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.]
So I’m sitting in my office reading this article by Lisa Miller from New York magazine about “feminist housewives” that just came out a couple of days ago. And I’m feeling annoyed. Not because I think feminism and housewifery are somehow at odds – not at all. I have quite a few feminist friends who stay at home with their kids. And, to be perfectly honest, if I had the option of hopping off the tenure track for a year and then hopping right back on, I would probably opt to do that. This idea of progressive moms who choose to stay home is old news to me.
[And can I just take a quick aside to say that I’m feeling really hemmed in by terminology here. So let me say, loud and clear, that I fully believe all moms are working moms and stay-at-home moms don’t just stay at home like weird recluses all day and working moms are fulltime parents, too. Sigh. We seriously need some new monikers that don’t automatically catapult us into Mommy Warzones.]
Anyway, I’m annoyed at this article. You are encouraged to read it for yourself, but for those who trust my interpretive lens, I’ll recap a few salient points for you. Miller’s article primarily focuses on a self-proclaimed feminist named Kelly Makino, who:
believes that every household needs one primary caretaker, that women are, broadly speaking, better at that job than men … The maternal instinct is a real thing, Kelly argues: Girls play with dolls from childhood, so “women are raised from the get-go to raise children successfully. When we are moms, we have a better toolbox.” Women, she believes, are conditioned to be more patient with children, to be better multitaskers, to be more tolerant of the quotidian grind of playdates and temper tantrums; “women,” she says, “keep it together better than guys do.”
The article goes on to describe how, despite the fact that “college students of both genders almost universally tell social scientists that they want marriages in which housework, child care, professional ambition, and moneymaking will be respectfully negotiated and fully shared,” those egalitarian aspirations typically remain unrealized. By and large, we continue to live in a reality in which the bulk of domestic labor is left to women, regardless of who is working outside the home.
We’ve all heard of the second shift, a nickname for the phenomenon of working mothers coming home to an additional “shift” of domestic duties. The second wave of the feminist movement unleashed a surge of women into the workforce (so much so that we’re now at the point where women actually account for more than half of that workforce), but there has not been a parallel pendulum swing going the other way. Work on the home front continues to align with traditional gender roles, despite the destabilization of gender roles outside the home. There may be a balance of male and female laborers in the workforce now (speaking in terms of numbers only), but there has not been a corresponding rebalancing of labor in the domestic sphere.
And guess what, chicas? It’s partially our fault. According to Miller, both men and women police these gendered lines. Women fall into ‘gatekeeping’ behavior by not trusting men to adequately perform domestic duties. We’re afraid they won’t do it “right” — i.e., like we would do it — so we just do it ourselves. This creates a feedback loop of gatekeeping on the part of women, and learned helplessness on the part of men, until voila, you have a huge imbalance.
I used to balk at this gatekeeping argument as a way of explaining the inequity of domestic labor. It seemed a little like blaming the victim. But then I began to catch myself doing it. I noticed, for example, when Michael would dress Julian for the day in clothes that I had neatly categorized, in my own mind, as pajamas – and I was annoyed. I wanted to correct him. I probably did a few times.
While I was on maternity leave for three months, Michael and I were both at home full time, and because I was breastfeeding around the clock, we fell into a pattern where I did the primary childcare duties, and Michael handled most of the other domestic stuff, like cooking and cleaning. (I literally cannot remember the last time I cooked a meal. It’s been months.)
So Julian and I developed a nice rhythm, we were pretty in sync with one another, and when the time came for me to go back to work, it was somewhat of an adjustment for Michael to suddenly be on all-day baby duty three times a week.
The first day after my leave ended, Michael called me that afternoon to say that Julian had been crying inconsolably for the past half-hour. “Do you think he might be hungry?” He asked. I’m not sure what I actually said, but in my mind I bitchily replied, “Hmmm, you think? Maybe try feeding him before calling me and asking me to intuit his needs from afar.”
Those first few days were a bit rough on the home front, and I began to wonder if perhaps Julian and I did indeed share some mystical, unique bond that Michael wouldn’t be able to match, because he didn’t, as a man, have access to that oh-so-magical maternal instinct.
Well, fast forward four weeks to today. Actually, we don’t even have to go that far. Within one week or so, ladies and gents, my husband had transformed into a bearded, tattooed Donna Reed. These days, I come home from work to see a cute little baby boy cuddled in the Moby wrap with his dad, who is cooking something awesome for dinner.
Michael has mastered the art of putting him down for naps, feeding him with a bottle full of breastmilk, and, hardest of all, the art of intuiting when Julian is hungry, tired, or just needs to cuddle. Michael is a cloth-diapering wizard, an amazing cook, a master gardener. He’s established a seamless rhythm with Julian that is simply beautiful to witness.
One of the unforeseen benefits of me returning to work has been this: Julian is now deeply bonded to both of us. He is just as content to be in Michael’s arms as he is to be in mine. This means that when I’m at work, or at lunch with friends, I feel completely at ease because I know Michael is fully adept at caring for our son.
I’ve also realized that those initial glitches we experienced didn’t have anything to do with the fact that Michael is a man; they had EVERYTHING to do with the fact that he hadn’t yet been forced to be primarily responsible for Julian’s daily care.
I told you earlier that I was sitting in my office while I was reading this article. Let me flesh that scene out for you a bit more. I’m in my office, sitting at my desk, pumping breast milk. My shiny new iPhone is next to me, and it keeps buzzing because Michael is sending videos of Julian, just up from a nice long nap, honing his elephant-grabbing skills on the play mat. In the foreground of the video is a happy baby, rested and fed; in the background I can see a row of clean cloth diapers ready to be folded, and off-camera is Michael, with joy and ease in his voice as he eggs Julian on, telling him that pretty soon he’ll be in Cirque de Soleil.
What annoys me most about Miller’s article is that it ostensibly calls women out for reinforcing the idea that men are inept caretakers, yet by framing this caretaking conflict as a woman’s dilemma, the article subtly perpetuates the myth that dudes can’t hack it on the home front.
The woman interviewed in the article, Makino, sees her choice to stay home as revolutionary. “The feminist revolution started in the workplace, and now it’s happening at home,” she says. But I don’t see her choice as revolutionary. Totally legitimate, absolutely — but not revolutionary. I don’t think it’s a giant leap forward for women to opt to stay at home simply because they are women.
What WOULD be revolutionary would be to stop seeing the home as a gendered space. That’s where the revolution still needs to happen. Not with women continuing to be responsible for the bulk of domestic work, but with both sexes letting their domestic Gods and Goddesses shine forth by actively choosing to home-make and co-parent together.
This means that, yes, men need to be left alone with their own children and forced to fend for themselves on a regular basis. And if this means that your baby has mismatched socks, or that he wears pajamas all day, that is totally fine. YOU WILL ALL SURVIVE. Not only that; you’ll be better off.
[Am I giving the article a bad rap? Do women make better caretakers? Are domestic gender roles a positive thing? Comment and share your thoughts.]