What I’ve learned about “having it all” from the women in my family

Image of author's aunt and grandmother on a map
Ashley Uzer

March is Women’s History Month. Here, HG contributor Ashley Uzer celebrates what her great aunt and grandmother taught her about careers,  family, and societal expectations for women.

It was my 23rd birthday, and I was dancing on a table mid-day at Lavo, a New York City club famous for their brunch parties.

My dad texted me asking if my then-boyfriend had come up to visit for my birthday (we were in an LDR). When I told him that I was having a girls weekend and would be seeing my boyfriend the following weekend, my dad texted me, saying, “He’s the perfect Karhan spouse. Make sure you’re nice to him.”

Aside from the weird fact that my dad was telling me to be nice to my boyfriend, WTF is a Karhan spouse?

Karhan is the maiden name of my great aunt and my grandmother, Olcay and Ulgen.

And, according to my dad, a Karhan spouse is a “dedicated yes man.” According to my mom, it’s “whatever the word is for when someone does everything and anything possible to make you happy, beyond what a normal person would do.”

I like to think of a Karhan spouse as being who your last boyfriend was during the beginning stages of the relationship—attentive, doting, loyal, and maybe even a little overly generous and sweet. The only difference between your last boyfriend and a Karhan spouse is that your last boyfriend likely got comfortable, or lazy, or even manipulative, and stopped putting as much effort into making you smile. A Karhan spouse stays in that early “perfect partner” phase throughout the whole relationship.

But I’m not here to talk solely about Karhan spouses. I’m here to talk about Karhan women.

Though my great aunt and grandmother both took their husbands’ last names, their strong-willed attitudes and unforgettable personalities led to their maiden name becoming infamous in my family.

Though I couldn’t yet put my finger on it, I knew there was something about my great aunt and grandmother that was different from many of the older women I observed around me, even as a little girl. I always looked up to them as role models, and I still do.

In fact, I think we could all learn something from Karhan women, so here is how to embrace your inner Karhan:

1Learn that men are just as capable of household tasks as women—and teach them

Women are not inherently better at cooking, cleaning, or child-rearing; they only seem better because society teaches them to practice this labor in the antiquated hope of securing a better husband, and therefore a “better life.”

Growing up, I never saw my great aunt in the kitchen. She was more of a “let’s go out for a three-course meal at my favorite restaurant where I know the manager” kind of gal. My grandmother is an excellent cook, but I just as often remember seeing my grandfather make his famous fried fish or clean up the kitchen. When it came to children, both my great uncle and grandfather were actually the ones with “baby fever,” doting on whoever was the newest member of our family and excitedly picking the perfect toy for their grandchildren’s Christmas gifts.

Of course, both my great aunt and grandmother contributed a lot to their respective households. My great aunt was actually the “primary” breadwinner in her household, although both she and her husband were radiologists—in fact, my great aunt was one of the first radiologists to do work in the breast cancer field. My grandmother birthed three beautiful children and kept her household dressed to impress, which regularly included color-coordinated outfits for her and my grandfather. The difference is that neither of the Karhan women subscribed to what in America (and in many cultures) is regarded as “women’s work” (or a wife’s work). Instead, they chose what they wanted to contribute to their household and did what they knew they could do best.

2Know what you want, ask for it, and don’t take no for an answer

“Aunt Olcay asked if we could go to brunch tomorrow, but I am trying to watch my diet. Can you call her and tell her we can’t go?” That’s a statement I grew up regularly hearing from my dad—the one who is actually related to my great aunt by blood.

The fact that my great aunt has always been so generous certainly makes it hard to say no to her, but she also simply does not take no for an answer—even if that means pretending she doesn’t hear you refusing her request.

Many idiosyncratic practices my family partakes in—including having “cocktail hour” and appetizers before any dinner—are a result of Karhan women knowing what they want and not settling for anything less. It’s a skill that I am still working on emulating, and I know that can be more difficult for women—primarily because it’s more common for us to be perceived as bitchy, nagging, or stubborn. But if the Karhan women got away with it in their time, I have hopes for us in 2019 and beyond.

3You don’t need to “fit in” at work if your skills stand out

One of my favorite anecdotes that my great aunt tells is about her office at Georgetown University, where she was a professor. When the university assigned an interior decorator to my great aunt to help with her new office, the decorator asked for her favorite color. When she said it was purple, the interior decorator told my great aunt that she was so excited to finally have some fun. My great aunt ended up choosing a giant, deep purple desk that was meant to be a dining table. On the wall were paintings of the nude female form.


While I chose a less traditional career path (a career path I’m still figuring out), I’ve always stood by the principle that my work should speak for itself. My unprofessional style of dressing or the fact that you can read about my dating life on the internet should be irrelevant.

Of course, these things have surely cost me some career opportunities, but they’ve also helped me stand out and thrive in certain fields. Being myself helped me land an unpaid internship, then a paid freelancing role, and ultimately a full-time job at my first writing gig at a magazine. I shaped the publication’s voice by using my own voice. When brands interested in partnering with us asked my boss to define our reader, he would default to me because, as he said, “our girl is literally Ashley.”

While my current clients can’t always depend on me to wear an outfit that’s business professional, they can always depend on me to deliver kickass work on time and within budget—and I think that’s a lot more important, don’t you?

4Whether you marry for love or for practicality, only marry someone who treats you like a queen

My grandmother takes immense pride in her and my late grandfather’s love story. It was a classic romance of immigrants looking for a better life—he moved to America first, set himself up for success, then waited for my grandmother to come over when he felt the time was right. Naturally, they sent love letters to each other throughout their time apart, and my grandmother still has them all.

My great aunt, on the other hand, tells a very different, and perhaps less romantic story. She recently detailed to me how she was waiting for the bus one day when a man in uniform walked over and reminded her they were in medical school classes together. They eventually became friends, and when they both got tired of their parents trying to marry them off to people they didn’t like, my future great uncle suggested that they just get married instead.

My great uncle always said that as soon as he saw my great aunt’s hands, he was in love, but he also regularly gave dinner table speeches fueled by a few glasses of Johnny Walker Black, saying things like, “Don’t marry for love, marry for friendship because love runs out.”

Their love stories may be different, but both of the Karhan women chose partners who treated them exactly how they wanted to be treated. And that’s what most girls who dream of “Prince Charming” really want.

Did growing up around their marriages give me unrealistic expectations and standards for the men I date? Very possibly. But I’d rather have high standards than spend time dating a guy who doesn’t love me for who I am.

5It’s okay to work a “traditional” job, live in a “traditional” house, or take on the “traditional” role of a stay-at-home mom—but make it your own

In recent years, I’ve found myself surrounded by “feminist” discourse that seems to criticize women who choose to be stay-at-home moms, or choose to take a back seat while their husband chases his dreams, etc. Because I don’t necessarily want to follow any of these avenues, it’s been all too easy for me to join in on the shaming discourse.

The women in my family—and not just the Karhan women—have shown me that feminism isn’t about choosing to be the breadwinner, or choosing not to have kids, or choosing to put yourself and your career goals first. Instead, it’s about choosing a role that will make you the happiest. It’s about having the right to make your own choices so you can have the kind of life you want to lead.

Unfortunately, this choice isn’t always easy, and the grass is always greener on the other side. My great aunt and grandmother, unfortunately, have always had a bit of tension between them due to their different paths. While my great aunt would have loved being a mom like my grandmother, she ultimately was unable to have kids (and treats my sisters and me like the daughters she never had). My grandmother wanted a successful, powerful career like my great aunt, but the law degree she obtained in Turkey was useless once she moved to the U.S.

It upsets me that, even in their old age, this tension causes them to still be petty with each other. But it’s also a realistic portrayal of how women are treated in our society. We are pitted against each other for choosing one of the two options that our culture seems to offer us, and I’ve seen firsthand what you may be forced to sacrifice if you choose one path vs. the other.

Regardless of what I end up doing with my life, their influence has shown me that obtaining a “traditional” college degree doesn’t mean you have to be a boring, suit-wearing, woman (I’ll be completing my MBA in a few months). Choosing to have three kids doesn’t mean that you’re doomed to a lifetime in the cult of domesticity and “traditional” housewifery (I’m still unsure of my stance on having kids).

As a woman in 2019, I don’t really know if I believe in the concept of “having it all.” But I do believe in the concept of having the space to figure out what I want.

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