Redefining Having it All: What I learned from women in 12 countries in 12 months

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Portraits by Etienne Fang

(Read the full interviews from Redefining Having It All on the site and follow the project on Instagram)

Just before the pandemic hit, I wrapped up a whirlwind year. I traveled to twelve countries in twelve months, interviewing and photographing over a hundred women in Singapore, Myanmar, India, Mexico, Italy, Uruguay, Argentina, Sweden, The Netherlands, England, Liberia, and the United States.

Why? A few years ago, I began a personal inquiry into what “having it all” meant to women, starting first with interviewing forty women in my own life. After having my second child eight years ago, I made the bittersweet decision to leave my dream job in order to focus on my family for a year. Still, I felt conflicted. On one hand, I wanted to be with my children, but on the other, I loved my work. It was confusing, and I wanted to explore why. Having been a researcher for nearly two decades at large corporations, it made sense that I wanted to learn about a subject that is deeply personal to me — the choices and trade-offs that I, and all women, make regarding our work, life, and love.

I learned a few important lessons from the first installment of this project, not least of which was the realization that despite being ethnically diverse, the women in my life are all pretty similar to myself, and therefore, have a similar view of what the feminist trope “having it all” meant — a balance of work and family. One of the flaws with this version of having it all is that it focuses on professional women of a certain age, which leaves out vast numbers of women. The reality is there are women from all walks of life — not just professional women — who have hopes and dreams that are overlooked and undervalued.

I knew there was more that I wasn’t seeing, so in 2019 I set out to travel the globe, meeting women from a variety of cultures, circumstances, and conditions. Armed with a camera, a backdrop, and sometimes a local friend, I stole away for a few hours on every vacation and business trip for twelve months to interview women I met on the street.

What we can learn from real women today

In a world that suffers from celebrity worship, I decided to celebrate real women. Not the most successful. Not the most fashionable. Not the most tragic.

As a researcher who specializes in ethnography, I became obsessed with capturing women’s unadulterated thoughts. I tried to capture the hyperreal by getting down to these women’s essence. From a photographic perspective, I tried to allow the portrait to reflect who I knew the woman to be (at least from the few minutes I spent with her) — wrinkles, blemishes, hairs out of place, and all. There’s real beauty in reality. And this kind of hyperreality helps us see the everyday in a new way.

As a woman and a mom, I was tired of advice. Women don’t need one more standard to live up to, so this exploration was not about self-improvement. Instead, it was about bringing perspective to women’s desire for wholeness. It was about getting beyond the stereotypes and oversimplification women often encounter when thinking about having it all.

My observations highlight some universal truths about what women all over the world want and need. What I learned from talking to women in twelve countries within twelve months of traveling around the globe is that it is time to reclaim “having it all” so that it reflects the beautiful diversity that exists today.

Having it all means being independent.

In order to make decisions, women want to be able to support themselves and be financially independent. They want to make their own decisions about what they spend their days doing, where they live, and whether or not to marry or have kids. They recognize that with the support of their community and their own hard work, they can get a good education and find work opportunities to achieve independence. The ability to earn a living is power. And for so many women, having this power is having it all.

Narmin, an Iranian student studying abroad for her master’s degree in economics in Rome, Italy, talked about the unequal opportunities girls and women have in contrast to their male counterparts. When asked about having it all, she said, “The ‘all’ for women is freedom. I think every woman should have the right to be free. In my country, many girls are not allowed to study because their parents feel that studying is not for girls. They prefer to have their daughters married at an early age — that is not freedom.”

“The ‘all’ for women is freedom. Freedom for me is to do whatever I want and go wherever I want — to travel, to study. To be an educated woman to be able to stand for her rights, to be able to have a good job.”

Narmin, Rome, Italy

Jumah, a hairstylist in Monrovia, Liberia, said, “I wanted to leave all this struggle and live on my own, no matter how hard it was. That’s why having it all is having the materials to become a professional beautician,” a dream she achieved on her own, despite many odds.

“I wanted to leave all this struggle and live on my own, no matter how hard it is. So, I fought on my own to have the passion to become a beautician so that I could graduate from high school and be able to live on my own.”

Jumah, Monrovia, Liberia

However, for women, having power through financial independence goes beyond being able to support themselves. They dream of supporting their own families — their parents, children, and extended relatives. Some women have made great sacrifices — leaving their hometowns and countries for bigger, more prosperous cities — to follow their dreams and be able to give back to their own families. For these women, bringing back something better than what they started with is the utmost form of wholeness and part of the definition of having it all.

“I want to go back home and spend time with my son and my grandchildren…Maybe I would set up a small grocery store or whatever so that I can get some income.”

Nancy, Singapore

In Singapore’s high-end shopping district, I met a mother and daughter pair who were out on a Sunday. Nancy, the mother (who looked more like a sister), said, “I left my daughter back in the Philippines when she was only seven years old while I worked here for 17 years as a domestic helper.” For her, having it all was having the financial ability to return home one day and be with her family.

Her grown daughter, Mary Joy, who had recently moved to Singapore also to become a domestic, was following in her mother’s footsteps. But in contrast to Nancy, she was committed to only working a short stint to earn enough money to start a business and have her children back home, thus breaking the cycle that her mother endured.

Having it all means pursuing passions.

Women also expressed a deep desire to do the things they loved, including loving their careers. We often call this professional ambition, but I see it as passion. The lawyers, professors, and students I interviewed talked about their passion in the same way that artists, writers, and dancers described their love for their art.

Su Yee, a single mother with a young daughter in Yangon, Myanmar, was passionate about being a lawyer. “I love being a lawyer because it requires me to learn all the time — about related subjects and my country,” she said. Having a rare profession for women in her country, she also believed she was providing an important example for her daughter: “I want to stand up as a role model of what a mother can be for my daughter.” She wanted to show her child that she was helping people who needed help, and she staunchly believed that her passion for her career demonstrated her independence.

“I love being a lawyer because it requires me to learn all the time…I want to stand up as a role model of what a mother can be for my daughter.”

Su Yee, Yangon, Myanmar

Violeta, a Mexican writer in Buenos Aires, Argentina, talked about how she would love to travel the world and not have to worry about money. “What I enjoy most about my writing is the possibility of connecting and communicating with people who are very far away,” she said, “ — transcending time, distance, and languages.”

“Having it all would be traveling around the world writing and not worrying about having to make money…What I enjoy most about my writing is the possibility of connecting and communicating with people who are very far away — transcending time, distance, and languages.”

Violeta, Buenos Aires, Argentina

The attraction to one’s passion and the subsequent pursuit of this passion is so powerful it can feel selfish, overly indulgent, and irrational. Still, it is a huge part of a woman’s identity, and whether or not a woman makes money from her passion doesn’t affect her desire for it. Women recognize that the ability to create, to get lost in, to express themselves, and perhaps touch someone profoundly is part of having it all.

“I cannot go without reading a book, talking about a manuscript, talking with my professors. For me, it’s a need — a physical need.”

Alessandra, Florence, Italy

Alessandra, a newly-minted Ph.D. in classic Italian literature, spoke of how she needed to pursue her passions. She said (very emotionally) that she felt reading, writing, and teaching as “a need — a physical need,” and because of this deep love, she worried about “managing to have a family and raise my kids. And not to give up on either of the two things.”

Having it all means staying young at heart.

Age is an interesting thing. The women interviewed for this project spanned the ages of eighteen to eighty. The youngest women, those in their late teens to late twenties, were by far the most driven, focused, and ambitious. However, it wasn’t just age or ambition that these women saw as vital. It was staying young at heart.

They often defined staying young at heart as being carefree. Sofía in Buenos Aires said that having it all would be “to live a life without worrying, to play and enjoy simple things like I did when I was a kid — no schedules, no worries, no judging.” Being able to preserve a beginner’s mind amid adulting is a gift that young women knew was part of having it all.

“To be carefree. To live life without worrying to play and enjoy simple things, like I did when I was a kid — no schedules, no worries, no judging. Complete freedom to go where my imagination takes me. And to laugh nonstop with my friends.”

Sofía, Buenos Aires, Argentina

Younger women seemed driven by their studies, their developing careers, entrepreneurialism, and making an impact on society. They were very idealistic and had ideas about precisely what they wanted and how they wanted to go about getting it. They were also honest about what it was they didn’t know and what they were trying to figure out.

Cathrina, an environmental science student in Monrovia, Liberia, described her ambition for herself as one for her country. For her, having it all meant helping improve the pollution problem in Liberia. She said, “I love my country, and I want us to be better one day.” Cathrina added, “And when I see Liberia being one of the good countries in the world when I see Liberia being clean, then I’ll know that I’ve achieved something.”

“Actually, having it all is not for me, it’s for my country. Because I love my country and I want us to be better one day.”

Cathrina, Monrovia, Liberia

Having it all means evolving.

The older women — women in their fifties, sixties, seventies, and eighties — I spoke to were utterly inspiring with their calm and piercing wisdom. They often referred to the insecurities they had when they were young and how they have now reached a new sense of confidence and resolve. They also knew that they were still evolving as they grew older.

Many described themselves now as better forms of themselves. They may have lived through tough times, but they came out the other side better than they were before — confident, assured, fortunate, and grateful for their older selves. Janca, a vivacious designer in Amsterdam, said while rushing off to her next appointment, “The older, the better. I think my life started after forty. I’ve traveled more, have more money, and am at peace with myself.” She assured me: “I think I look better now than I did in my twenties. Be yourself and enjoy your life just as it comes. Getting older is not scary.”

“The older, the better. I think my life started after forty. I’ve traveled more, have more money, and am at peace with myself. I think I look better now than I did in my twenties. Be yourself and enjoy your life just as it comes. Getting older is not scary.”

Janca, Amsterdam, The Netherlands

Regardless of age, this desire to keep evolving, to grow through discovery, and focus on the self, rang true for many women, particularly those in their fifties and sixties. Charlotte in Stockholm, Sweden, was twinning with her twenty-something daughter (both dressed in Doc Martens and long coats). Charlotte found herself trying to figure out what she wanted to do with her life now that her daughter had moved out of the house: “When I was young, I thought I knew everything. But now I don’t! Shall I stay where I live? Shall I travel around? Shall I change jobs? Can I do something else?” Her desire to keep growing gave her the confidence to try new things, little by little. Charlotte mused, “I can learn something new. I can do anything. But right now, I am stuck. Things are too easy, and I think I’ve gotten lazy. I want to challenge myself!”

“When I was young, I thought I knew everything. But now I don’t…Things are too easy, and I think I’ve gotten lazy. I want to challenge myself!”

Charlotte, Stockholm, Sweden

Among the oldest women I met, there was a sense of seeing their lives in retrospect. Marta, a retired psychologist in Florence, Italy, said, “I have had a quiet life. A quiet life is the best life.” She added, “I only dedicated myself to things that need my attention — work and family, not travel and other distractions.”

“I have had a quiet life. A quiet life is the best life. I only dedicate myself to things that need my attention — work and family, not travel and other distractions.”

Marta, Florence, Italy

Reflecting on their lives — the good and the bad — wanting to have the opportunity to remember and appreciate themselves was expressed by the oldest women interviewed. They were looking forward to looking back, and this was also having it all.

Having it all means choosing whether or not to have children.

In many discussions about what it means to have it all, there is a sense that being a stay at home mom is a diminished form of work, and that if women don’t have big careers, they are lesser. However, women of all socioeconomic classes spoke of having and taking care of children as the ultimate form of wholeness. Whether as a phase or for the long-term, whether by choice or by obligation, looking after a family’s well-being for many women was having it all.

Shamro, a mother of two in Singapore, had been working for ten years before becoming a homemaker. With a sense of confident resolve, she said, “Now my focus is my children. So ‘having it all’ is having peace — peace at home and peace of mind.” And in Bangalore, Mary, the mother of a child with a health condition, said, “I am enjoying life right now. I am taking care of my children. I have to help them study well, and maybe they’ll choose to be doctors one day — or whatever they like.” Maintaining a happy home and nurturing a family was having it all.

“I had been working for the past ten years, but I am a homemaker now because of my children. Now my focus is my children. So having it all is having peace — peace at home and peace of mind.”

Shamro, Singapore

And in Bangalore, India, Mary, the mother of a child with health problems, said, “I am enjoying life right now. I am taking care of my children. I have to help them study well, and maybe they’ll choose to be doctors one day — or whatever they like.” Maintaining a happy home and nurturing a family was having it all.

“I am enjoying life right now. I have to take care of my children. I have to help them study well, and maybe they’ll choose to be doctors one day — whatever they like.”

Mary, Bangalore, India

For some of these women, raising children was the ultimate form of having it all, and yet, they often expressed a sense of neglect for themselves as individuals, a kind of disconnect from their own desires, particularly in contrast to younger, more ambitious women. Their perspective as moms was completely focused on others. When asked what having it all was for her personally, Laura in Amsterdam (with two kids in tow) was stumped and said, “That’s a question I hardly ever think about. Having it all is waking up and realizing that everyone I love is doing well, and so am I.”

“[Having it all for me is] a question I hardly ever think about. Having it all is waking up and realizing that everyone I love is doing well — and so am I.”

Laura, Amsterdam, The Netherlands

The choice to not be a mother can also be a form of having it all. Monica, who works in human resources at a healthcare company in Buenos Aires, was proud and unapologetic about her choice not to have children despite having been married twice. “My life is perfect. I’ve been building it step by step. I dreamt about the things I wanted — and have achieved them,” she said; “I didn’t have any children. And now I’m very happy because I decided not to have kids so that I could be fully independent.”

“My life is perfect. I’ve been building it step by step. I dreamt about the things I wanted — and have achieved them…I didn’t have any children. And now, I’m very happy because I decided not to have kids so that I could be fully independent. I absolutely love spending time alone at home.”

Monica, Buenos Aires, Argentina

Having it all means loving and connecting.

Being with the people we love and who love us back is having it all. We cannot underestimate the feeling of connectedness because it is the thing that binds us and helps us feel supported through good times and bad.

In Mexico City, people don’t eat alone. They see togetherness as a form of happiness. Eating together is a form of well-being, wholeheartedness, and the embodiment of having it all. Food literally brings us together and creates occasions to connect and bond. Women know this and look for opportunities to create togetherness at home and at work.

“Having it all means not eating alone. I don’t like to eat alone…It’s important to have good company — you can talk, you can share advice.”

Estefania, Mexico City, Mexico

At a memorial lunch on the beach in Maui, Hawaii, women I spoke to talked about the importance of “chosen family,” friends who have become so close it’s as though they are family. There’s a word in Hawaiian, “ohana,” which conveys an extended sense of family — blood-related, adoptive, or intentional. Tina, the eldest of the three daughters in her family, said, “Having it all? This is it — family, friends. Everybody being together and celebrating together.” Looking around, she said, “To be surrounded by everyone is life. It’s important to have people love you and support you — and give everything.”

“Having it all? This is it — family, friends, ohana. Everybody being together and celebrating together. To be surrounded by everyone is life. It’s important to have people love you and support you — and give everything.”

Tina, Maui, Hawaii, USA

The opposite of connection is separation from the things that we love, a loss of community, and no support. Yadanar, a feminist artist in Yangon, Myanmar, reflected, “The opposite of ‘having it all’ would be losing contact with my loved ones and my family. This would be the biggest fear of my life.”

“The opposite of having it all would be losing contact with my loved ones and my family. This would be the biggest fear of my life.”

Yadanar, Yangon, Myanmar

Having it all means having enough.

The idea of being happy with what you have — having enough — was perhaps the most prevalent response to the question, “what does it mean to have it all?” In both wealthy and developing countries, the concept of having it all, when taken literally, is about having a lot. But having it all is actually knowing when enough is, indeed, enough.

In some cultures, “having it all” did not translate, not even with a local translator. So, when asked about their ideal lives in the future or what makes them genuinely content, women expressed that having more does not always bring joy, but instead can create unhappiness.

“Even if you are poor, you can be happy. It depends on how you define ‘having enough.’ Let it go! Let it go! This is happiness. If you let things go, you don’t need to worry.”

Ya Ya, Yangon, Myanmar

Ya Ya, a yoga teacher splitting her time between Thailand and Myanmar, said, “Even if you are poor, you can be happy. It depends on how you define ‘having enough.’” She believed that the burden of always wanting more causes pain. She says, “Let it go! This is happiness.” Similarly, Elyse, a long-time meditation teacher in Amsterdam, said, “You can’t have everything; it’s better to be happy with what you have. If you are obsessed with trying to have it all, it never ends.”

“You can’t have everything; it’s better to be happy with what you have. If you are obsessed with trying to have it all, it never ends.”

Elyse, Amsterdam, The Netherlands

Soledad, a grandmother in Buenos Aires, Argentina, remarked, “I’ve come to realize that happiness is something you achieve on a daily basis. You can live happily with whatever is in front of you, every minute.” She described a recent situation where the gas company cut the heat in her home, so she started complaining because it was cold. Then, she went outside and saw a line of people picking up donations of warm clothes from a charity and realized that there was no need to complain about the heat as her situation was only temporary compared to those less fortunate. She said, “Right then and there, I found happiness.”

“I’ve come to realize that happiness is something you achieve on a daily basis. You can live happily with whatever is in front of you, every minute.”

Soledad, Buenos Aires, Argentina

Mabel, a professor of critical thinking in Monrovia, Liberia, teaches a course on character formation. The class focuses on developing students’ behavior in school, at home, and in the community. “A person can’t have it all,” she said, “but we’re all striving for that perfection. I mean, we’re all lacking something one way or the other, but we’re all learning.” She recognized that people (women and men alike) are all on a path to improving themselves. Mabel said, “Having it all just means that I’m good — good enough. It makes you important in society. It makes your presence relevant.”

“I mean, we’re all lacking something one way or the other, but then we’re all learning. Having it all just means that I’m good — good enough. It makes your presence relevant.”

Mabel, Monrovia, Liberia

I have been around the world in search of a new definition of what it means for women to have it all. From Monrovia to Mexico City, Singapore to Stockholm, Bangalore to Buenos Aires, I have uncovered some universal themes. It has been eye-opening to see these themes emerge through countless conversations — each one different and unique — because I had seen glimmers of these same themes in my own life. I embarked on this journey hoping to be changed. And indeed, I was.

From my research, I have found that women believe that independence through having an education and earning a living is a key to fulfillment. They believe in pursuing their chosen passions, whether for work or pleasure. Regardless of their age, I found that women felt that having it all meant staying driven, ambitious, and young at heart while still always evolving. Having it all was loving and connecting with those who nourished them. And perhaps most importantly, they believed that having enough was worth far more than having it all.

This project has made me question and think about what it means, personally, for me to have it all. After hearing about sharing meals as a form of contentment, I thought about all the times I chose to have my sad desk lunch alone next to someone else having their sad desk lunch alone. Or worse yet, I thought about how I often found myself staring at my screen while my husband or sons were speaking to me. What other missed moments of connection have there been over the years?

Talking to women older than me — the empty-nesters, widows, divorcées, and the elderly — got me thinking about the next chapters of my life. Will I always be so busy that I can only see a few days into the future? The women who shared their maturity and wisdom helped me think about my future self, one that, I hope, will look back with appreciation while looking forward with anticipation.

This project has also helped me answer the question that initially pushed me into this exploration: Can a woman have it all without having a career? My initial idea for this project came at a time when I chose to leave a fulfilling job to stay at home with my children. Rather than feeling like I was doing the valuable work of nurturing a child, I felt conflicted, lesser, and insecure because I was not doing paid work for a year (yes, only one short year).

Many women I interviewed believe that being a mother is a truly worthwhile expression of having it all. I believe, wholeheartedly, the work of mothering our children to be one that is unto itself, a form of wholeness — and one that deserves celebrating, celebrating not in the sense of endless social media posts and mommy blogs, but through the societal acceptance of motherhood as a worthwhile endeavor. It is a job that requires no apology on our resumes or life stories.

This journey of seeing through the eyes of women around the globe was about developing perspective. Through these conversations, I have had the honor of hearing what’s going on in women’s minds — the things they, themselves, perhaps have never even put into words.

What I learned was that I want women to get past the stereotypes and connect with one another. Rather than feeling stuck on a path that we are on, let us reclaim our own paths, not the ones that are chosen for us. Above all, let’s keep our ears, eyes, and hearts open. Let’s redefine having it all and reflect the beautiful diversity for real women everywhere.

Special thanks

Thank you to all the women interviewed for your generosity and authenticity. Your stories have touched me and helped me grow.

Without my collaborators, translators, and editors from around the world, this project would not have been possible: Jason Ring, Op Aiem-Sa-Ard-Schwartz, Meg Keene, Melanie Abrams, Liz Stanley, Yadanar Winn, Sarrika Dawar, Jesus Andrade, Krystal Winnie, Sofía Nicolini Llosa, Jenny Maxwell, Annelie Nygards, Samantha Palmer, Donatella Massini.

About the author

Etienne Fang is a human-centered research and strategy leader who is passionate about people and the power of their stories to create new value.

She is a principal researcher at Amazon, has led research teams at Uber, founded consumer strategy practices at Method Products and VF Corporation, and led design at The Clorox Company. Etienne has guided strategic initiatives for brand, product, and digital experiences for The Coca-Cola Company, Walmart, P&G, The Gap Inc., Toyota, Levi Strauss & Co., McDonald’s, and IBM.

Etienne is the founder of Redefining Having It All, a non-profit organization that celebrates the beautiful diversity of women’s ambition globally through storytelling and in support of female empowerment through education.

Etienne lives in the San Francisco Bay Area with her husband and two sons.

I am a human-centered research strategist who thrives at the intersection of insights and storytelling. www.having-it-all.org

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