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…?]
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.]