This is how the Feminist Housedude dresses the baby.
And I think it’s pretty awesome.
I’ve been trying to write this post all day, in between putting my baby down for naps, folding laundry, taking a shower, breastfeeding, etc., and it’s a disorganized mess. I want to write about the idea of “having it all” and what that means, and what it doesn’t mean, and how we need a new way of thinking and talking about work-life balance. [If you’re interested, here’s a recent article by Anne-Marie Slaughter that made some waves on this topic. And here is Slaughter explaining why she’s decided to renounce the phrase “having it all.”]
But any time I start going down one direction, I begin to argue with myself and get pulled in another direction. So, I’m just going to write a disorganized post and throw a bunch of things at the wall and see what sticks. Hopefully this won’t scare away any faithful readers who expect me to know my own mind all the time. (Hint: lower your expectations.)
On the one hand…
I’m done with the ideal of “having it all.” This post represents me killing it, for good.
Those words feel like a yoke around my neck, something I owe to my foremothers who bravely struggled for the rights women of my generation now take for granted. I want to honor their struggle, but sometimes that’s just too much pressure.
When I hear or read about women “having it all,” I can’t help but think, “Of course I can’t have it all. NO ONE WITH KIDS HAS IT ALL.”
The other day I was leaving for my writing group, and Michael looked at me woefully and said, jokingly, “One of these days you’re going to leave and never come back.”
“I have to come back,” I said. “I’m lactating.”
And that’s no joke! Every three hours or so, I have a date with either a pump or my baby, and all that pumping and breastfeeding is more time-consuming than you’d think. And that’s just the wee tip of the icy tundra of parenting. I’ve only been a mother for four months, but already I’ve had to make professional sacrifices to keep up with motherhood. (Not to mention the professional and financial sacrifices involved in Michael being with Julian fulltime.)
But I’m tired of feeling guilty for making those sacrifices, as if the time I spend with my baby is somehow wasted time, that I should be using that time to meet with students or write another book or go to a conference or somehow make a name for myself because BETTY FRIEDAN IS WATCHING.
If “having it all” becomes my battle cry, I’m afraid I’ll constantly be asking myself, “Am I working hard enough? Am I climbing far enough, fast enough?”
I’m also annoyed because “having it all” carries some weighty and troublesome assumptions about gender. We don’t hear much kvetching in the media about how men with high-powered careers have had to sacrifice time with their families. Nope. It is assumed that that will happen, and it’s not seen as a loss for those men, or their families. Not only does this undervalue the very real and necessary work of caring for children and keeping a home running; it undervalues the importance of children having close, intimate bonds with fathers as well as mothers.
Yet women are always at the center of this conversation, because the conflict between work and family is assumed to be a uniquely female conflict – which reveals that this conversation is ACTUALLY focused on what happens outside the home (i.e., in the workforce) and not so much what happens within it. Because if our culture really valued domestic labor, we’d be concerned that, by and large, men aren’t taking part. (Feel free to check out my earlier post on this issue.)
This concept of “having it all” seems married to a value system that privileges money and power. And sometimes I feel like American feminism has too easily absorbed the cultural values of said money-making and power-grubbing. But how can we seek both to empower women AND reject that power as problematic? (And now I am beginning to understand why this post is so difficult to write…)
The implicit message we grow up with is that what we do to earn money should be our center of gravity, rather than the people we love, or other kinds of unpaid work we do out of necessity or enjoyment (like blogging!). And the scary thing is, you can climb and climb and accumulate and accumulate – and then you retire and die. There’s always more money to be made. Even the mind-blowingly wealthy among us are busy making more money. I worry that the attitude of “having it all” means that nothing will ever feel like enough.
On the other hand…
As soon as I hear myself say, “you can’t have it all,” I think about my female college students, women who are just beginning to find out who they are and who they want to be – personally, professionally, philosophically. Women who are learning to believe in themselves, to see themselves as leaders in their communities. I don’t want them to hear in these words that they have to choose between having a job they love and being a successful parent. Because you can do both, absolutely. Many women, including myself, are living proof of that. [Of course, it might mean that your living room looks like THIS for several years.—->]
[And, as an aside, my single best piece of advice for women who hope to have a career and a family is this: choose a supportive partner, someone who is committed to co-parenting, someone willing to making sacrifices and compromises alongside you.]
But you don’t HAVE to have both. You can also choose to pursue just one of these paths, or you can hop back and forth between them. You can decide to be an at-home “breastfeeding executive” (which is how one of my smart, successful SAHM friends lists her occupation on facebook). To choose this doesn’t mean you’ve failed in the quest of “having it all,” that you’ve failed your college degree, or your professors, or womankind, or God. You don’t have to be famous. You don’t have to earn a shitload of money. You don’t have to have a career outside the home to make a tangible difference in the lives of those who share your little patch of Earth.
And you can also choose to NOT get married (seriously, you can!), or to get married but not have children. Again, this doesn’t mean you’re betraying your ovaries, or your parents, or the species, or God. None of these modes of living is inherently honorable or valuable or “successful” than the others. There is no cookie cutter for your life.
I also think about my male students, who have grown up in a culture that tells them to define their self-worth by what they do to make money outside the home, beyond the context of their family and community. I want to tell them that success actually might look like “having less” – it might look like working less, or earning less, in order to be present to the people they love.
What I want these young men and women to understand is that having a family — whether you have a career in addition or not — will always require certain sacrifices and compromises. It means that, in the pursuit of balance, you might have to make some tough choices. And in that context, measuring yourself against a slogan of “having it all” could feel like failure. Which is why I want to jettison those words.
I want to give my students, and myself, permission to shirk the societal model of ladder-climbing, the success rubric of money and power, to choose NOT to define ourselves by what we earn and own, but by who and what we love.
So as I reach the end of my jumbled thoughts, I guess my conclusion is this:
Don’t ask, as you enter the world, “Do I have it all?” Ask: “Am I living deeply? And where am I putting my roots?”
[Please discuss in the comments, because I don’t even know if I completely agree with myself.]
This is what Sunday morning looks like at my house these days. In fact, this past Sunday, miraculously, I got to sleep in until 10 AM, for the first time since I can remember. If that’s not worship for a new parent, I don’t know what is.
I’ve been thinking a lot about church lately, probably because I’ve been following Rachel Held Evans’ blog series on church abuse, and also because I’ve had several recent conversations with a handful of people I consider to be spiritual giants, and I’ve been surprised to discover that these people (whom I frankly thought were WAY out of my league, faith-wise) have the same struggles with churchgoing that I do.
So I’m feeling a bit braver now, a little more ready to talk openly about my ambivalence toward church – and I’m curious to hear about others’ experiences in the context of their own faith traditions.
Five Reasons Why I Want to Go to Church…
1) I want to be part of a close-knit community.
This, first and foremost, represents the greatest value of church for me. It’s not so much worship, because I feel like I can do that anywhere. Worship, for me, is not just singing songs, but more about trying to cultivate a spirit of awe and gratitude on a daily, even momentary basis, to get back that childlike sense of wonder we adults learn to function without. The real appeal of church is all about community, about sharing purpose and brokenness and sorrow and joy with like-hearted folks. And pooling our resources to help one another, as well as those in need.
2) I want to encounter the sacred.
This has always been true; I have a ravenous mystic’s heart. I want to see God, to look straight at him/her while my eyeballs light on fire. And I do catch glimpses – often times NOT in church, actually. But there is something to be said for stepping into a place that is set aside, a place outside the hum and buzz of daily chaos, a place where people gather to be Christ to one another.
3) I want to get better at this whole faith thing.
Doubt comes naturally to me. I speak fluent skeptic. The faith thing, though, takes some work. Don’t misunderstand – I don’t think my doubt is stronger than my faith; both forces are alive and at work within me, constantly. This used to cause me quite a lot of anxiety, until I began to accept their interconnectedness, to accept that the tension between them is hardwired into me. My head is prone to doubt and over-analysis, but my soul is like a loyal, dopey golden retriever who is constantly looking toward God and wagging his tail hopefully. Being part of a life-giving church community could help me be better at faith, to choose to keep hoping and looking and wagging, to not get swallowed into my head all the time, to better maintain that crucial balance between the needing to know and the being okay with not knowing.
4) I want my son to experience being part of a faith community.
The question of religion springs to the forefront as soon as you have a kid. You’re no longer just responsible for your own spiritual wellbeing; you’ve got a malleable little soul on your hands. I know that Julian will ultimately decide whether or not he wants to be religious, but I want to do everything I can to prepare him for that decision. I want him to grow up experiencing the positive aspects of a life of faith, without feeling scared or shamed into it. I want him to develop a spiritual sensibility, an awareness of the numinous, an orientation of service and compassion toward the world. The little old lady who can pinch his cheek and give him wet kisses, those other kids who can wreak joyful havoc with him among the pews – I want him to have those people in his life, to be surrounded by a community that loves him and is invested in his welfare.
5) I feel guilty if I don’t go.
… And Five Reasons Why I (often) Don’t
1) I am too tired.
Okay, I know people with babies go to church. I’ve seen them, back when I used to go to church, back when I didn’t have a baby. But by the time I’ve floundered on terrible, patchy sleep throughout the entire workweek, I am beat. I am done. Even when I start to psych myself up on Saturday night – Totally going to church tomorrow! Totally doing it!!!! – when I am actually faced with the temptation of sleeping late and sharing my baby’s mid-morning nap, I am not strong enough to resist. Sleep has become a drug, and I am an addict, always jonesing for more.
2) I have high expectations.
I admit it. I’m the Goldilocks of churchgoers. I have a long list of demands. I want a church that welcomes absolutely anyone – in practice, not just speech. I want a church where women are actively involved on every level, including leadership. I want a church that loves children and doesn’t believe they should be seen and not heard. I want a church service that is more than just over-produced worship time followed by a long-ass sermon. I want a church that sees worship as more than just singing along with a rock band whose mics are turned up so high that the voices of the people are drowned out. I want a church that doesn’t have a mean theology. I want a church that welcomes a spirit of questioning, rather than imposing a spirit of certainty. I want a church like the bar Cheers, where everyone knows everyone’s name. And, most importantly, I want a church that doesn’t keep you locked in the foyer if you have to go to the bathroom during the sermon. WTF?
3) I am introverted.
Going to church can be really hard if you’re introverted. And church HUNTING is a complete nightmare, which is pretty much the mode I’ve been in for the past two years. (Did I mention I have high expectations when it comes to church?) Not only is there, in many churches, a pressure to perform by emoting publicly and praying out loud extemporaneously (ideally while using the word “just” in as many capacities as possible, i.e. Lord, we just thank you for bringing us here, and we just ask that you would just…), there is the added pressure of somehow getting to know the sea of strangers in front of you, who may or may not be that welcoming. This dynamic seems even more daunting for the introvert with a young baby, a baby who could start crying or pooping or want you to take your boobs out at any minute and attract the eyes of said strangers. Sigh. As you might have gleaned by now, church tends to cause me no small amount of anxiety, and when I imagine bringing a baby along, the list of possible shame-inducing events exponentially skyrockets. (At this point, if you’re a regular reader and saw this earlier post, you might be beginning to wonder if I have a phobia about taking my baby out in public. I think you might be right.)
4) I am tired of feeling guilty.
This might seem paradoxical, but feeling guilty for not going to church is another reason why, on principle, I don’t make myself go. I’ve been trying, in my life, to free myself from the never-ending onslaught of shoulds and oughts. I ‘should’ on myself way too much, to the point where I pretty much constantly feel inadequate and ashamed of something or another. So it’s been healing for me to realize that, as an adult with a driver’s license, I can go to church because I want to be there, because I might actually have those experiences I long for. But if guilt is the only thing that will get me through the door, I’m not going to go.
5) I’m not sure I need it.
This is scary to say out loud. Even scarier to write in black and white and post on the internet. But this is a question I struggle with – do I need church? I happen to teach at a university with a strong religious commitment, which means that, during the week, I’m constantly engaged in vibrant conversations about God. You know that close-knit community I was talking about? I have that at work, surrounded by like-minded colleagues who are also good friends, people who challenge me to live authentically, people who are Christ to me on an almost daily basis. When I’m talking with a student about her spiritual longings and frustrations, that feels like church to me. When I manage to facilitate a lively class discussion on The Book of Job or Flannery O’Connor, that feels like church to me. When a ragtag group of colleagues/friends come to my house on a Saturday night to share food and wine and fellowship, that feels like church to me.
There is part of me, then, that feels like whatever church is and should be, I am already experiencing that in my life. There’s another part, though, that is bothered by the selfish tenor of this whole inner monologue, which tends to focus on what church can do for me, rather than what I can bring to the table. Or the potluck.
So, here I am, left feeling ambivalent in the true sense: torn by strong, conflicting emotions. Why do I care so much? There have been seasons of my life in which church has been incredibly life-giving – and there have been other seasons when I’ve been damaged by church, when I’ve felt silenced and shamed. That’s why I’m taking the whole idea of where I go on Sunday mornings so seriously; I know what’s at stake. I know how church can heal, and I know how church can wound.
But I’ll end with some hope, a little sprinkle of fairy dust for those of you who read through to the end. Toward the last half of my pregnancy, I began attending a local Quaker church, and until exhaustion and impending childbirth knocked me off the churchgoing wagon, I was beginning to feel like I’d found a spiritual home – a little church that is a healing place, a place for doubters, mystics, and introverts, for nomads of the soul.
Of course, going there still means getting up on Sunday morning, so… baby steps.
[Tell me, how do you feel about church? What makes you go? What keeps you from going?]