With the recent appointment of Marissa Mayer as CEO of Yahoo!, there has been a lot of discussion surrounding the issue of women trying to “have it all.” She has been praised as a trailblazer, and she has been criticized as a bad (future) mother. Articles on the issue tend to rely on immeasurable terms like “fulfillment,” recounting personal tales of women who felt they had succeeded or failed at balancing a career and a family without any evidence beyond speculation of what might have been. I believe a more scientific approach provides a clearer answer: For women who are personally and financially secure, it is more psychologically healthy to “have it all.”
Much of social psychology is based on Erving Goffman’s theory that one’s life is like a series of plays, and we must negotiate and maintain a different role, or “self,” in each of them; for example, the professional tone of an interview sounds nothing like the slang-ridden banter between friends, and it helps to establish the participants’ relationship and allows the candidate to present himself in a way that is consistent with the image of a good employee.
A number of studies have been conducted on the link between self-complexity and mood, studying emotional differences between people with many roles in life and people who have very few selves. It has been determined that as the self-concept becomes less complex, mood becomes more volatile. People with narrower self-concepts are more likely to have an excessively wide range of emotion—they become overjoyed at successes but aggressive or depressed when faced with relatively small obstacles—while those with many roles tend to hover around an average or slightly positive mood.
When one’s mood depends on too few factors, it’s very easy to disturb the equilibrium and send someone to the emotional extremes. This constant fluctuation leads to greater stress. Having more selves increases stability, because it becomes less likely that a day will consist entirely of setbacks if there are more chances for success (and vice-versa). A horrible commute will seem less significant next to a family game night, and a child’s tantrum won’t overshadow the completion of a major project at work.
Having it all can be beneficial for women who are personally and financially ready for a family; for those who aren’t, planting a garden or taking a class can increase complexity of self-concept. Some may argue that women like Mayer will be over-scheduled and overtaxed, or that they will have to make sacrifices; while it’s true that planning and a strong support system are essential, it’s likely she will be able to recover from setbacks more quickly if she knows that her non-work self is successful. This could stave off burn-out more effectively than dedicating all of her time to one social role. As for sacrifices, choosing either a career or motherhood would deprive her not only of a multitude of life experiences, but also of the chance to develop another successful self.