Our Concept of ‘Having It All’ Is Messed Up, and Adele Just Proved It

Millennials feel judged for having kids ‘too early’ and judged for not having kids—so, what gives?
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Millennials feel judged for having kids ‘too early’ and judged for not having kids—so, what gives?

In her recent interview with Vanity Fair, Adele shared an interesting perspective on motherhood. When asked if having a kid just as her career was rising in her early twenties was a “brave” choice to make, she responded: “I think it’s the bravest thing not to have a child; all my friends and I felt pressurized into having kids because that’s what adults do.”

Her words gave me pause because as a 28-year-old living in the United Kingdom, I share the same age, country, and culture as Adele. But the pressures she expressed were the exact opposite of the ones I felt when deciding whether to have a child.

Among my group of friends, I was the first to have a baby. Rather than feeling pressured into it, I felt that I was somehow rushing into parenthood, while my friends and peers were pursuing their careers and jet-setting around the world. In my career as a theater director, it felt like it was a huge risk to take on the inflexibility of having a child. How could I go on tour with a baby in tow? How would I rehearse late into the night with bedtime and child care to consider? Will I miss out on the very opportunities that could make my name and shape my future? The options seemed very narrow.

We live in an age where freedom and options seem paramount. Yet we’re still struggling. As Adele pointed out, the pressure to have children is still strong for many women, and for others (myself included), we’re struggling with the opposite expectation. Millennials have been called the “child-free” generation, thanks to us providing the lowest birthrate “of any generation of young women in U.S. history," according to a 2015 report. It makes sense to me that we’re having less children. As the contradictions of Adele’s sentiments to mine show, the stakes are much higher for mothers these days.

Fertile Fears of Missing Out

Behind both Adele’s pressures and my own is a common fear of missing out—missing out on the fulfillment found in raising a family or missing out on the career you could have without being tied down by kids. But if I’ve learned anything from my life choices, it’s that whether you’re considering having kids or spending some hard-earned savings on the trip you’ve always dreamed of, life decisions motivated by fear are rarely the best ones for us. If we run after every possible opportunity for fear of missing out, then how will we ever do anything wholeheartedly?

And yet, it’s a powerful temptation. We don’t want to miss out on anything; we want to have it all.

Generations before us have fought so that we would have the right to work; to vote; to own property; to marry whom we want; and to choose when, how, and if we have a family. Our grandmothers didn’t have that. And most of our mothers didn’t start having career options until their teenage years or beyond. For millennials, though, the prospect of “having it all” felt more like a birthright than a myth.

For as great as that is, as a woman living in 2016, it can feel like I spend part of every single day hitting my head against the expectation of having it all—the perfect loving relationship, a fulfilling career, adorable children, a Pinterest-worthy home, and a fabulous social life.

We have been raised to believe that our future is wide open and ours for the taking. Now, I think, our greatest pressure is the weight of our forebears’ expectations. We know how hard they struggled so that we could live life to its fullest, and we can feel honor-bound to do it all out of gratitude. Surely our ancestors, the women and men who fought so hard to give us many more options in our lives than they had didn’t mean that we should feel obliged to do everything, much less do everything perfectly.

To Each Her Own

When a woman takes a step outside of these pressures, that’s when we often say her choice was brave. But because each individual’s struggles and fears are unique, a challenging choice will look different to each one of us. When Adele describes not having kids as “the bravest thing,” she is pointing to the fact that it takes conviction and fortitude to go against expectations.

I think that, as a star who is defying many of the pitfalls of talent and fame to do her career in her own unique way, Adele models that bravery exceptionally well, whether she realizes it or not. I think true courage means pursuing your calling without comparing yourself to others and allowing yourself to prioritize what makes you happy instead of an external list of goals set up by society. It’s not as simple as running in the opposite direction of the pressure, though; sometimes it’s facing up to the pressures, evaluating them, and deciding where you stand.

For me, when everyone around me was prioritizing a career, having a kid was the road less traveled. Some might have called it brave. But I am not here to tell you what having it all looks like. As journalist Michelle Jaconi told Verily in an interview not long ago, having it all depends on what fills an individual woman’s cup. It’s up to each of us to determine for ourselves what that looks like and to pursue fearlessly the balance to reach it.

Allowing ourselves to be released from the myth of having it all and to simply choose to build the lives that work best for us requires letting go of the fear of missing out.

Trying to work this out for ourselves now will, I hope, empower the post–having-it-all generation. Maybe if, from the wealth of choices we’ve been given by our ancestors, we can learn to choose what’s best for us with great mastery, the generation after us will be spared the pressure to check every possible box; maybe they will be less crippled by options and better equipped to choose the life that satisfies them. All we can do is make the best choices for ourselves now and hope that this will be our gift to the generations that come after us.

Photo Credit: Adele