Can mums really have it all? No, and here are 5 relatable reasons why not from a parent psychotherapist (and it's not because you're 'failing')

 Woman sat with three kids drawing.
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Mums can have it all - at least, this was what we were sold weren't we? That we could have it all. We could build the career, earn the money, get the house, have the family - the lot. It was ours for the taking, right?

Wrong. Nowadays, ‘having it all’ is an unattainable, cultural fantasy, free from the messiness of matrescence that looks something like this: You’re working as if you don’t have children (hello mum guilt) and parenting as if you don’t have any other responsibilities, all while maintaining a clean, well-stocked home, happy friendships, an empty inbox (because you’ve replied and filed), healthy sex life, and a fully ticked-off to-do list. Oh, and you do it all with a never-fading smile floating around in a pink haze of perpetual gratitude. As a Psychotherapist to parents, and a mother to three, I have been at the mercy of trying to live up to my own motherhood fantasy, and it wasn’t pretty.

In this article I will share five reasons why you cannot ‘have it all’, and why accepting that the fantasy is just that, a fantasy, is the key to finding more contentment and enjoyment in your reality - regardless of how many emails are in your inbox, meltdowns your kids have, or how many mouldy cucumbers are in your fridge.

Here's why mums can never really have it all

  1. The bar for ‘having it all’ is constantly changing

  2. Because ‘having it all’ isn’t all it’s cracked up to be

  3. Because 'having it all' doesn’t exist

  4. You’ll never feel satisfied if ‘having it all’ is your aim

  5. You have limited capacity

Here are my five reasons you will never ‘have it all’, and how to find more ease and enjoyment as you face that truth and your reality:

1. The bar for ‘having it all’ is constantly changing
Where you place the bar for what you expect of yourself is so important. Do you expect yourself to always respond calmly at work and at home? Do you assume that you should feel happy and grateful all the time, even when faced with challenges and change? The more unrealistic the goals we set for how we feel and how our lives look, the more guilt and self-criticism we feel when we inevitably fail to meet them.

What can I do? Consider how you might add some humanness into the goals and expectations you have about how you juggle life. Pledge to offer yourself some forgiveness and grace when it all goes wrong, as it sometimes does for all of us. You are not failing in the messy moments; you are likely having a human response to stress and high expectations!

2. Because ‘having it all’ isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.
I can tell you, as a therapist who has had the privilege of working with so many parents over the years, including people who, in the eyes of the public ‘have it all’…that it’s not all it’s cracked up to be. Everything has a cost. When one part of someone’s life is outwardly thriving, then another part is vying for more attention and time behind the scenes.

What can I do? Imagine having three cups in front of you. One is labelled ‘social life’, the other ‘parenting’, the other ‘work’ (you may add more!). You have limited water to pour between them. This water is your resource, your energy, time and your headspace. Sure, you can pour the water evenly between the glasses so each one gets a 1/3 of you, but what happens when that project intensifies at work and it needs more? Where do you tip it from? Is it your social life or your parenting that pays the cost? And what about when one of the kids is off school with a bug and you have to tip some of the liquid from your work cup into that one in order to give your child the attention they need?

3. Having it all doesn’t exist
Oh those moments we feel like everything is as it should be, and we feel that perhaps there really is an ‘all’ to have. Well, as we know, they don’t last long something challenges the perfectly balanced schedule, a sick day or an unexpected project lands on our desk, and our carefully constructed day teeters and falls like a house of cards. So often we look at the pieces at our feet and wonder how we got it so wrong when it seemed to be going so right. In truth, ‘having it all’ by the world’s standards is never going to be sustainable despite how wonderful those moments are.

What can I do? Whilst the perfect balance we seek may not exist, it doesn’t mean it’s not worth trying to find it. Let me explain. In seeking balance, whilst at the same time recognising we’re never going to live in that sweet spot for long, we end up implementing boundaries (think boundaries around your phone use to ensure you’re not multi-tasking yourself into exhaustion by juggling kid’s tea and an email from your boss), seeking support where we need it and addressing our expectations. It’s in aiming for balance that we end up finding ways to support ourselves in the juggle.

4. You’ll never feel satisfied if ‘having it all’ is your aim
If ‘having it all’ is your aim, you’ll always fall short in some way or another. Having unachievable standards means you’re less likely to revel in that moment of joy that comes in the simple, mundane moments.

What can I do? Stop playing the ‘when-then’ game. ‘When my second child is in nursery, then I’ll be able to work more efficiently’, or ‘when we’ve finally moved house, then I’ll truly enjoy the good things in my life’.

The danger with the ‘when-then’ game is that there is always another goal to reach for. We end up overlooking the good things that exist in the season we’re in, even if it feels like a transitional one. Slow down, look at your child’s little hands and eyelashes, let them ground you in today, the only day that truly exists. There is so much goodness in today that we don’t see when we’re straining towards the next thing or milestone.

5. You have limited capacity
Despite the demands placed upon you, it’s vital for good mental health to recognise that you do not have endless amounts of time, energy and headspace. If you keep spending your time and energy striving to ‘have it all’, then you’ll find yourself in debt, feeling frazzled and burnt out. Coming to the end of your capacity and failing to hold all the balls in the air is a simple science – you cannot give what you do not have.

What can I do? It can help to think of each unit of your energy and time in terms of money. Every time you spend something of yourself, your bank balance goes down. You restock your account by resting, meeting your needs, and seeking and accepting support.

What does ‘having it all’ mean for you?

For me, at times, ‘having it all’ has meant having such good boundaries between work and home life that I don’t feel either one bleeding into the other. That sweet feeling lasts for moments maybe, before everything gets the worst version of me and I’m not doing anything well. At other times ‘having it all’ has meant that I look at my kids, I recognise how safe I feel within my own home, and I am filled with immense gratitude at the utter privilege of these things. There have been times I’ve faced loss or trauma, and ‘having it all’ has simply meant being with those I love. In those moments everything else pales into total meaningless significance.

As for the rest of the time, I swing between the two. As I scroll social media, I find myself wanting, needing and feeling lacking as if everything around me has lost its shine, and I question whether I’m good enough at anything. Our culture pulls us towards ‘more, better, faster’ like the mermaid luring sailors to the rocks. And then I practice gratitude, and suddenly, what I have feels like more than enough. Again.

I’d like you to take a moment to think of what ‘having it all’ means to you. What does it look like, what does it feel like? Just as with the clients I work with, ‘having it all’ is a dance between wanting more and realising that when the proverbial hits the fan, or we find ourselves faced with difficult times, we already had far more than we could have ever hoped for to begin with.

The main takeaway

It’s a constant juggle and as we allocate time and energy to one thing, we remove it from another. Thus all the more reason to amend our standards, to cut corners where needed and to adjust the bar of our expectation to make space for curveballs and messy humanness.

In the film ‘Don’t Look Up’, as the world literally ended around a group of friends as they staunchly sat and ate their final meal. The character Mindy spoke the final words “We really did have everything didn’t we? I mean, when you think about it”.

These words often ring in my ears. I don’t know about you, but I don’t want to wait for the end of my life, or for the end of this parenting season, year or decade to find me reflecting back and wishing I’d found ways to find the beauty within the chaos that was no longer. I don’t want to wait for a heart-stopping phone call or curve ball of sad news to wish I’d breathed in my kids that little bit more, or wish I’d found ways to place boundaries to allow me to be more present whilst I could. I want that now. And I know you do too.

So, go ahead, and seek to ‘have it all’. But make that ‘all' look the way you need, make it all the opportunities to slow down, all the prompts to feel a swell of gratitude and presence, all the precious memories there for the making and the hugs available for the taking. I want to gulp down all the marvellous messy mess of it.

To dive more deeply into this topic, pre-order my new book The Uncomfortable Truth (£13.45, Amazon). It’s all about how coming to terms with the truth that we can’t ‘have it all’, and things will always feel a bit uneven and messy, is the way to welcome more ease and contentment into our lives, in parenting and beyond.

If you liked this then check out Anna's other great, and insightful articles. The most recent on mum rage will make you feel seen, and the 5 most common grandparenting fails will make you realise it's not just you. Plus, her heartaching piece on regretting motherhood shares five brilliant ways to respond to that feeling.