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In the early 1980s there was a perfume called “Enjoli” that was sold as capturing the essence of the post-feminist “modern woman” in a bottle. The commercial’s jingle went like this:

I can bring home the bacon

Fry it up in a pan

And never ever ever let you

forget you’re a man

Cause I’m a wooooman, Enjoli!

(And it continues so if you like, you can watch the whole commercial here. My apologies to readers who now can’t get the jingle out of their heads.)

Yep, she lived life to the fullest, she was the 24/7 woman. She could have a career, keep house, entice her man, read the kids a bedtime story while her man made dinner, and then they would hop in the sack and finish off the perfect day with some hot sex.

I was thinking back on this commercial over the weekend while I felt myself trying to keep up with this “have it all” lifestyle expectation and feeling like a miserable failure as it was one step from chaos collapse on all fronts. And once again was wondering is it just me who can’t cut it, or does any woman really “have it all?”

It brought to mind a trip I made to China and Hong Kong when I was around 27 years old. I traveled with my mom’s twin sister and her husband, who was born in China and raised in Hong Kong (they married when he was in the U.S. to go to college).

Thanks to my uncle, I got to see life in Hong Kong and China “from the inside” as we were welcomed guests into many of his family and friend’s homes.

Now at that time Hong Kong had only recently been handed back over to China by the British and the two cultures had not yet commingled much. Hong Kong was uber modern, densely packed, and it seemed like everyone worked 12+ hour days. I thought I had seen capitalism in the United States, but it paled in comparison to the capitalism that was Hong Kong. It was an island with seemingly one purpose — money, money, money.

One woman who was married to a good friend of my uncle had us over for dinner. She was a career woman, and like most households in Hong Kong, they had live in Philippine housekeepers. This woman was calm, collected, and stylish. Their apartment was impeccably furnished and had an amazing view of the city and the bay of Hong Kong.  At one point during the evening she turned to me, looking somewhat aghast, and said, “How do American women do it?”

Confused, and worried this was another curious interrogation about Monika Lewinski, I stammered something along the lines of, “Do what?”

“Why have a career and keep a house, too?” she responded. “How could anyone possibly think they could DO both?”

It was the first time I had ever heard anyone ask that question. The discussion went on and we came to the conclusion that it was the labor laws and minimum wage that made it impossible for American women who were not in the upper class to have live in help. Yet, I realized, we were still expected to perform somehow as if we did. Interesting.

In China, we visited my uncle’s youngest sister, born to his father’s second wife and secretly raised by her mother and supported by their father in China unbeknown to the rest of the family until his father’s death. (Multiple wives were not that uncommon in China just a generation before, and so my uncle’s mother and he and his siblings embraced her as their sister and they are now one big happy family, including the two wives!)

I got the feeling that this sister had lived a more privileged life than the average Chinese girl. She was well educated and had married a star of the Bejing Opera (Sort of the equivalent to a rock star in the United States.) She had been a career girl before she married but stopped working when she married. Her husband was away traveling, but we visited her, her mother, and the sister’s cute as a button one year old son. Also there was her live in nanny/housekeeper, a young girl from a poor rural village.

As the sister excitedly entertained us with stories of her life, her mother and housekeeper prepared and served us a wonderful tea. The baby sat with his mother when he was happy and content, but the minute he was hungry or fussy or dirty he was whisked away by grandma or the nanny, only to return when he was happy and content again.

The sister looked at me (I did not have children at that time) and remarked quite dramatically, “How could a woman possibly take care of more than ONE child? I am exhausted!”

Again, I did not know what to reply. Few American women had anywhere near the round-the-clock and live in type of support this “exhausted” young mother had.

These two moments from years ago came back to me this weekend, as I felt incredibly stretched trying to run my business during one of the busiest three day tourist weekends of the year, then scrambled about each morning trying to find some clean clothes and did load after load of dishes each night. I went out to eat twice with my new beau and tried my best to be alert and attentive even though what I really wanted to do was hide from the world and sleep. Great guy that he is, he completely understood (and even unloaded the dishwasher).

All weekend that stupid Enjoli jingle kept going through my head, mocking me for not being able to do it all and be it all while smiling and looking breezy.

But today I am starting to wonder, is it really me? Do I just “not get it?” Or is it just impossible? Can a woman really have it all, without paying someone else to do part of what women’s work used to be?

Born in the early 1970-s, I’ve never known a life where I wasn’t expected to get a education, have a career, do and be it all. In many ways I am the Enjoli woman, all grown up. And quite frankly, on the verge of a nervous breakdown. So I am just going to say it, based on my experience and the frenzied lives of women around me who have tried to follow the same path, what a crock! Where do I get the last 20 years back?

Or maybe I am wrong. What do you think? Is the empowered and fulfilled post-modern feminist reality, or was it a myth all along? Or was it maybe, in America anyway, only reality for the few women born into a class who could afford live in help to do the work women have always done so they could live the Enjoli dream?

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