One of the commenters on my recent post about "big careers" and work-life balance took a bit of offense at what I had written. From her comments, I think she felt that I was looking down on people who have decided to stay at home with their kids, or who find it harder to balance career and motherhood than I do.
That wasn't my intent, and certainly wasn't the topic of that post. The post was a long-winded explanation of how I came to realize that I tend to undersell my career, which made me wonder if that is why I sometimes get brushed off when I try to claim that having a demanding career and being a good mother are not mutually exclusive. I think I am combining those two things- but since I don't often talk about just how demanding my job is, maybe other people think I'm just full of hot air.
None of this had anything whatsoever to do with other people's choices in life. I don't want my style of motherhood to be recognized as the "right" way- I just want it to be recognized as possible. As I replied in a comment, I have written before that I do not think staying home with kids is easy. In fact, I think that it is harder than my job- or at least that it would be harder for me. Nor do I think that people who choose to stay home or to ease up significantly on their career while their kids are little are less worthy of respect than people like me, who have chosen to ease up only slightly on their career while their partner does the same. My honest opinion is this: different arrangements will be right for different families, because the adults will have different interests, strengths, and weaknesses and the kids will have different needs. There is no one right way to be a parent.
The entire exchange was a perfect example of a frustration I have: it is next to impossible to write about how I make my life combining career and motherhood work, or how I actually enjoy this life and am happy with it, without offending someone who has made a different choice. I am reduced to writing caveats on all my "working motherhood" posts, reassuring my readers that I am not judging their choices. Those caveats are 100% true. But why should writing honestly about my life be seen as a judgement on anyone else's life?
I suspect that women writing about how they like staying home with their kids and how they are helping their kids learn and develop face the same problem, in reverse. The whole subject is fraught with opportunities to offend people without intent.
The problem is insecurity, of course- if you're feeling insecure about your choices, it is easy to feel judged, even when no judgement is intended. I do it myself- there have been many times when an angry comment was itching to come tapping out of my fingers before I stopped, took a step back and realized that the post that had me so offended wasn't about me at all.
But why do mothers feel so insecure? I do not think an entire generation of women is suffering from some sort of character flaw that leads us to feel insecure in our choices about motherhood. I think we are insecure because our culture tells us two things that seem contradictory, and aren't necessarily true: first, our culture tells us that to be a good mother, we are supposed to put our kids needs first, and be willing to sacrifice our own needs and wants to them at all times. Second, our culture tells us that the best (perhaps only?) way to live an admirable life is to have big accomplishments, to "make our mark on the world".
The contradiction is obvious: how are we supposed to make our mark on the world if we have to sacrifice all of our goals to our kids? But there are deeper problems. I don't think a good mother has to always put her kids first. I like how Nicoleandmaggie put it in a comment on my "big careers" post- I put my family first. The needs, wants, and goals of all members of the family get consideration. Sure, the needs of the kids often get priority, particularly now, when they are little. But they are not the only consideration. (And before anyone scolds me in the comments about how I should put my kids' needs first- go read some of what I've written about how we have handled sleep in this household, and think before you type. We do, in fact, put our kids needs first a lot of the time. Just not all of the time, and their needs are not the exclusive consideration in our decisions.)
I also don't think that the only way to live an admirable life is to have big accomplishments. I strive for happiness most of all. It makes me happy to accomplish things, but it also makes me happy to spend time with my kids, and to travel, and do any number of other things. My husband has a list of things that make him happy, too, and so do my kids- although right now, Petunia's list is weighted heavily towards snuggling with mommy, blowing raspberries on daddy's tummy, and playing chasing games with her big sister. The trick is to find the right balance in life to allow everyone in the family to be happy. I won't pretend that I have that all figured out, but we do OK most weeks.
Thinking about all of this has led me to solidify my thinking about two fundamental fallacies of work-life balance that had previously been sort of nebulous to me.
The first fallacy is that the only consideration people have when they decide to stay at home with kids is the kids. In fact, the kids seem to do fine as long as they are loved and well cared for. (There is research to support that, but I am too lazy to go look it up right now. Maybe I'll come back later and add a link.) I think a lot of stay at home parents know that. Certainly my friends who stay at home do. They are smart people, as capable of reading the research news as I am.
But the idea that being at home with a parent is "best" for the kids persists. So much so, in fact, that we often get the idea that the only "allowable" reason for a mother to work is financial, i.e., that it is OK for the mom to work only if the family needs her income.
In fact, there are a lot of reasons parents might choose to stay home with the kids- they want to spend more time with their kids, they don't think they would make enough money to make day care "worth it", their particular kids don't do well in day care, and so on and so on. Similarly, there are a lot of reasons parents might choose to work while their kids are little- the family needs the money, they like the feeling of fulfillment they get from their job, their career is not conducive to a break, they like the feeling of financial security from having their own income, and so on and so on.
I think that most parents balance all of these competing factors and make the decision that is best for their family. The tragedy is that our society tries to heap guilt on them- particularly the mothers- no matter what choice they make. And so posts like my earlier one can touch a nerve without meaning to, because the nerves are exposed and raw.
The second fallacy is that the only way to achieve big things is to dedicate your entire life to work- i.e., that unless you are working and doing nothing else, you will not succeed in accomplishing anything "big". We lionize people who accomplish big things, and then create a mythology around them that may or may not be true. In that mythology, they are always single-minded in their pursuit of their work-related goals, tossing family and other distractions to the side.
I'm not sure if it really is true that the people we have lionized have neglected their families- or if we just tell ourselves that to make ourselves feel better about what we haven't accomplished. Regardless, I don't think that such a single-minded pursuit of your goals is the only way to accomplish big things. I'm starting to see this idea challenged in the writings of fathers in software careers lately. A lot of this seems to have been triggered by a passage in Steve Jobs' biography that said that Jobs authorized the biography so that his kids could know him. I haven't read the biography, so I don't know if this passage really meant that Jobs spent very little time with his kids- or if he just thought that it is hard for kids to really know their parents, particularly if the parents die relatively young, and maybe reading a biography by a third party would help fill in the gaps. Regardless, it will be interesting to see if our cultural narrative about success starts to change as the idea that work and the rest of your life can be balanced rather than put in opposition is espoused by more fathers, who are unfettered by the undercurrents of sexism that pull down mothers who have argued the same things.
I hope so, because kids are too wonderful to deny to the ambitious, career success is too satisfying to deny to the parents, and I strongly suspect that the world misses out on a lot of great things because we've built our culture and our workplaces around the idea that you have to choose between the two. I'm refusing to choose- which is possibly a bit crazy, and definitely adds some stress to my life. But for me, there really is no other way I could live and feel true to myself. If motherhood and career really are "it all", then yeah- I am going to try to have it all. And I plan to have fun while I try.
Wow. That got long. Bonus points if you made it all the way through.
Serious bonus points if you know the song that provided the title of this post... without Googling!