Throughout my life, I’ve had the good fortune to spend time with a lot of successful people. Men, women. Americans, Greeks. Artists, attorneys. Women, men. And most especially women. I have known and I have admired successful career women, successful creative women, and successful mothers. I’ve known so many strong, successful women, in fact, that I almost have come to believe that success comes easy to the female of our species. Women who were my principals and my professors, women who were the boss of my boss’ boss when I was starting out in my career, women who mentored me and who stood on stage in front of me as I considered my possibilities as a writer, women whom I have hoped to emulate in my development as a mother.
Flip back through that photo roll in your head, I’m sure you’ll find more than a few of your own. But what you might not find are women who have been successful professionals and successful artists. Or successful artists who were also successful mothers. Or successful mothers who were also successful professionals. I’ve yet to find anyone who reached any great heights in two of these areas, let alone that magical, mythical triple threat I want so desperately to believe we all might have a shot at becoming. If you know her, this creature of my dreams, please send her my way; I’d like to turn her to a mold I could then pour myself into.
I tend to think that this experience is new, this feeling of trying to do something that’s never been done before, but when I look at just the few generations I have known, none seemed to have been either on the path set before them, or on the path I’d like to set for myself. And none, of course, not one, ever quite managed that dual identity that would be the first real step toward my own dream.
My grandfather had a vocation, he had his pharmacy to run. My grandmother had her hobbies – which, even when the hobbies turned to a store of their own, at the end of the day, were nothing much more than hobbies. They liked their kids well enough, but were not of a time or of a culture that valued family above all, or art above all. They valued each other, and they valued having a good time in a way that I’m sure was downright shocking to their own puritanical parents.
My pappou had jobs and a big chair for reading his evening paper. My yia yia had her housework and she had her knitting – which, for all the creative energy behind it, still ultimately fell into that bucket of household upkeep. They loved their kids, but what they really loved, what it turned out they had lived for all along, was not their church or their ancestral village or their old world traditions, but their grandchildren, their future.
My father had a salary, had a big title, had newspaper articles dedicated to his decisions. My mother had a paycheck and sometimes a few crafts – which often, of course, went right along with whatever paycheck she was earning at that point in time. They valued family and they valued leisure (my father, in theory at least), but they were already entering those stormy tornado skies of modern life and modern challenges, of dual incomes and the high costs of afterschool care, those previews of gendered power struggles and those struggles to define new roles.
And then there is me, and my husband, and our little family and our little household. He has big projects, I have a big career. He does the preschool pickups, I do the drive-by drop-offs. He does baby bathtime, I do the dishes. I grit my teeth and lay down laws at the office while he works from home and gets dinner laid out. We try every day to find a little more balance, but more often than not end up collapsed into bed, not so much asleep as totally knocked out from yet another fall from the balance beam that is our life.
I like to think things are different now, that we’re forging new ground (and we are! aren’t we?). I also like to think that our contemporary husbands and co-parents are grappling with many of these same issues, these same challenges (and they are! just ask the man I married!). But it’s hard to deny that women have had a slightly steeper hill to climb, and it’s hard to deny that after all this climbing, we’ve never really found that plateau that we/I/you were promised. I wonder if that plateau is even possible when so much of our strength is spent chiseling out these new molds.
There is no balance. There is no plateau. At least not for us, or not now anyway. But there is that climb, and it can actually feel good sometimes, like that nice long run clocked at a steady but strong pace. And other times it feels like shit, but that’s just life, isn’t it?
I might never manage to mold myself into that unicorn with a beautiful mane, strong hips, a keen creative instinct and an insatiable appetite for success, but that’s because it’s a mold that doesn’t exist. What I can do – what I am doing – is skipping from one woman’s footsteps to another’s, hopscotching from matriarch to manager to magic making mistress of the night, taking little bits from the spectrum of inspirations that have come before me, and who continue to surround me. Because models aren’t what you see in magazines, and molds are made to be broken.