Most of the time, I feel like one of those moms that has figured it out. I excel in a job that is demanding. I run three or four days a week and I dress pretty well. I don’t quite splurge but take pretty good care of myself. I usually manage to be totally present when I’m with my daughter, and manage to spend a lot of time with her considering that demanding job. I manage to sustain a creative practice even ten years out of art school. My house is always (always) clean.
On weeks when I manage to maintain or improve upon all of these most fundamental and fulfilling areas of my life, I feel such an enormous gratitude for what I have accomplished and for what I have been given. I also know that I have only managed to move forward in this way because I have made choices. There are things I sacrifice in order to maintain my balance.
I rarely see my friends and respond to personal emails sporadically at best. My husband and I rarely spend quality time not shared with a two-year-old, and we’re lucky even to pull off a date night of dinner and a movie on the living room sofa. I’m able to exercise so often only because I wake up at ungodly hours, and I have too much cleaning and writing and working to do to ever go to sleep early, so am never not sleep deprived. I hardly read. I barely cook. The only music I listen to is an outdated running list and a half dozen baby approved dance parties.
My life is a model of minimalism, stripped down to the essentials of what most matters – family, job, health. In this way, I’m able to focus on the good instead of the regret, I’m able to understand (read: rationalize) why I have allowed so many other peripheral yet previously important aspects of my life fall away. Because the more I focus, the more I produce, the more I learn, the more I squeeze every last drop out of every last day. And in this way I am happy. In this way, I have it all.
In the meantime, there is a conversation happening in the world right now that takes for a fact that women simply cannot, it turns out, have it all. Here’s how I interpret this narrative: Feminism flared up in the seventies and gave women every opportunity we ever dreamed of – to speak for ourselves, to work for our own money, to choose when and how to have children (or even a husband, for that matter – remember ladies, the years in our own lifetimes in which to be an unmarried woman at thirty was tantamount to death?). And we embraced it, this freedom that feminism had wrought. We built careers, built homes, built families. We educated ourselves so we could rise through ranks and through income brackets, we developed new definitions of domesticity. We did it. We did it all. But it left us exhausted and hopeless and wishing for simpler times. Because women cannot, in fact, have it all.
This recent narrative turn in the story of American women leaves me uneasy. My first experience of it was Anne-Marie Slaughter’s now infamous article in the Atlantic, “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All.” My initial response was relief. I was so relieved that someone had finally spoken, that finally my suffering was shared. Yeah, we could have a great job and a great life and an amazing child, but goddam if it wasn’t hard to keep all of these balls in the air all the time. It was damn near impossible.
But my next response was ambivalence. Because even if it was damn near impossible, I was actually sort of pulling it off most of the time. It was hard, but it was worth it. Everything good is hard won.
Not surprisingly, my reaction was much the same while reading the latest NPR-listening working mom book of the moment, Overwhelmed, also known as the latest pop-culture contribution to this conversation. As with the Slaughter piece, I was outraged by Brigid Schulte’s descriptions of the inequalities written into federal law and cultural norms and biased against women, working mothers in particular, by the horrific stories of unlicensed daycare, by the crazy-making experience of contaminated time. But just as before, it didn’t take more than a few dozen pages before falling back into ambivalence.
This is not to say that I’m complacent about the continued, fundamental inequalities that women face in the workplace and in the world. In even the most inappropriate of places (staff meetings, family dinners, preschool drop-offs) I am one of the more irritatingly persistent callers-out of the endless subtle and not-so-subtle ways in which women are disadvantaged from the time they are born, or from the time they are even conceived what with all of the gender mind control crap they are saddled with from the time their sex is first discovered in the womb.
The decks are stacked against us, yes, but this is not the reason we cannot have it all. We can’t have it all because there are only twenty-four hours in a day. Which is where those choices come into the equation. I understand that if I am to excel in the sort of job that I want to excel in, I will need to work full time and then some. I understand that if I want to exercise in the morning and write at night, I will need to forfeit several hours of sleep. And I understand that if I want to maximize time spent with my daughter, all other social obligations will be pushed to the backseat.
Twenty-four hours, a number so small my two year old can count to it in three languages. A number so small we might aptly compare our individual days to the teeny tiny rooms in a capsule hotel. In this context, maybe it’s not so much about having it all, but about redefining what exactly ALL means to each of us. Because how much baggage do you really want to stuff into that little area?
The problem with packing light, of course, is the risk of being unprepared for the unexpected. Because sometimes things like this summer happen, and every last bit of balance topples away. Sometimes days like this summer happen, and I go from having it all and having it all figured out to having all day dizzy spells. When each day is so perfectly pared down, so perfectly productive, all it takes sometimes is a tilt in the wrong direction and every last bit of balance topples away.
I’ve written a lot of posts on this blog about the more than occasional craziness of being a working mom, but this summer it seemed the gods had read each and every one of them and wanted to see what would happen if they all combined into one big crazy making mashup. This summer I started a new job and my daughter started a new school, my husband went away for work and my support system went on vacation. My new job went into overdrive and into overtime. My daughter’s transition turned to tantrums and to sleeplessness and to one impossible morning after another. And just when we thought we had turned a corner in it all, just as I headed into the make it or break it moment of my big new career my daughter got really, really sick – the kind of sick that only toddlers get, with inexplicably high fevers, with blood work and fluid work and x-rays and infectious disease panels. My morning commute was commandeered by thirty-three minute long conversations with doctors and by talk-me-down-from-the-ledge calls to sisters-in-law and to friends. I found new uses for my mute buttons while holding concurrent conference calls with higher ed consultants on one phone and with pediatric nurses on the other. I missed weeks of running and a season of writing. I took multitasking to ever higher heights and yet still never quite managed to keep my house clean.
I became convinced that not only could I not have it all, my attempts to do so had wreaked irrevocable damage.
And just as I was ready to throw in the towel, a new wind blew through and it all fell back into place. Despite all of the stress and all of the worry, my daughter is doing better than ever. She’s healthy, she’s happy, she’s sleeping well and finally, finally settling into her new school. And it turns out that all of my guilt and fear and worry was for naught. Because it turns out that maybe I was actually doing an okay job of it, even when I felt like I was failing in everything, and most importantly, most critically, failing my daughter. And so it’s back to ambivalence I go.
I still believe I can have it all, but my definition of all has shifted yet again. Sometimes having it all means means tiptoeing home after baby’s bedtime when the office has kept me too late on a Friday night, and sometimes having it all means helping my daughter build a Lego circus of our life on a too early Saturday morning. The only constant is my freedom to pursue all of the above. Because there are only twenty-four hours in a day, and I’ll be damned if I won’t find meaning in each and every one of them.