Go Ahead — Just Tell Me I Have It All

Washington Post | May 12, 2010

When I was 12, 16, 29, I was dead certain — in the way that only adolescents and ideologues can be — that I would be nothing like my own mother. For one thing, I was never going to be a mother. She was a mostly stay-at-home, full-time mother during my growing-up years. She baked a chocolate chip cookie I can still smell now, labored each summer over pots of jam until they’d reached exactly the right consistency, and seemed always ready, no matter what else was going on in her life, to hear a child’s meandering story. She was in other words, a model mother. Yet for years, I only saw her as a textbook example of the selflessness that traditional motherhood is meant to be. 

It didn’t occur to me then that there was any alternative to this selfless (or self-abnegating, as I came to see it), cookie-baking model. So I simply resisted what legal scholar Joan Williams calls the “Giving Tree” brand of motherhood, after the children’s book in which a tree gives and gives to a boy until he is old and she is nothing but a stump. That, I knew, was not for me. 

Spawn of the ’60s and ’70s women’s movement that I was, I found myself ever on the lookout for substitute mother role models: my mother’s friend who was an architect, my fifth-grade best friend’s mother who was an advertising executive. Call me heartless, but I saw my identity as something to be shielded from children, who, I thought, would inevitably gnaw away at their mother’s sense of self until there wasn’t much left. After all, it wasn’t until fairly recently that feminism broadened its vision to include mothers, and started offering ideas about how to accomplish that trickiest of projects — combining self and motherhood. Remember the slogan, “Mothers are people, too”? I was so determined to be a people that I thought there was simply no way I could be a mother. 

Then, relatively late in life, well into my career, I was bitten by the motherhood bug. I simply assumed that my husband and I would have a baby, go out, sign up a babysitter, and I’d go right back to the office when my maternity leave was over. It has worked out that way for some of my friends. Some are happy with their arrangements, some are torn. But it didn’t work out that way for me. 

After the birth of my son three years ago, I was smitten simultaneously with the overpowering love that every new mother describes and with the desire for a new kind of life — one that would allow me to try something different professionally, one that would free me from the tether of a regular office schedule. We would still need child care, but the hours could more likely be stretched and bent to my — and my baby’s — liking. 

In some weird twist of biology and fate, I sped through six months or so of the most wonderful (hormone-driven, I’m sure) high I’ve ever experienced. I had energy! I had vim! I had vigor! I wrote! I made soups! Yes, I even baked cookies! And I eventually decided to take the plunge into the new life, buying a gleaming new desk, installing an additional phone line, setting up meetings, writing memos. 

But as soon as those around me heard I’d quit my old job, they assumed I’d quit my career altogether. I’d tell them to call me on my office line. I’d tell them about my work. I’d show them my baby and my spiffy new desk when they came to visit. None of it was to much avail. In their eyes, I had chosen to “stay home.” Even as I worked, enjoying much of it, watching the checks arrive and beginning to believe that my plan might succeed, those I talked to — family, friends, neighbors — congratulated me on my choice to put Martin front and center. It felt like a betrayal of him to say that, well, no I hadn’t exactly done that: I was in love with Martin and my new life. I mean, if there were a fire, of course I’d save him way before my computer. But couldn’t I have both him and my work? 

And that’s when I began to notice the phrase “having it all” — in casual conversation, on television talk shows, in news stories, in women’s magazines, at family parties and in chats with neighbors as I unloaded groceries in the driveway. It was everywhere, an echo in my ear, a buzzing in my head, driving me crazy. Why, I began to wonder, did no one think of my husband, or any man, as having it all when he had both career and children? It dawned on me that for men, it’s just called life. Whereas for women, at least for some women, it’s called having it all. 

The phrase reeks of entitlement, of being spoiled and demanding — in short, everything the good, self-sacrificing mother is not supposed to be. Indeed, those of us who are trying to concoct a way of being that’s equal parts home life and professional life are often said to be “selfish.” When fathers make lives that include both family and work, it isn’t seen as some sort of transgression — because they aren’t expected to be selfless. 

I’m continually amazed at the minimal role angst plays in my husband’s experience of parenthood, compared with the prominent role it plays in mine. (You could chalk this up to genetics, but while it is true that my DNA is more angst-prone than his, I think there’s more to it than that.) He sometimes works late — so late that he’ll arrive home after Martin’s after-school time, dinner time, play time, bath time and story time — and while he’ll miss his son, he doesn’t seem to sweat it. Whereas I sweat — profusely — every hour of his life that Martin spends in child care. For almost three years now, I’ve toted up the hours, the days. I’ve worried about the kind of care, the amount of care, how late was too late. The subtext of all this anxiety was that I was somehow wrong to be trying to combine work and family, that I was engaged in some sort of thoughtless grab, rather than simply attempting to create a balanced, fulfilling life. Or, as a harried, hectic, oversubscribed friend of mine says: “Having it all? Hah! How about having a little bit of a lot of things, some of the time?” And indeed, as I watch myself these days, engaged in a mad dash from desk to washing machine to nursery school to Metro to computer to airport to shoe store to grocery store to computer repair store to gym to ringing phone, I have to laugh at this “all” I’m supposedly having. 

When I started thinking more about the phrase — how often it cropped up, how much it irritated me — I also noticed something else: Only certain kinds of women are accused of wanting to have it all. No one would think to say it about poor or working-class women, or single mothers with little or no child support. When a woman has to juggle home life and work life, it’s okay. The critique is really a critique of educated, professional women, middle- and upper-class women, women who have either real economic choice, or the semblance of it. (“If only they’d sell their house and move to a cheaper one, they could afford to live on one salary” goes this line of reasoning.) As Ann Crittenden, in “The Price of Motherhood,” notes, “Somewhere along the line mothers in the United States who are not in absolute need have come to be seen as privileged.” 

Indeed, it’s become in some way verboten in recent years — both within feminist circles and without — to talk about a mother’s desire for satisfying work. The more acceptable conversation is about a mother’s need for a job. I’ve heard a few daring souls say something like: “Well, I need my job, but I also want my job.” As a culture, we still expect mothers, if they’re financially able, to devote themselves primarily to the time-consuming business of raising children, whether or not they also work outside the home. As Williams writes, ” ‘Having it all’ blames women for the clash between our ideals at work — framed around someone who can work full time and overtime without family responsibilities — and a domestic system that relies heavily on family caregivers. We have a work system that doesn’t fit with our family system, and mothers pay the price.” And when mothers try to dance between these two systems — a hard enough task in itself — they are met with societal censure, charged with wanting everything, too much, the moon. 

Another way — a less loaded way — of discussing the attempt to combine children and career is to talk instead about the “balanced life.” There’s something appealing about this phrase. It seems gender- neutral, for one thing. 

But, what I wonder, is that balanced life? Although for the past three years, my existence has included both work and child, the scale has teetered wildly, sometimes shifting more toward my son (the cookie- baking seasons), sometimes more toward my career (the impending-deadline seasons). Recently, with much predictable angst, I’ve taken on a great deal more work; my husband has agreed to take on a great deal more laundry. There must be a life somewhere in the balance.