19/08/2015 5:19 AM AEST | Updated 15/07/2016 12:50 PM AEST

What They Really Meant By 'Having It All'

James Brickwood, Fairfax Media

It's a term I've always loathed, and one that's dogged just about every working mother I know, for decades.

It's that whole "having it all" thing: the stunningly naïve belief that once we women had The Vote, The Pill, No-Fault Divorce and Equal Pay (oh, wait, hang on, scratch that last one), that we could now, unencumbered, go about the business of having The Job, The Marriage, The Kids, The Home we wanted, and -- some sanity.

It would all be picture perfect and humming along -- nay, ROARING, in numbers too big to ignore -- just like Helen Reddy's song promised us.

And then, knock me over with a feather-duster if real life didn't come along and ruin it. (Don't you just hate it when that happens?) Because as we have learnt, "having it all" AT ONCE is impossible -- unless you have a dozen sets of hands, 36 hours in every day and 14 days in every week.

As Annabel Crabb so brilliantly pointed out in her book The Wife Drought, what every working mother needs is a wife of her own -- someone to sort the more mundane of the minutiae, while you get on with the more compelling stuff.

That, of course, can be a tad problematic, even for our gay sisters, as Australia doesn't yet have same-sex marriage ... but please don't get me started.

So, where did this whole "having it all" thing come from anyway? Well, here's the thing -- It's actually a term that was first coined by the legendary founding editor of Cosmopolitan Magazine in the late 60s, Helen Gurley Brown.

Gurley Brown was the Carrie Bradshaw of her time, penning her landmark book Sex And The Single Girl from her shiny New York corner office, espousing liberation, libation, lubrication and sucking the luscious juice from the marrow of life until it ran down your chin.

(And yes thanks, I will have an orgasm with that. In fact, make that two.)

The clear message, we thought, was that you didn't need to make choices between home and work, family and friends, kids and travel -- you really could have it all!

Gurley Brown died in 2012, aged 90, and to the end, there she was in her fishnets, red of lip, snake of hip, mini-skirted and gym-bodied, weighing barely 50 kgs wringing wet, God love her.

helen gurley brown

This woman's experiences have very little to do with yours... Photo by John Lamparski/Getty Images

The embodiment of a life lived HER way. No compromise, no prisoners, no surrender. And why shouldn't she? She knew what she wanted and went out and got it.

She also knew what she didn't want, and number one on that list was "kids". As she famously once declared, there was no way she was going to share her husband with anyone. And again I say good for her.

But, for the rest of us who have chosen kids, as well as the job, and the husband, the legacy of the "having it all" mantra has been like a dead weight in our handbags. We scramble. We juggle. We struggle.

We miss school concerts. We know all the local takeaways. We stay back late and feel guilty. We get home early and feel guiltier. And even when we try hard not to buy into it, that gnawing feeling that we're just not getting it right still sits there looking over our shoulder like a smug Stepford Wife with an arched eyebrow, whispering "Really . . ?"

But here's the point: The "having it all" Gurley Brown was talking about -- we need to rethink it. Because the truth of the life Gurley Brown was leading is this: She really did have a dozen sets of hands, 36 hours in every day and 14 days in every week -- or the equivalent thereof.

This was a woman whose husband worked for her, ("Darling, peel me a grape, would you?") who had no kids, a personal assistant, a housekeeper, a manicurist, a hairdresser, a beautician, a chef, a personal trainer, a makeup artist, a masseuse, a doorman -- and very possibly a partridge in a pear tree to help her out the door with her game face on and ready for the day.

So there you have it. Her "all"...

Turns out, she meant, all those helpers!

Smart -- if you can afford it.

But for the rest of us?

Well, next time you're talking to girlfriends while cradling a phone 'twixt shoulder and ear, making the kids school lunches, changing that empty toilet roll holder, and writing six things on your To Do list, as hubby

inquires from the bedroom if you're coming to bed yet -- remember the size of Helen's "all" -- because now you know. It takes a village... of workers.

We just misheard. Pass it on.

This blog first appeared in August.


Follow Lisa on Twitter: @Lisa_Wilkinson