Work + Motherhood | Can We Have It All?
“When did being a mother stop being enough?” Her words weren’t so much an accusation as they were genuine curiosity with an air of concern.
I evaded my mother’s question for a moment. I swished my red wine a swirl or two around the glass, took a sip, and thought on it. I glanced over at my grandmother, who was half asleep before 9pm, in part because it was a solid 2 hours past her typical bedtime routine. But mostly, she dozed in and out of wake on the corner of my sofa because a day full of Christmas with little kids is enough to take out even the youngest of night owls.
Maybe I had over shared the tension I felt between the professional and personal pulls in my life. Maybe I was too vulnerable, even with my own mother, about how weighty motherhood can be, particularly when work outside the home is just as demanding. When I swallowed a bit of wine and courage, I offered my defense, “I suppose it stopped being enough when your generation told mine we could have it all. You told me– and she told me,” I nodded in my grandmother’s general direction, “Go, Girl, go! And so I did.” We all did.
It wasn’t so much that I was upset with my mother or my grandmother. Mostly, I was disappointed with all the women who had come before me and cheered me on without also offering a word of caution. They didn’t warn me about the sacrifices I would have to make between working and mothering. I was disappointed to look up after years of swimming against the current and realize that waves of feminism had pushed me out to sea on a flimsy, incomplete narrative.
I’ve learned “making it” to the end or the top is an evasive, elusive myth. So is the notion of “having it all.” And it’s taken me two children and nearly two decades into adulthood to realize that. Instead of a finish line, I have found an ocean of endless opportunities. From this vantage point, I have a better view of the shoreline, and I can say with confidence: If my children, ages 5 and 7, are still on the sand, then I’d like to swim a little closer to shore.
Don’t get me wrong: I am thankful for the generation of shoulders on which I now stand. They told my mother’s mother to marry well—a doctor, lawyer, or businessman, perhaps. They told her to take more home economics courses, to drop out of college when she married, and to have children right away. And so she did. But she also raised her children, went back to college, and enjoyed 30 professional years as a paralegal. In many ways, she defied societal expectations.
They told my mother she could do anything she wanted. “Be a doctor, lawyer, or business woman!” they said. And so she did. She broke state track and field records in high school, earned scholarships to college, joined the Army, graduated with a Master’s degree in English and Women’s Studies, and taught high school and college students for nearly 30 years. And she did it all as a young, single mother with two girls in tow. In many ways, she defined societal expectations.
They told me I didn’t have to choose between a family and a career. I could and should “have it all.” Lean in. Fight simultaneously for the corner office and maternity leave. Take a seat at the boardroom table but also make no apology for leaving the meeting to pump milk in the designated nursing room. And so I did. I earned a PhD; I landed the tenure track, Assistant Professor position; I researched and published and spoke at conferences. I sat on women’s leadership boards and led coalitions. And I did it all as a happily married mother while having two boys within two years. I rode the waves and paddled my fair share. In many ways, I’ve lived up to societal expectations.
But I am exhausted. Trying to have it all is a tiring and impossible goal. And I am raising my hand to ask our generation of mothers the hard questions: Can women really have it all? Can we simultaneously enjoy a healthy, growing family and a robust, enduring career? Mostly, I, too, want to know, when did aspiring to motherhood cease to be satisfying enough?
Somewhere along the way, we stopped honoring motherhood as an end goal. At some point, there was a bait and switch narrative that told millions of young girls being “just a mom” was just not good enough. In addition to being a mom, we said, you’ll need to find a few side hustles. More goals. Being a mother is an honor and a high calling. And, quite frankly, there is no “just” about it. We are just raising the next generation of leaders. We are just sacrificially giving of ourselves in ways we never dreamed possible before having children. We are just the absolute center of our children’s worlds. There is just no other job that needs us as much as this one does.
I have been the full time working mom. I have also been the full-time stay at home mom. I’m currently some hybrid of the two. So, I can say with a measure of authority, there is value found in all mothering roles. Whether you are in a season of motherhood that requires most of your day be spent in a boardroom leading important people or in a playroom loving little people, it is just a season. So, steward it well while it is yours. And no matter which room you are in, there is no room to feel less than when you realize you have more than you deserve. I have been entrusted with two beautiful little boys, and that is certainly more than I deserve. Sometimes I need to remind myself that they are my greatest contribution to this world.
I am an advocate of mothers who work. Working outside the home is part of my calling, and it genuinely develops me into a better mother and person. Work and motherhood are symbiotic for me. But reflection has helped me realize I cannot have it all, not in my professional or personal life. If I pursue any calling as an end goal, I will inevitably be disappointed because there is greater joy to be found in the actual journey than the imaginary end. Work and motherhood are no different.
So, in 2019, I’ve decided to rest a little more in the sand, to stay a little closer to my family, and to invest in them even more than my professional goals. I want to find more satisfaction inside my home than outside of it. This year, when I look out across the ocean and my eye catches the sun’s reflection beaming off some distant wave, I’ll pause to remember the view out there isn’t really any better than it is right here on the shoreline with my kids.