Category: working moms

Bread-winning and Bread-making: On Being a Provider

Michael at work. (Photo credit: Urban Bay Photography)

Michael at work. (Photo credit: Urban Bay Photography)

If you were to walk through the back door into our mudroom, you would be greeted by a row of deep red onions dangling from green stems, strung across the room like a row of purple Chinese lanterns.

If you were to continue upstairs, into our office, you’d find some usual office-y things (computer, desk, bookshelf), but you would also see a box of fluffy golden chicks gathering under the red glow of a heat lamp, as well as a bucket of pear cider sitting beside a jar of red wine, both in the throes of fermentation.

Before that, before even getting to the back door of the house, you’d have to walk by eight garden beds, several still overflowing with kale, celery, tomatoes (all kinds!), cabbage, squash. The zucchini, green beans, sugar peas, and broccoli have all been torn up by now, their lodgings cleared for a winter crop of beets, lettuce, carrots, onions, and yet more kale, cabbage, and broccoli.

Skirting the garden beds you’ll find a chicken run that extends from a coop in a L-shape along the back fence. Grape vines, now fruit-free, wind themselves through the fence of the run, and, inside, three hens loiter under towering sunflowers, waiting for falling seeds.

Under the edge of our roof, flanking each side of our patio, sit two large barrels that drink the runoff from the gutters; these barrels become engorged in the rainy Oregon winter, and then, in the dry summer, quench the thirst of the garden.

All of this fecundity occurs in the back part of our suburban lot. Much as we’d like to, my husband and I don’t live in the country. We’re suburban homesteaders, working with what we’ve got, often to the perplexity of our neighbors.

I say, “we,” but that really isn’t fair. Aside from occasionally helping with the harvest, collecting eggs, or locking the chicken coop at night, I have done nothing to make all this happen. My husband, Michael, grows the vegetables, raises the chickens, collects the rainwater, brews the cider, cooks the meals, bakes the bread – he even makes our lavender-scented soap – and, since the school year began last week and I returned to full-time work, he does this all while being the primary caretaker of our nine month-old son.

And yet, despite all he contributes to quite literally keeping his family fed and happy, to many Michael does not count as a “provider.” Or, at least, he doesn’t fit what seems to have become the widespread definition of the term.

♦♦♦

I grew up in an evangelical Christian subculture that was cocooned, thanks to geography, within the LDS (Mormon) subculture. In this nesting doll of conservative religions, “provider” was shorthand for the God-ordained duty of the man to work outside the home and make money to support his family. The woman, in contrast, was meant to burrow into domesticity and learn the sacred arts of homemaking. She could work hard in the house – cooking, cleaning, laundering, and feeding and clothing and caring for the children – yet her work did not fall under the canopy of “provision.” She could be a mother, a wife, a homemaker, but not a provider. She might make the bread, but the one who wins it, he “provides.”

I still catch myself assuming that this shorthand is limited to the circles of my upbringing – but now I have come to understand that this is simply not true. The connotative meaning of the word provider is fairly universal in contemporary America, even in the broader, more secular culture that ostensibly has less rigid gender roles.

Take Walter White, my favorite television anti-hero. (Because, let’s be honest, everything I am thinking about these days has some connection to Breaking Bad.) Even the scientific, nonreligious Mr. White roots his identity in this moneymaking notion of provision; his desire to provide for his family in the face of a terminal cancer diagnosis drives him to earn the big bucks cooking methamphetamine.

I remember one particular scene from a third-season episode, in which Walter begins to suspect that his meth-cooking ventures might actually cost him his family. Gus Fring, his kingpin boss, knows exactly how to manipulate Walt away from his self-doubt, when he says: “What does a man do, Walter? A man provides for his family. … When you have children, you always have family. They will always be your priority, your responsibility. And a man, a man provides. And he does it even when he’s not appreciated or respected or even loved. He simply bears up and he does it. Because he’s a man.”

This exchange, which proves effective and lures Walt deeper into the drug world, demonstrates the power of the provider label, and also how it is a fundamentally gendered term. Walt’s terrifying (and riveting) characterization is an extreme but potent example of how our cultural ideals and expectations of men are tangled up with post-industrialist, capitalist values.

♦♦♦

There is plenty of irony at work here. If Michael, earned a paycheck by cooking professionally for strangers as a chef, instead of cooking for his family for free, he would be seen as a provider. Similarly, if our income stemmed from his green-thumbed work, he could be considered a farmer instead of a mere gardener. The implication is clear: when domestic work is professionalized, only then can it be seen as masculine.

It is no doubt because of these gendered ideals that, when people inquire about Michael’s situation, I catch myself wanting to use terms like “farmer” and “homesteader” rather than the inert “stay-at-home dad,” which makes it sound like Michael just sort of lounges around the couch all day, never leaving the house. Even the acronym, SAHD, is a total downer. Most of these inquirers respond positively to the fact that he is a primary caregiver, but their follow-up questions – “Does he like doing that?” “Does he plan to go back to work soon?” – carry the assumption that, as a man, being at home must feel like an odd fit, a step down.

I recently had a friend remark that men receive undue praise for completing domestic tasks, and I agree with him in part. It is still too often an unexpected surprise when a man stands up to clear the plates at a dinner party instead of his female partner. But something shifts, I think, when that domestic work becomes full-time and completely supersedes a career beyond the home – thus pushing the man beyond the traditional sphere of provision.

♦♦♦

This is not to knock the breadwinners, of course – that happens to be my shtick these days. I’m well aware that my paycheck bankrolls Michael’s backyard homesteading efforts. The work I do is important, and it’s good that our culture recognizes that. The problem is that the work Michael does – which is also the full-time work of millions of women and increasing numbers of men – is viewed as less important, and for those men who choose to do it instead of pursuing a career, it’s seen as compromising their masculinity.

And yet, despite this baggage, I like the word provider. There is something raw and weighty about it, something that captures the essential significance of parenthood. The fundamental role of any parent is to provide for his or her children, whether than means earning an income or growing and preparing food or washing a load of rank diapers. I want to keep the word provider, but somehow detach it from its gendered, monetary roots. I want to reclaim it, to crack it open and fill it with new, expansive meaning that extends beyond the capitalist model connecting manhood to moneymaking and devaluing work traditionally done by women.

Ultimately, despite our cultural conflation of manliness and earning power, both breadwinning and breadmaking are inseparable gestures of provision. The money I earn? Michael makes it count. Michael turns the straw-money into edible, life-giving gold. And this, perhaps, is provision in its purest form.

[This article originally appeared at The Good Men Project.]

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The Girls Are Going to Work

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Goodbye, summer. Hello, work clothes that don’t fit. (Photo by Urban Bay Photography.)

This is what I tell my nine month-old in the mornings now, when I’m giving him a breast milk addendum to his blueberry oatmeal and nuggets of scrambled egg. He’s easily distractible and pops off repeatedly to stare at the cat, or his dad, or the window, or the magic of his own hand. And now I ask him, “Are you sure you’re done? Because the girls are going to work.”

Yes, after three months of meandering routines and on-call milk from the tap, “the girls” and I are back at work, caught in the whirlwind of teaching and prepping and pumping and attending an absurd amount of meetings. And Michael is in full-swing stay-at-home-dad mode.

Part of me feels relieved. Summer comes with weighty expectations. You’re supposed to do fun! exciting! things that other people will find interesting, people who inevitably ask, after regaling you with tales about ice climbing in the Himalayas or spooning with dolphins in the Caribbean: “So, what did you do this summer?”

I hung out. I played with my baby and my nephews. Once, I thought briefly about going camping and had ambitious plans to take a road trip to a wedding, but neither of those relatively minor excursions panned out. I picked some berries. And I ignored the Internet for an extended period of time because the endless pictures of other people doing their fun! exciting! things was beginning to make me feel dissatisfied with my slow-going, home-bodied, berry-picking life.

Aside from unreasonably lofty expectations, summer also wreaks massive mayhem to any sense of routine, which, before I had a baby, was refreshing. Now? Not so much. As August dwindled, both Michael and I began to anticipate the return of some structure and consistency to our lives. Wide-open days become unwieldy after awhile.

So when the deserted campus was once again overrun with (mostly) eager students and colleagues, I felt and welcomed the electricity in the air that comes with a new school year. It felt good to inhabit my office, to be alone and have a task to anchor my mind. It felt good to lose myself in the unending possibilities of syllabi tweaking. It felt good to work.

But underneath this honeybee enthusiasm – deep in the sticky hive of my mother-mind – I felt something else: the steady drone of guilt.

Ugh. Guilt. I know it’s an inevitable part of mothering. This was recently illustrated to me a couple months ago when I swung Julian up to my shoulder a little too harshly, making him veer awkwardly and start to cry – obviously not anything serious, but I felt bad nonetheless and said as much. My mom, rather than reassuring me that this was no big deal, launched into a rather terrifying story about my brother almost drowning as a young boy because of (what she perceived to be) her negligence. She wasn’t chiding me; my expression of guilt had simply triggered her own reservoir of the stuff. I could palpably feel our mother-guilt pooling and undulating as we looked into each other’s haunted eyes, and I thought to myself, “This is motherhood. I will now feel guilty, about something or another, FOREVER.”

Some of the time, I am fine. Some of the time I tunnel headlong into whatever I’m doing at work and manage to stay focused. But then my milk lets down, and I think about my baby, about the reality of our physical separation. I check my phone to figure out whether I need to pump (in which case I spend the next 15-20 minutes marooned at my desk, lamely scrolling through Facebook with my left pinky) or whether Michael has time to bring Julian by for a nursing session.

This should be the ideal scenario, of course. I am lucky to have a job with the space, flexibility, and proximity to accommodate nursing, and I feel a surge of giddy joy whenever I see Michael and Julian appear in my office door. As soon as I know they’re en route, I watch the clock in anticipation and listen for Michael’s familiar plodding tread on the stairs.

But then, after Julian eats and crawls all over my office, pulling books off the shelves and eating paper from the recycling bin, they leave. They leave and the office feels empty, eerily quiet. I find myself wondering about how long Julian’s nap will be, and if he’ll wake up crying or not. I wonder if he misses me, if he thinks about the fact that I’m not there.

Tuesday was the hardest day this past week. On Tuesday, the wonderful flexibility of my job backfired. Michael brought Julian by for some milk, and as I watched my baby gleefully tear apart old copies of my maternity leave paperwork, it occurred to me that I didn’t have to be there. Tuesday is a day I don’t teach, so I use the time to prep classes, grade, meet with students, write – all necessary parts of my job. But as soon as the thought presented itself – the thought that it was selfish of me to be in my office when it was possible to be at home – I couldn’t unthink it. I gave into the guilt, went home, and spent a frustrating and futile afternoon trying to work from there.

I’m sick of the should voice. The voice that tells me I should be working when I’m with my baby and that I should be with my baby when I’m working. I don’t know where this voice is coming from, but I can’t give it what it wants.

Of course — just processing out loud here — maybe this isn’t all about guilt. Maybe this is about me being territorial. Maybe part of me is threatened because Michael and Julian are honestly completely fine when I’m not there. Or maybe – I’m feeling an inner ding ding ding! as I write this – maybe I’m feeling guilty not simply because I’m missing out on time with my baby, but because I actually enjoy being at work.

On Tuesday, truth be told, I wanted to work. I wanted to stay in my office and power through and get some stuff done, but I felt compelled to be home, simply because that was in the realm of possibility, and I seem to have absorbed the cultural expectation that babies should be with their mothers 100% of the time. Given the choice between being with her baby and being at work, a good mother should want to be at home right? But I’m the bad mother who wanted to be at work.

So that’s where we are, the girls and I, stuck on the “damned if you do or don’t” merry-go-round. When I’m working, I feel like a bad mother – especially if I’m enjoying myself. And if I come home leaving a lengthy “TO DO” list smoldering on my desk, I feel like a bad professor.

We’re too hard on ourselves, we mothers. Remember that Time cover? “Are You Mom Enough?” Those editors knew exactly which button to push with that headline, exactly which wound to prod. I never feel like I’m mom enough. But who does? Who could possibly meet all the demands, all the steaming piles of should we heap on ourselves? I know it’s bogus, I do, but still, I keep shoveling.

And so, at the dawn of this new week, this new school year, I would like to raise a toast, to all you pump-weary, guilt-haunted, stretched-beyond-the-limit mamas. Despite what you may feel, you’re more than mom enough — say it with me now! — and the girls and I salute you.

[SIDE NOTE: I referred specifically to “mother-guilt” here, because I’m honestly not sure if men feel this same pressure to be constantly present to their children. Is the guilt a dad thing, too…?]

On Hating Writing

baby diaper sun

This is what I’ve been doing instead of writing.

I have a confession to make.

I hate writing.

I am a writer, and I teach writing, but writing is nonetheless a consistent source of anxiety in my life.

Even right now – I got up early this morning, pumped my baby full of milk, and rode my bike into town to have a “writing date” with myself. Now I’m sitting in front of a coffee shop with a steaming mug in the hazy Oregon sunlight, typing, listening to the ebb and flow of traffic, trying not to accidentally stare at the old man with a knee brace who’s sitting across from me, reading the sports section of the newspaper.

(Tangent: I can’t remember the last time I saw someone reading an honest-to-goodness newspaper, with actual paper and ink and everything. There is something comforting about that. This guy doesn’t seem to have an electronic device on him.)

Anyway, last night this sounded like an ideal way to spend a morning. As I planned the “writing date” in my head, I promised myself that I could write about whatever I want, without giving a thought to pleasing anyone but myself.

But now that I’m sitting here, writing, I can’t ignore the hum of anxiety in my limbs and fingers, or the thought-gnats in my brain that I’m trying, unsuccessfully, to trap and squash: will this be good writing? Will I post this on my blog? Shouldn’t I be writing something important, like for The Atlantic or some other publication? Shouldn’t I be writing something that matters?

And that’s what I hate about writing. Because things quickly spiral away from “writing” altogether, towards the fickle sirens of success, notoriety – and, yes, even money.

For the past month, I have been avoiding writing altogether (except for some compulsory work-related stuff), because any thought of writing instantly filled me with anxiety. This whole morning is my attempt to wade right into the angst and call its bluff. But it’s still here, simmering.

I’ve been running from writing not because I don’t want to write, but because writing has become inextricably bound up with my unfortunate ambition to be a “successful writer” – a phrase I will put in quotes because it’s a moving target, a meaningless category that constantly shifts to refer to whatever I am not.

At one point, being a “successful writer” simply meant being published. Until I got published. Then it became about publishing a book. Until I got a book contract for my PhD dissertation, and now it’s become about publishing a book with a general readership that might even make a little money. Ideally a novel, because for some reason that’s the holy grail du jour. In my mind, I’m a hack until I publish a novel. But, BUT, I know myself well enough to realize that if I ever do publish that novel or memoir or whatever that I will feel ecstatic for a hot minute – and then I will begin to stress about the next book and whether or not Oprah will include it in her club.

Ambition is fine, ambition can be good, but my writerly ambition is a voracious, insatiable blob monster, and most days I feel like I’m chained to it in an uncomfortable metal bikini.

The other day, Michael was patiently listening to me kvetch about all this for the gazillioneth time, and he said something – the only thing – that briefly made all this anxiety dissipate. We were standing together in the kitchen, in the midst of a long hug, listening to the munchkin pound away on his high chair. I was saying some muffled words into Michael’s chest, something like, “I hate feeling like I need to be a successful writer. I just want to have a bunch of babies and be a nobody.”

“Then be a nobody,” he said. “For now, at this point in your life, just enjoy being a mom, and write that novel when you’re 50. You don’t have to do everything now.”

When he said this, I felt my body relax, and I let those words hang in the air for a moment. You don’t have to do everything now.

That’s a neurosis of mine. I’m impatient, and so is my ambition monster. I’m not good at taking the marathon approach to life. Whether it’s running or my academic career or my writing, I’m terrible at pacing myself. I take on too much, I burn myself out, and then repeat the cycle.

Why is it so hard for me to live a small, unimportant, anonymous life?

The truth is, right now, I don’t want to be the angsty almost thirty year-old clicking away outside the coffee shop, worrying about “making it” as a writer and thus sabotaging my own happiness.

I want to be the nameless old guy reading the paper and drinking his coffee in the morning sun, completely unaware that I’m even here.

A Few Things That Have Surprised Me About Motherhood (In a Good Way)

pollyannaMy last post on “the mother wound” was hard to write. It was deeply heartfelt, but – let’s be honest – a little bit of a downer. I’m certainly glad I wrote it and that so many other parents, men and women, identified with what I described. (We’re in the trenches together, people!!!) That said, I’m feeling completely emotionally drained from simply existing through this past week, with its various horrors. Perhaps you can relate. So, today I’m keeping it simple and happy, folks. I’m going all Pollyanna on your ass.

Oh, and one more thing: to my readers who aren’t yet mothers but who might-be-sort-of-contemplating-going-down-that-road-one-day-maybe – I realize much of what I write involves exposing my worst parenting moments, which might be somewhat of a deterrent, so this post is dedicated to you:

A Few Things That Have Surprised Me About Motherhood (In a Good Way)

1. Poop Immunity

Right before sitting down to write this post, I was trying to put Julian down for the night. Just when he was teetering on the edge of deep sleep, he launched into a forceful, sustained grunt and proceeded to enthusiastically expel a geyser of poop that burst forth from his diaper and totally slimed his pajamas.

Non-mamas: this description probably grosses you out. But I have good news! If you’re anything like me, when it’s YOUR baby pooping, you won’t be grossed out at all. You will have poop immunity. Not only will you not be grossed out, you might actually acquire an academic interest in said poop. You might even feel a tiny thrill of curiosity when changing a diaper, a sense of anticipation not unlike what you feel on Christmas morning as you begin to unwrap the special package baby has laid for you and wonder: How much did he poop? What color will it be?

I have such powerful poop immunity that I actually like the process of washing his cloth diapers. Yes, this is totally weird. At least, I can understand how it might appear weird to others, but it seem perfectly natural to me. When it’s time to wash Julian’s diapers, I start filling the washer to let the soap dissolve and proceed to make neat piles of his dirty diapers on top of the lid. The poopy diapers get their own pile, so I can assess how much he’s pooping and inspect the color. Is it a bright soylent green? Or perhaps the ideal rich, mustardy-yellow with orange hues?

I realize that poop immunity may be compromised once Julian starts to eat solids, when his nice, frothy milk-poop will transform into run-of-the-mill gross human shit. But for the moment, it’s no big deal. So don’t worry too much about the poop thing.

[Note: poop immunity also includes pee, booger, ear wax, and drool immunity. Spit-up immunity may or may not be included, especially if it’s chunky.]

2. The Queen of “No”

Not surprisingly, I used to worry a lot about how being a mother would impact my career. To be perfectly honest, before having Julian, the epicenter of my life was work. I’d spend my bike ride home dissecting the workday in my mind, replaying class discussions and mentally assembling to-do lists. When I’d arrive home – nearly every time – I would try to open the back door with my office key. Clearly, I had a hard time not bringing work home with me. This is not to say that I did not have a rich and satisfying relationship with Michael – I did and do. But my thought life, my energy, and my identity were completely tangled up in my job. Probably to an unhealthy extent.

Because of this, I had a hard time setting boundaries with work; I said yes to pretty much everything and probably, frankly, cared a little too much about students’ and colleagues’ opinions of me.

Now, however, there has been a cosmic shift. Now, when I bike home, I pedal as fast as I can, anticipating that moment when I can walk through the door and see my husband cooking dinner while wearing a cute baby whose face lights up when he sees his mama. Now, I try to avoid bringing work home with me whenever possible, and I’ve become so adept at it that I’m constantly behind on grading.

And I’ve never said ‘no’ so much in my life! It’s glorious! Life-changing! And, because I’m pretty much always breastfeeding or pumping, I have an airtight excuse. A guilt-free ‘no’ is a beautiful thing.

Ultimately, having a baby has shuffled my priorities in a way that is healthier for me. Even though I am busier than I’ve ever been, I actually feel like I have some balance in my life and that my roots are where they should be: with my people.

2. My Muse is Back

Writing is my first love. Writing is in my bones. But going through the process of researching and writing a PhD dissertation pitched me into a creative wasteland for years. I forgot what it was like to feel inspired, to feel aflame with words and have to scramble to catch them before they turn to ash.

But just a few weeks after having Julian, I felt that spark again; I felt ignited. And — SPOILER — I started a blog. I am now writing more than I have in years. More than that: I have rediscovered the joy of writing for myself again, not for grades or for a degree or for tenure. Just according to my own selfish whims. And it feels GOOD.

I’m not saying becoming a mother will make you a writer, but it might unlock something inside you, some creative force that’s lying dormant. Motherhood is such a many-colored, monstrous, magnificent thing – you are continually rocked and dazzled by cataclysmic surges of joy and fear and hope. And all that tumult needs an outlet. For me, it’s writing.

4. I Love My Body. (Seriously.)

mom jeansI worried about the body thing. Sure. I worried about getting fat and having saggy boobs and a little pooch that would force me to wear “Mom Jeans.” But to be perfectly honest, I feel more at home in my own skin now than I ever have. Or since puberty, anyway.

A few months ago, I wrote about wanting to embrace my post-baby body:

“I had worried, prior to giving birth, about what my body would look like afterwards, and contemplated the maneuvers I could take to erase all physical traces of pregnancy and childbirth – but now that feels wrong, like a betrayal. My abdomen is doughy because it grew and housed my son, keeping him warm and cushioned in his water world. Scrambling to maintain the illusion that life does not etch itself into our cells and skin – this seems not only futile but disrespectful to me now.

In reality, I will never “get my body back.” Maybe I’ll get back into those beloved jeans, maybe I won’t, but either way, my body will remain permanently marked, physically and emotionally, by motherhood. And I want to love this incredible, life-giving flesh I inhabit – even the pillowy bits. I want to love it whole.”

Weirdly enough, I’ve managed to cultivate a pretty consistent feeling of affection and respect toward my body, even though I haven’t gotten back into running, or into my favorite pair of pre-pregnancy jeans. My hips are wider. My breasts hang low with milk. My stomach peeks over the edge of my pants. But every night, and several times throughout the day, I get to curl up next to my baby while he wriggles against me for a drink of my milk. In that moment I am filled with gratitude for this body, for its incredible, life-sustaining machinations, and for the nerves that fire up my skin so I can feel his glowing warmth and the roving touch of his inquisitive limbs. In those moments, I can’t help but think: This is why I have a body. This is the texture of bliss.

* * *

There are terrifying aspects of motherhood, absolutely. There are moments of despair and paralysis and UTTER BOREDOM. But woven through those moments is joy like I’ve never known. A rich, mustardy-yellow kind of joy, with orange hues.

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Right after tonight’s poo-splosion. Clearly pleased with himself.

Why I’m Done with “Having it All”

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.)

Betty Friedan

Betty Friedan, watching

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…

living room

Messy living room, iPhone style

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?”

work life balance

Work-Life Balance

[Please discuss in the comments, because I don’t even know if I completely agree with myself.]