on fulfilling and fun creative projects in another city. She put everything aside in the process of bringing that magazine to life. “My family fell apart. The lack of balance was untenable.” Eventually the magazine folded and she was able to regain her footing. She’s working now as a designer in a new city. “What’s vastly different than the previous career peak is my commitment to free time.” Ambition isn’t everything it was cracked up to be. “Having an identity wrapped up in work is overrated,” she says. “Once you let go of striving, everything flows.”
Acting on this realization can be terrifying. Lexy, a native New Yorker, had a second daughter and took the leap, moving to the woods shortly before her 40th birthday. She works when her kids are at school and spends most afternoons roaming around the countryside with them. In her thirties, people who spoke earnestly about hiking or forest bathing made her cringe, but it’s undeniable: nature deficit disorder is real. Her work remains a hustle, but she’s able to focus mostly on environmental health, her passion. It’s not a bad compromise—plus there are sunsets, which are remarkably enjoyable even as she frets about healthcare, climate change, and the future.
L., a 45 year-old nutritionist, is also enjoying her children, whom she had young. “Because the clock is ticking or maybe priorities are more in order, I sit with my kids and try to soak as much in as I can. I feel, when we are all together, that I don’t need any more. Is my shit more together or is this because I’m facing a time in a couple of years where my boys are leaving?”
These are the moments when we can see that feeling stuck isn’t failure. Yes, you can’t have it all—or at least not at the same time. But that’s ok. It’s fine. You will thrive in unexpected areas. Your values may shift and you will discover that the things you thought meant success (big salary, thousands of Instagram followers) you will no longer give a shit about. In your forties you will feel something along the lines of grace. And you’ll learn that that’s not the same thing as giving up. That’s balance.
What matters now is giving ourselves the space to do what feels important and impactful. In fact, we’re living our lives with more intention and getting shit done. Since the presidential election, M. has been donating fees from her weekly Pilates classes to women’s groups. We’re knocking on doors canvassing for politicians we believe in, role modeling for our kids and our friends. Many women are taking this desire for change even farther—we’re running for public office in record numbers, working to shift the gender imbalance in politics
And somewhere in all of this, we’re finding ourselves a little. V.’s health is mainly better and now she’s building a start-up focused on finding balance. The irony isn’t lost on her. “Our team is a very different make up of people than I was working with in the tech world. Meetings are all about emotions and sharing stuff I equated with being weak. It’s probably the best thing that ever happened to me. It’s forcing me to slow down.”
We’re saying yes to things big and small. On her last birthday, despite being on deadline, Maura, a self-confessed workaholic, took the afternoon off to take a paper flower class. “I was with 5 other middle-aged ladies cutting and folding and gluing in someone’s basement and it felt like the most creative three hours of my entire year.” S., the TV producer, got married. “Had I married any of the men I dated in my thirties, I'd be divorced by now. I dated all the wrong men in my thirties to find the right man, most importantly, a kind man, now.”
“I spent my twenties and thirties striving,” says L., the nutritionist. Striving to build a business, striving to improve my relationship/marriage, striving to raise kids well. Parts of this were grueling. I am proud to feel somewhat on the other side of struggle.”
We don’t obsess over the small failures as much. We become wiser. We mellow.
There actually is another side, according to sociologists. Though our research has been mainly anecdotal, we ran across actual data supporting what we’ve been experiencing. In his 2018 book The Happiness Curve, the writer Jonathan Rauch explains that adult happiness is U shaped. Women in their mid-forties bottom out because it’s the time we get maxed out with child rearing, demanding careers, and aging parents. (For men it happens a little bit later.) Were slogging through, thinking: Is this all there is? Work, kids, laundry? But then we start to find equilibrium as we edge close to fifty. Rauch explains that as we age, we become more aware that time is finite and so we start investing in things that matter like friendships and family. We don’t obsess over the small failures as much. We become wiser. We mellow. We value compassion over competition. And the best part, our happiness levels increase each decade thereafter. Getting old never sounded better.
As S., the magazine creative director, puts it, “Unscheduled time is the unsung hero. I’ve seen the dark side of having the dream job, and I never want to go back.”