There has been a lot of discussion about Anne Marie Slaughter’s recent Atlanticarticle, “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All.” I found the article—and the surrounding flurry of writing on similar topics—fascinating and encouraging. Slaughter’s candid description of pursuing the highest professional success, coupled with her fierce desire not to lose touch with her family, was reasonable, intelligent, and even brilliant.
It encourages me that, although I come at the issue from a different perspective, many of my own thoughts on the topic are along parallel lines. But we need to reframe this conversation.
So, I will begin this—my reflection on motherhood, family, work, and happiness—with a few references to that article. I certainly don’t pretend to provide answers to the long-standing questions—Can modern, liberated women have it all? Is it a crime for a successful woman to “give up career” to be more focused on her family? I would rather ask a few questions.
Why do we say we have to “have it all”? To be more like men, equal to them in all social elements? That sounds fair. But do we really think men have it all?
Why the word “have”? Does our debate over women’s lifestyles center around possession and self? I question the hermeneutics of language and the gendered experience we have of expressions like “sacrificing,” “surrender of self,” and “acceptance.” Can we acknowledge the value in these concepts, in a purely secular context?
I became a mother at the lovely age of 25. I was just getting my footing in my career in the non-profit world, both excited about the future and apprehensive about what “the other side” would look like as I headed into my maternity leave. I had negotiated a slow “easing back” into work, starting when my daughter was nine weeks old. I would work roughly half-time for two months, and then pause to discuss what made sense for everyone. I was able to keep a part-time schedule for another year and a half—thanks to a fantastic boss and a fundamentally flexible job function involving cloud computing and other modern miracles. Working from home a part of my schedule, I found myself able to pace my week, not ache too much for my daughter, but also feel completely engaged in my work.
It seemed perfect. But life, especially life with kids, has a way of changing; and what worked well in one developmental stage, when my daughter slept up to four hours a day, didn’t work so well in the next. Moreover, I found that I was back working full time (though still 50 percent from home) and literally not knowing where the hours would come from. Now working from home meant that my little lady was tugging on my leg, demanding to watch YouTube videos while I sat at my computer. When I snuck an hour or two at the park, I’d pay for it by working until 2 or 3 a.m. Yes, I was juggling it all and enjoying it for stretches, but I also knew that it wasn’t a sustainable long-term model.
My story highlights a few interesting points. Telecommuting is becoming increasingly possible and accepted in certain working cultures; and it’s a wonderful thing that parents can have that option. However, it doesn’t remove the fundamental challenge of giving your kids the best of yourself, and it doesn’t satisfy what each of us feels in our hearts that we need to do to be a good mother. So while I agree that companies need to offer more flexible schedules, job-sharing, and freelancing/independent contracting opportunities (and this is the direction the economy seems to be heading)—I also don’t believe that’s the complete answer.
My generation is facing fallout from the idea that you can pursue your dreams, have a successful career, put off kids until all else (especially financial stability) is “figured out,” and so over the course of 20 years, have it all. Kids are a “checklist item,” one of the many things you take on as a challenge or because you feel it’s expected of you.
But I’ll speak for myself and most of my friends in saying that we’re not prepared for what we actually experience in motherhood. It’s not just an item on a list. It fundamentally changes us, and thus changes everything. Those cries awakening us at 12, 2, and 4 a.m., those dimpled smiles when we walk in the door, remind us that all things are new. And if all things are new, we just might have to revisit what we take for granted about ourselves and our previous existence.
We go into motherhood thinking we’re doing our child a favor by spending time with them or putting them to sleep again, and again, and again each night. But for me it became clear early on that my daughter is a gift to me; she is a gift that I can never understand fully or “repay.” And now as a toddler with her hilarious opinions about everything under the sun, and her impulses to count bugs or rocks or look at flowers or swing or play in fountains . . . I realize that she has changed me, and I’m the one who is lucky to be spending time with her. Life is incredible viewed through the eyes of a child.
When this reality finally sunk into me, it changed how I thought about the working vs. stay-at-home debate. It’s not just about a favor I do for my daughter, or can’t or don’t do—it’s about the fact that I am changed by my motherhood, and by the minutes that I spend with her. And to the extent that those around me—husband, family, coworkers, and boss—understand and accept that, I can be happy and prioritize accordingly. But if I have to be in a work environment that does not allow for me to have changed, for my lens on life to be different, for my hours to be considered precious, then I will become miserable.
So now that I’ve told you that I’m a mother, who also works, who has never worked full time outside of the home since having a baby, but who has always been gone at least 20 hours a week since my daughter was nine weeks old—I’ll tell you what this means. It means that some days are amazing. I walk out of the house feeling so blessed and grateful to be able to do the work I do, with passionate, caring people, and to make a significant concrete impact on my community and the world. I love the respect I receive for my work, the mental stimulation, and the structure of my time. Other days, I ache for my daughter like crazy. I look at the tedious project on my screen and start running through my head what I should be doing with her instead of this work; how it’s a waste of time and I’m frustrated; though more with myself than with my employer.
When I talk about this balance, these choices I’ve made, it’s personal and emotional. It is for every woman. And it’s because we care about our kids, our families, our employers, and ourselves. We want to find happiness. We’re aware that it’s wrapped up in success—hopefully by this we mean using our talents and passions—and also in loving others. But we’re left with figuring out what that means for each particular situation.
This is why I want to reframe the conversation, from something that is polarizing and judgmental (stay at home moms are lazy, wasting their brains; working moms are heartless and selfish) to something that will resonate with and challenge each of us. Do I put my children first? Am I able to do that mentally, concretely, physically, in a way that allows us to thrive? It is about the quality, not just quantity of hours spent. I “had it good” in terms of flexibility from an employer; but when work became something I couldn’t escape from (because it was in my home) and couldn’t say no to (at any time of day or night)—then I knew things had to change. Having an “ideal” work situation and being unhappy because of various circumstances still just adds up to unhappiness.
For as many unique personalities and situations that are out there, good solutions exist. I bring this point up because in this age of lucrative blogging, v-logging, and who knows what else, being at home still doesn’t guarantee engaged, joyful, formative parenting, nor does being gone from home for periods of time guarantee the opposite.
I also want to bring men back into the conversation. At this point, basically every woman I know has an enlightened and respectful husband/partner behind her, so the issue isn’t about getting options and access to life outside the home. No, our generation now faces the challenges of living in a society that is predicated on a contraceptive culture which continues to drive the cost of living up, as more and more people work and live childlessly longer and longer. If women are expected to be able to pursue their passions and make whatever career choices they want to be happy, don’t men deserve the same? And yet in certain family models, the expectation is that if the mom stays at home, the husband works tirelessly at a job that doesn’t fulfill him or leave him time with his family. How is this better for everyone?
Due to some specific circumstances we had, my husband was able to stay home one day a week with our daughter for the first 18 months of her life. (I was in the office that day, so his presence meant we weren’t paying for a nanny.) He got a bit of work done from home (the expectations were low on both ends), and they goofed off. This has been such a singular blessing in the life of our family, and it truly opened my eyes to the reality that maybe we as women forget: Men who are fathers have their own desires, passions, and goals related to work and family. Any conversation about what makes me, the woman, happy has to be about what makes “us” happy. When this doesn’t factor into a conversation about women and working, I get suspicious.
Ines Garcia works and lives in Brooklyn, New York with her husband and two year-old daughter. Ines Garcia is a nom-de-plume.
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