Just read an excellent piece about another set of articles that have continued to stir the public conversation about parents in the workplace, specifically mothers, and the idea of “having it all.” I’ve long thought and said that just seemed laughable. What is “it all”? Usually when the subject is brought up, somehow it’s assumed implicitly that phrase means that women can raise children and work in the career they have been educated for, and progress exactly as they’d like in both facets of their lives. But as a mostly stay-at-home parent who has worked part time and full time at different periods of my life, I have long known it is impossible to have that kind of “all.” Let me clarify: “all” essentially combines the concepts of being an “attached parent,” as one might put it today, and doing everything for one’s children, and going the distance in a career, all the way to “the top” of whatever field has been chosen. (And may I also now add in that our society today is including as bonus points that a mother who has it all can also look 25 when she’s 45, wear a size 2, run half-marathons by training at 4 a.m., and always be beautifully pulled together, displaying her family in a house that’s decorated by all the best ideas on Pinterest.)
Nope, not possible to do both. Not at the same time. Something is going to give. You won’t be at every single event your child is involved in, or you won’t end up at the top of the food chain in your job. But what IS possible is to take the best of both facets and focus on those parts that mean the most to you and make those count. And that balance, that particular combination of elements, is going to vary person to person, and be utterly unique. Then, knowing that you achieved at least fairly close to the combination of things you chose to do (and were flexible to go with the flow as you rethought things and reworked along the way), you could say at the “end” that it was satisfying.
I think in the article I read one thing that bothered me the most was this observation from one female writer: “But my other thought about Slaughter’s beautifully written piece is what a missed opportunity it was. Yet again, a powerful, influential woman had a platform to talk about the issue of choice when it comes to women, parenthood and power and chose not to discuss one of the most undervalued choices of all: the choice not to become a parent.” For one, that means nothing to this current argument of “having it all” as a parent. If you’re not a parent, all those choices become irrelevant, and there is nothing to “balance.” Simple as that. For another, I guess it struck me because I can’t imagine someone giving up the opportunity to raise children. Sure, it’s a messy, frustrating, difficult and time- and energy-consuming job, but it is absolutely the most joyous and satisfying in the long run. Nothing beats having reared a whole separate, unique HUMAN BEING from infancy to capable, independent adulthood. Nothing. (But I know even as I say this that a few people really just aren’t cut out to be parents. And if they absolutely know that, then I respect that choice. Absolutely. I just don’t want people who are on the line to give up on the possibility and never know the joys they could have known.)
What I found was a great observation was actually from a reader. This person commented, in part, “Even though it is difficult to live in our current economy without both parents working, we are expected to spend more time catering to our children than any other generation. Sacrificing your life for your children, however, does not make them strong, responsible adults.” Hurrah, commenter. Great observation. We as parents today are doing much more for our children than they truly need. I took this evening to remind my four progeny that as much as I love them and enjoy time with them, I do not need to nor should I spend all my time with them nor do too much for them. For one, I do have responsibilities to take care of our home and keep meeting their basic needs, whether that is shopping for food, earning some money, cooking, cleaning (the work they are not quite capable of), and so on. Second, it is not good for them for me to be with them all the time. They need the space and time to decide for themselves how to use their time, how to work and play within their own sphere. Choosing and keeping themselves busy allows them to become independent and allows their brains to develop in the best way. If I provided answers for all their questions and wants, they would not be able to stretch their brain muscles and grow as separate individuals. So no, I do not cater to my children. And they are better off for it. They actually do step in and wash dishes or clean up without me asking them to (not all the time; this isn’t a dream world!). But they show initiative and can make decisions for themselves. They work and contribute to our household in the ways they are capable of. We all work together as a team. Nope, it’s not seamless, but we’re working on that. And that’s my job as a parent: to allow them opportunities to function as a viable member of this family team.
So I’m throwing in, again, my two cents’ worth on this topic that will be dissected over and over throughout all levels of our culture. I hope that the parts that should change for the better do. I hope that all parents will feel more comfortable and accepted as they say at work, “Nope, I can’t stay late for yet another night; I need to be with my children.” I hope that more businesses can find ways to allow all workers to have flexibility in when and how they do their work. I also hope that parents can feel comfortable in allowing their children some room to be themselves, to make their own decisions, to not “helicopter” them. I hope that we all can give ourselves some breathing room as we live the only lives we have, one messy step at a time. Life will never be exactly what we envisioned, either in the realm of career or family. It won’t be perfect. It won’t align with a rigid plan. But in the end, I hope that each of us can feel satisfied that we did the best we could with every decision we made and feel our lives were full and good, despite not “having it all.”