I’m forty-six and still working on who I’m going to be, whatever that means. For me, it entails having many interests and not enough time to explore them all. Therefore I’m sometimes unsure of my choices, and I feel a sense of dread in the pit of my stomach that I’ve wasted a lot of time thinking instead of doing.
As a child of the seventies and eighties, I was exposed to the idea that as a woman, I could be and do anything. I don’t remember feeling like I had obstacles to overcome as a female. I imagined raising children and working at a career I loved and doing all of the things I wanted to do with, to be honest, very little appreciation for the road other women had traveled to afford me such an entitled attitude.
As I look back now, I can see the idea was there, but the implementation was a mystery. We watched movies in which a woman adopted a baby on her own and managed to become the CEO of her own company. The fact that it’s a baby food company that seemingly just sells applesauce is beside the point. She also had a full time nanny, but whatever. We read Ms. and watched in judgmental disbelief as Phil Donohue tsk-tsked men who wouldn’t allow their wives to work outside the home. I never even considered that raising children and making my way in the world would be challenging. All I had to do to Have It All was claim my rights as a woman.
The problem with the Having It All mentality arose when young women started trying to actually do it. Want to have a career? Go to school? Get married? Raise a child or two? Easy. Figure out how to keep everyone on a sleep schedule, prep yourself and the kids for the day while you’re at work, make enough money for someone you trust to take care of them, and don’t get sick. Oh, and don’t forget to get dinner on the table on time, pick up from ball practice, help with homework, ensure bathing has actually occurred, and perform an amazing bedtime ritual guaranteed to lull even the most strong-willed child to sleep for the entire night. Once all that is done, feel free to strengthen your marriage and explore your hobbies and interests, as long as you don’t have some work in your briefcase that absolutely must get done before that meeting tomorrow.
The biggest thing I found in my quest to have it all was deepening guilt and fear that I was accomplishing nothing with excellence. Not to mention a pervasive sense of failure because I was having so much difficulty juggling all of the pieces of my life.
One summer, as I was finishing my degree, I decided to take on twenty-one credit hours. My advisor wasn’t thrilled, but she knew I’d die trying, so she agreed to it. I knew I’d need a workable plan for my children and myself because, for eight weeks, I wouldn’t be home except to sleep. I was lucky that my kids were older and could pitch in. (It never occurred to me until just now to wonder if any men in my classes were in a similar situation. Here’s where knowing the difference between impossible and improbable comes in handy.) The kids and I created a schedule of activities, planned meals, and made a chore chart. I checked in often by phone from the school library where I went to do homework between classes. By the fifth week, we were all exhausted with stress, but I had to finish, and so I had to drag them along with me.
They learned a lot about getting along and helping each other that summer, and I learned something, too. I can’t Have It All; at least not in the way I saw Having It All advertised in my girlhood. Having It All wasn’t effortless. It would take so much more than just believing in equality to achieve it. I couldn’t focus singularly on the one thing I was trying to achieve. I had to divide my effort and attention to include the human beings in my care, and I had to depend on my children to help me.
The ideal of Having It All was the perfect wife and mother in a suit. It was a political construct that had more to do with thinking ‘correctly’ than achieving anything. In my daughter’s generation, I’m glad to see feminism moving in the direction of human rights and self-acceptance. Daring to move forward, able to accept my humanness and my inability to function as an island, has become the new dream for my life. Having It All was something I thought I should want as a woman, but having a cohort of loving and helpful humans around me has proven far more nourishing along my journey.
Photo courtesy of Flickr user Jonathan Ah Kit