Sunday, February 12, 2012

No One's Gonna Stop Me From Having It All

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!


  1. Amen. You nailed it, my dear.

  2. I have "no one's gonna stop us now" stuck in my head, but that may not be what you're referencing.

    If it makes you feel any better (and according to a recent CNN article, it should!) I have never felt insecure about my parenting choices, and when I tell my mom about how women on the internet or even some women IRL (back from when we were living on a coastal city) get, she believes me, but she also doesn't believe it. It's like, beyond comprehension. It just doesn't make any sense.

    (I think it may make sense to us in sort of a Voltaire way... Plant your own garden, and these problems go away.)

    I deliberately controversial posted my family first comment for a post for us near the end of March. That should be fun for the whole grumpy family.

  3. (Not to say I never felt insecure as a parent-- for the first few months I was convinced DC was going to suddenly die, but miscarriage and infertility can do that to a person. I made the best choices I could given those fears.)

  4. Anonymous5:11 AM

    re your twitter:

    Betsey is the person who told me about personal assistants "We have someone who does things like put the cordless phone back on its base." Brilliant.

    But... she's the one who organizes all the personal assistants and nannies and so on (at one point she had to post OSHA signs because they had like 5 people taking care of them)... she's the one with the mental load. And... she didn't get tenure. (This totally shook the foundations of my world view when I found out... thankfully there's still plenty of top economist mothers like Nancy Rose and Susan Athey and many others.) Some of that is probably sexism-- all of her top journal articles are coauthored with her husband (who got tenure). If they were coauthored with someone else, it might have been ok. But she also doesn't have the line of single-authored papers and solid papers with other people that her husband has.

    Still, they are going to land on their feet. I was at a conference last semester in which several top schools with supportive faculty were vying to give them tenured offers.

  5. scantee6:54 AM

    I think we've arrived at a point where the SAH/WOH distinction is more about identity than it is about a parent's actual work status. Identity is very personal for most people even if they don't realize they're constantly in the process of forming and reshaping it or that this thing (in this case, staying at home or working) is a huge part of how they define who they are. That's why you can write a post seemingly unrelated to the SAH/WOH distinction and someone can take offense to it. It is easy to interpret someone's opinion as critical to your personal identity when it's something you value highly that seems to get little respect(even if the original opinion is not directly addressing the thing to which you are taking offense!).

    Anonymous is partially right in her comments; we do need to hear from women who are not able to balance it all. But that is not you and it is not your responsibility voice that opinion. You cannot be everything to everyone. Please, please do not feel you need to make caveats to protect every possible readers' feelings. That drives me nuts and I feel it's a very gendered practice. No one expects men to do it and no one gets mad when they don't.

  6. I agree and identify so much with your balance posts, including this one. I will admit that I sometimes have a twinge of feeling judged when I read the SAHM posts or homeschooling posts, especially this year when my 6 year old is struggling with his introduction to public school and I'm not at the school at 3:15 every day. But that is so about me and not whoever.

  7. Thanks, @Parisienne. BTW, have you seen the recent spate of articles about how French kids are better behaved than US ones? Someone wrote a book on it. If you were inclined to check them out and tell us what you think... that would be awesome! Hint, hint. :)

    @nicoleandmaggie- nope, that's not it. The title is a direct line from the song. I'll reveal later. I'm looking forward to your post!

    @Anonymous- yes, I organize the housecleaner here, too. That is partly because my husband is still grumpy about having one. He'd prefer to do the cleaning ourselves (and yes, he did at least half of it.) But he has things he keeps in his mental space, too. We try for a fair split, and I think mostly we get there.

    @scantee- I think that is a very insightful comment. I do sometimes struggle to balance things- usually when both work and home are extra intense (deadlines for both parents and sick kids at the same time, for instance). I've also been debating writing a post about stress and how I defuse it. Because there is definitely stress when you try to "have it all".

    @Shandra- thanks! I'm sorry to hear your son is struggling a bit with the school transition. But hasn't he struggled with other transitions, too? Or am I remembering wrong? Maybe change is the problem more than school, you know? Pumpkin is super excited about kindergarten, but I still expect some drama, because she is also super attached to her routines.

  8. @Cloud - you're right! But this one is less his transition issue I think and more that he doesn't get some of how PS works, and his teacher is finding that...appalling. It will work out but it is one time I've wished I were just able to be right in the hall more, even this late in the year. Ironic because I've otherwise been so happy to get back to work.

  9. ROFL... Apparently I am a French parent (Except for the sleep thing-- I will always pick up a crying baby. And we snack because it is healthier-- if I need 6 small meals a day I'm not going to deny the same to my growing kid.)

    As were ALL the parents at DC's Montessori! And almost all the parents at the Lutheran preschool he went to for a year. And most of the families we see at the playground. Really it was only the "natural parenting" group that were like the "American" parents discussed in the article (and presumably, book). And they were bizarre and unnatural. Even in the coastal cities it's only a subset of the population that's like what the author describes.

    So basically... what I read online and in the NYT seems not to describe the majority of what I see IRL. Perhaps we do all need to spend time planing our own gardens and not introspecting.

  10. @Nicoleandmaggie- yeah, I don't recognize anyone I know in those portraits of "American parents," either. I just put it down to another example of how when "big" publications write about parenting they are writing about some other tribe of parents. If I read the articles as anthropology, then I don't get mad!

  11. the milliner1:40 PM

    I must admit that almost 4 years in I'm still defining the balance of my 'big accomplishment' goals and being a mother (amongst many more things, I might add). It's kind of like a moving target. As the circumstances of my environment change, so do my thoughts about the topic. In the early days of going back to work after DS was born, I questioned how much career drive I still had. Pre-DS it was quite high. Then I thought that perhaps the declining situation at work was causing me to perhaps hide in the luxury of spending more time and focus on home/family/DS. Now that things have improved considerably at work, I'm pretty sure that the right balance for me, right now, is to limit my time at work, work hard while I'm there, and then focus on home the rest of the time.

    And Cloud, I have to thank you for writing about your own experience with having a max productive time in the day (and it being slightly less than the average, if I remember correctly). It never would have occurred to me before that my working a slightly shorter work day would let me be
    more productive, and that not only was it good for me and my family, it's good for my company too.

    Anyhow, ITA that the decisions that every family must make on who stays home, when, why, how, etc. have so many factors. The more it's reduced to an either/or decision based on one set of criteria, the more of a disservice to everyone. And sadly, I think the mothers do bear the brunt of that disservice.

  12. What @scantee said, especially this - "Please, please do not feel you need to make caveats to protect every possible readers' feelings. That drives me nuts and I feel it's a very gendered practice. No one expects men to do it and no one gets mad when they don't." YES!

  13. Hee, repeat, "I refuse to apologize for being awesome."

  14. Cloud, I loved this paragraph: "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." Exactly.

  15. @the milliner- yes, my ambition to achieve "big" things ebbs and flows, too. I also figure that that even if I have a lot of ambition, that doesn't mean I have to act on it RIGHT AWAY. I can wait until the kids are a little older, or until we take care of X around the house, etc.

    And I'm glad the idea of a "work limit" was helpful! The post on that ( was one of my most popular ones on time management/work things.

    @hush, @Nicoleandmaggie- I know. But I hate the idea that anything I write would make someone who is awesome in less conventionally recognized ways feel bad!

    Thinking more on @scantee's comment- what I think would be really interesting/useful would be to do a dispassionate comparison of my situation and that of someone who decided to take some time off from her career while her kids were little, and see if there are any structural differences (e.g., involvement of partner, flexibility at work, time management skills, baby handling skills, disposition of baby, etc), or if it all just boils down to a preference. I have suspicions about some differences that might be important, but absolutely no data to back those up.

    @Laura- thanks! I struggled with how to end the post. I'm glad someone liked the ending I came up with.

  16. I am sure it's not the song you're thinking of - but the title made me think of "Don't stop me now" by Queen. (Don't stop me now, cause I'm having such a good time...)

    Anyway, on reflection, I am sympathetic to the Anon that sparked this comments' points (to be abbreviated henceforth as ATST) even though they annoyed me at the time. If you weren't a long-time reader familiar with some of the nuance of the difficulties/priorities/effort to maintain balance etc that underlay the post, it could perhaps make someone who is struggling to balance feel bad. BUT if you have been reading along for a while, it's obvious that's not your intention.

    I read along because I identify with what you write - we 'come from the same place' in terms of education/career/supportive partner etc, even though I've made some different choices. It is a particularly fortunate place in that we *have* choices. But, just because you have choices, doesn't make your voice less valid or authentic than someone who doesn't or has chosen differently (along as you've got what my husband charmingly calls 'insight'.)

    As for @scantee's/Clouds comment about structural differences... I can't lay my hands on the data, but I'm pretty sure the things Cloud cited (supportive partner/flexibility at work/temperament of child/parental preference) are REALLY important.

    My anecdata for my choice to work part-time:
    A partner who *right now* can't be more supportive (because in the grand scheme of our lives, getting him through his med training in minimum time is important)
    My very flexible job that was easy to scale to part-time.
    My *enjoyment* of doing fun stuff with my child
    My dislike of cleaning (and the relative economic inefficiency of me doing my own cleaning)
    My intellectual *enjoyment* of my job and my need for 'external validation and tangible achievements' that work provides.
    The availability of high quality childcare that (after non-means tested subsidy) accounts for just 12% of my after tax pay.

    If any of those were different - I would probably make a different choice and it is hard to predict how those choices would work *when you don't actually HAVE to make them*. For example, if I was the doctor trying to get through training and he was the engineer, he'd either have to do drop-offs & pick-ups OR Moo would spend more time at daycare. I don't know what way it would go - would he step back at work for a bit, would Moo end up being fine in more daycare (because god knows, I've learned that *bad things* happen when she's in daycare past 4pm), even I can't say which way we'd go! What if I didn't actually *like* my job? What if my child was an angel who never had tantrums and I never stood at the sink thinking *oh god, it's only Tuesday and I don't get to go back to work until Friday*

    Who can say what I would choose if something was different, if I can't say myself? And with that insight into my life - I try not to judge other peoples choices.

    And that is undoubtably a long enough comment from me.

  17. Love this post.

    You know, I have to think a lot of the "choice" and the angst *is* about personal preference.

    I chose to work part-time after returning to mat leave because *I* wanted more time with my daughter. I thought we might only do this once, and I selfishly wanted to be with her to watch her grow as much as I could. (Let me tell you that I am NOT looking forward to her being in school 5 days a week!)

    I just like it. I love doing pointless crafts with her or reading The Very Hungry Caterpillar for the 29th time. My career drive plummeted after she was born and probably will never recover.

    I used to LOVE my job, and it was who I was. Then I discovered making jewelry, and that took some of my passion away from work.

    Then my daughter was born, and she took the rest of that passion.

    Sure, I like my job. I work for a great company and my coworkers are awesome and smart. But I don't LOVE it anymore.

    I could totally find personal fulfillment without working. (IE, I wouldn't feel like something was missing if I didn't work. Well, except the money, and time to go to the bathroom alone.)

    In my case, the mommy wars are all about me spending my days the way I like to, and not so much about "what's best for the children".

    T is THRIVING in daycare - it's not just a place where we stash her because we have to work. If I quit right at this minute, I would still send her somewhere (assuming a money tree in the backyard, of course.)

  18. @zenmoo, @Anandi- thanks so much for the comments. It means a lot to me that people who have made other choices see what I'm saying.

    @zenmoo- I think you're right. I don't think that original commenter was trying to troll or anything. It is hard to just land on a blog post and get the context- but at the same time, I don't want to have to write out the entire context every time (and since the majority of my readers are long term, I don't think they want to read that.) I tried not to overreact, but lord knows, I'd had a bad couple of days, so I probably wasn't as careful in my comments in reply as I could have been.

    Anyway, I think you're absolutely right- I don't really know what choices I would have made if various variables were different. So how could I pretend to know what anyone else should choose?

  19. @Cloud - I've been burning to write a post in reaction to the buzz around "Bringing up Bebe," but I haven't yet had time -- probably because, you know, I'm a horrible American mom and my life revolves around my kids and if I were just a little more French I would send the brats off to bed in short order and have more time to myself in the evening. Also they wouldn't be making all that neuron-killing noise at the dinner table. Heh.

    After all, my neighbors apparently have it all figured out (though don't tell anyone, but I do hear a lot of preschooler racket coming from the apartment down the hall).

    (Can you tell where I'll likely be going with this post when I do write it?)

    I've only read the same summary articles you all have, but personally, it sounds like she's exploiting stereotypes for profit (a noble expat passtime, you understand). But as usual, there's a (small) grain of truth to be uncovered there, and I've been meaning to spend some time on it. Stay tuned...

  20. There's a problem though when someone becomes a little rain-cloud, or rather, a crab in a bucket, trying to bring everybody else down. Perhaps I'm too much of a "French mother," but that behavior is inappropriate and sympathizing with it doesn't help anybody, including the crab who just gets rewarded for hir negative actions and encouraged to go on being a soppy wet blanket spoiling everybody else's happiness rather than examining hir own life and figuring out how to be happy hirself.

    Not that tough love necessarily works either. But at least it stops the negative externalities on everybody else who is trying to be happy.

    I'm reminded of the (sudden temporary) guilt I felt for often bringing homemade baked goods to events with children after reading that noxious post saying it made other mothers feel guilty (based on that noxious NYTimes article about that noxious book). Dude man, just enjoy the cupcake, don't take it as a personal attack on your parenting skillz. Nobody else is. (Nobody else is even thinking about what you did or didn't do. You're just not that important to people who are busy with their own lives.) It's not my fault if you need to get over yourself.

  21. Note: I still have Queen stuck in my head. Thank goodness for Youtube.

  22. This tension doesn't seem to exist for most Swedes I've known, I think because of all the government supports for families with small kids. Everyone can have a parent home with the kid most of the first 1-2 years, and then after that childcare isn't really too hard to come by (though it can be harder in the cities to find a good spot.) And the work days are shorter and there's so much vacation that family life doesn't seem as stressed when combined with working. But then it means you can't really be a SAHM--that's considered the weird, selfish choice.

  23. I honestly don't understand the insecurity, unless you're facing off with someone who is specifically ragging on your choices and you. Or if, like me, you don't actually have a choice. Some people have to work, some people have to stay home. That can make for some serious insecurity!

    I wrote a post a while back ( where I summed it up that everyone's living their own easy or hard - and it's not necessarily your easy or hard.

    I think it's great you're having it all! Personally, I'd like to have a little less than it all ;)


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