The Impossibility Of Having It All (And The Toll It Takes On Our Health When We Try)

by Rebecca Giantonio Moran
SanyaSM / iStock

One of the best pieces of mom advice I received came from a colleague shortly after I returned from maternity leave, following the birth of my twins.

“Something will always be sacrificed,” she said. “You can’t give 100% to family, friends, work, or anything else. You have to find a way to be okay with giving, say, 75% to each.”

In other words, there is a reason we mamas shouldn’t strive to have it all: It’s impossible. You can try with all your might, but something will give. Something will be neglected. Something will start screaming for attention. In my case, it was my health.

Because people have different views on what “having it all” means (just one of many reasons it’s impossible to achieve), I’ll clarify. My vision reflected the traditional standards against which many women have measured themselves, and perhaps others, for decades. It means always looking pulled-together. Having a stylish, immaculate home and beautiful, well-behaved children. All while kicking butt in an upward-trending career.

After my twins were born, I tried to resume my pre-babies, perfectionist life. Everyone advised me to sleep while they do, but regardless of my level of exhaustion, I’ve always struggled to nap. Unless it’s bedtime, my brain revs up and runs a highlight reel of to-dos, worries, and future plans. So while the babies slept, I washed bottles, juggled loads of laundry, cleaned countertops — whatever needed to get done. And once they were awake, changed, and fed, I’d take them for miles-long walks that gave them a dose of fresh air and helped me shed lingering baby weight. Win-win.

Except it wasn’t.

Two months in, I crashed. I was preparing bottles for the babies, and a wave of nausea, dizziness, and flat-out panic swept over me. The room spun, and my legs weakened. And so began the new norm for me — random bouts of anxiety coupled with physical symptoms that had me convinced something was wrong with my heart or brain, or both.

For almost my entire life, I’ve suffered from generalized anxiety disorder and panic attacks. With therapy, periods of medication and self-education, I had been free of anxiety attacks and symptoms for a few years. Some of the symptoms I experienced after having the babies were the same I’d experienced in the past — only more intense — and others were new.

The symptoms gave me pause, but they didn’t stop me. I returned to work and pushed myself ruthlessly. I was up at 5 a.m., in the office by 7:30 a.m., pumping three times throughout the workday, working through lunch and eating at my desk, then leaving at 4:30 p.m. to pick up the kids and switch into mommy mode for the next four or so hours, before collapsing into bed.

After almost fainting in a few meetings and — more frighteningly — while caring for my babies, I realized I needed to see a doctor and make some changes.

Eight months, five doctors, two MRIs, one CT scan, 30 days of heart monitor-wearing, and countless other tests later, I am relieved and thankful to know that I am physically healthy.

Now my energy is focused on keeping it that way.

I’m seeing a therapist, forcing myself to take lunch breaks, and squeezing in a yoga class here and there. I’ve begun writing again, which makes me feel like a sliver of my old self. I’m praying more than ever. Most importantly, I’m giving myself a break.

I’ve begun focusing on the little victories at home and work. I’m taking time to pat myself on the back after I handle scary parenting situations. I force myself to find humor in days full of cranky, sleepless babies. I’m nurturing a newfound appreciation for the messiness, the ups and downs, that make life so rich and beautiful.

Through all of this, I’ve realized I actually don’t want it all. I don’t want perfectly behaved children. Of course I want children who are respectful, but also who will stand up for themselves. Who will speak up when they feel something is wrong. Who have bold, I-know-what-I-want personalities and who are relentlessly curious. And while Pinterest-worthy homes are lovely, they require a lot of upkeep and investment. I’d rather use that time and money to make incredible memories, to have enough.

My anxiety lingers, but I’m confident it will continue to fade.

These days, when someone comments on what a “super mom” or how “together” I am, I consider myself warned. I step back and take a moment to ensure I’m not pushing myself too hard.

I hope that we moms will someday get to a point where having it all isn’t something that so many strive for. And if we see someone who appears to have it all, we dig a little deeper. We make sure she’s truly okay, that she isn’t exhausting herself, or driving herself too hard to achieve an impossible ideal. We help her see she already has all that she needs.