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Want to have it all? Here's how to make the most of the long runway

Executive career coach Liz Bentley explains how women can let go of the mindset that they must have a vibrant social, career and family life all at once or in a certain order.
Liz Bentley is the founder and president of Liz Bentley Associates, a consulting firm specializing in leadership development programs.
Liz Bentley is the founder and president of Liz Bentley Associates, a consulting firm specializing in leadership development programs.Anthony Scutro

The old saying goes “women can’t have it all” – that there’s no way to have a vibrant social life, successful career and a fulfilled family life. I’m here to tell you that you can.

Yes, you can be a mom, wife, CEO, community leader, athlete, homemaker or any form of awesomeness you want. Women can indeed have it all, just not necessarily at the same time. The key is to look at your life in stages.

With advances in technology, health and societal norms, we now have new life options – from having children later in life (through birth or adoption), to becoming a great athlete in your 40s, to making career switches in our 50s, to finding the love of your life in your 60s or 70s. The runway is long and the possibilities are endless. But we must get out of our own way by ditching the mindset that we need to have it all at the same moment or a certain order. Here’s how:

1. Stop feeling guilty.

Guilt is a big mindset issue for women to overcome. It can show up in all places in our life, including with family, work, friends, etc. While women are evolving and rising in the workplace, they are still pressuring themselves to be homemakers and caregivers, or they are homemakers and caregivers and feeling guilty that they're not rising in the workplace. It's a losing battle and not one that men seem to suffer from.

Feeling guilty is not a badge of honor, and it’s a waste of energy and time that pulls you away from solving the problem and drains you emotionally. Instead look to act and fix the problem. Remember you can live life in all stages, so ask yourself... is now a good time to ramp up work or slow it down (for you or your partner)? Do you need more help? Can you delegate better, manage your schedule more effectively, take more time for yourself to recover or try a combination of things? Also, is this just a time in your life that is very intense and busy and you just have to get through it?

Recognize the stage of life you are living in.

While we need to balance work and home, you don’t have to do it all at once.

Let go of your need to feel guilty and use that energy to problem solve and take action to set yourself up for success.

2. Clearly articulate what you need.

I still hear people frustrated and confused by Sheryl Sandberg’s message in her book, “Lean In.” Her overarching point was to help women find the courage to lean into their lives, whatever that might be. That means asking for your needs, whether it be a pay raise at work or support from your spouse with household chores and responsibilities.

One of the many reasons women suffered the most during the pandemic – at work and at home – boils down to inherent inequality in both places. The work environment still largely prioritizes men over women and at home women often do more of the domestic tasks than men. In some cases women got stuck on both ends.

Clearly the pandemic and being stuck at home with young children while working was brutal for most families. But why is it that the men did not suffer in their careers to the same degree that women did? Is it that men didn’t care as much about the needs of the children and family and focused more on their work than women did? Were the women more willing to make that personal sacrifice for their children over their work? There is no right answer in this, choosing family over work is not a bad decision nor is the reverse when needed. But what is important is fairness, equality and having your needs met in all places in your life.

Deferring to others at your own expense hurts you in the long run. When you need to, don’t hesitate to ask for help, delegate or spend extra money (if you have it) to ensure you aren’t carrying an unfair load. Push back on people who lean on you too much or ask too many favors.

Even when it's a small task, it all adds up in time and energy. And you are training people, be it a husband or co-worker, to count on you to do things they can do themselves. Let people grow, improve and even fail if needed; don’t feel the need to save them or control unnecessary outcomes. If your partner is not good at laundry, don’t worry, he or she can get better with practice.

3. Own your sacrifice.

Women often feel they end up sacrificing their needs to support the needs of others. While this may be true especially during motherhood, it doesn’t have to be a burden; it can be a joy. And those sacrifices are usually in our own best interest in addition to the best interest of others.

For example, you may decide to forgo your career while your children are young so you can stay home and support your family’s needs. This can be a great decision for your entire family unit including yourself. Your spouse will benefit from having the support of you at home to navigate all the ups, downs and changes in the household. Your children will benefit from your full attention and support, and you will benefit from being able to lean in and enjoy your time with your children without having to balance a career as well.

Then, when your children get older, you can go back to a career and live a different phase. This can also be played out in the reverse as your spouse can stay home and carry out the same role while you work. The key is to recognize that it’s not a sacrifice, it’s a moment in time that you are choosing to walk a certain road knowing that at another phase of your life you could make a change. And know that if anything in life feels like too much of a sacrifice then get clear on why you are really doing it and make a change if need be.

But to do this successfully you shouldn’t take off too long. You can take off five to 10 years, for example ages 35 to 42, and get back into work without too much disruption. It won’t be easy but it's very doable with focus and hard work. You could even just slow down during that phase and work part time. If you take off 20 years, this will be a lot harder to do and you will be very out of date with your skills by the time you return. But life is long and you can still get back in the game.

4. Manage your ego and build real confidence.

Ego is not just a male thing or related to people who appear strong. We all have egos that sabotage us in passive or aggressive ways. Some people overtly try to dominate others or win when they feel vulnerable. Others get quiet, judgmental, and resentful and may try to sabotage others or situations through gossip or acting like victims.

The key is to understand where your ego gets in the way of your success by having the confidence to take risks, make decisions and hear feedback about where you need to grow and improve. If someone gives you feedback at work or home on how you can grow and see a situation differently, don’t let your ego shut it down. For example, if your boss tells you your work is not fast enough, stop saying that they don’t understand how long it takes to do that work or sit in the excuses for why it takes so long. And don’t blame the boss for the feedback. They just need you to get the work done and done faster, so figure it out. This is the same when your husband pushes back on doing half of the household chores; have the confidence to explain why you can’t give so much more time to running the house than he does.

Our ego can give us confidence to tackle the hard stuff but when it works against us, we blame others and make excuses that get us stuck. So, look at where your old habits and thinking negatively impact the possibilities of a new life and the opportunities that are available to you.

5. Own your power.

It’s important to be clear on what stage of life you are in and what skills and talents you need to leverage at that moment.

For example, when you are in your 20s, you may need your high energy to work late nights and build your career. You may be more willing to network at night, go to all the events, run all the corporate races, and meet as many people in your industry as possible, while still getting up early for work each day.

In your 30s, you may be multi-tasking to raise young children, so you may want to do less of the evening activities and focus more on just work productivity and working from home when needed. In your 40s, multitasking has a different layer with kids in activities and events all around you. It's a time you don’t want to miss in their lives and you will likely want to give a lot more energy to the home front.

In your 50s, many often start to get time back for themselves and are ready to re-engage in various aspects of the business world, but now with more select business groups and people. You will focus more on the big picture and strategic thinking and have more time to focus on yourself and how you want to grow. And in your 60s and beyond comes the wisdom to know the difference.

Obviously, all skills work at all ages and are unique to you. The point is for you to own your power and use it. Life is long. There is plenty of time to get all that you want in the different stages of living. Have courage, take responsibility, and enjoy the ride.

Liz Bentley is the founder and president of Liz Bentley Associates, a consulting firm specializing in leadership development programs. She is a nationally recognized keynote speaker and executive coach to top leaders and teams across a broad range of industries.