Ultimately I celebrate this type of discussion, especially if it honors the complexity of a woman’s work/life situation, which is a hard thing to do. Every woman I know has different needs, means, goals, beliefs, work environments.
Wait. Let me rephrase that. Every parent I know.
I always have two reactions to any directive with a whiff of women-should-just-work-harder:
1) Should we really be putting more of ourselves into corporate life? (I think the rewards are case-specific. I don’t mean to imply that I think women working in corporate life are sellouts, and everyone should be making art and adopting cats. I’m proud of the earning potential I established. And yet for me, it wasn’t sustainable. Sometimes I think putting more into corporate life, for men or women, means not taking care of ourselves, our human needs. To do it takes the right person in the right job. Some of the coolest corporate women I know don't just excel at work, but have boundaries, and feed their lives outside of work with travel, books, and relationships.)
2) Where are all the articles and movements talking about How Men/Fathers Should Be? Is there an equal onslaught? There should be. It's hard slogging through my daily choices, beating myself up about 100 things, and also this question: Can I look in the mirror and call myself a feminist?
One particular response to the recent “Lean In” talk got me thinking. Mary Louise Kelly wrote a personal essay called “When the Sheryl Sandberg Approach Fails—My Son Needed Me and I Was in Bagdad.” She had a great parenthetical that could be an essay itself:
There will be those who read this and judge. Who will shake their heads and say that mothers of young children have no business jetting off to warzones. Believe me, you wouldn’t be saying anything I didn’t tell myself that night. In my defense, I could point out how hard I worked to earn my spot in the Pentagon press pool. I could point out how much I loved my job. Or I could point out how many fathers of young children were on that trip. In fairness, they don’t wear their guilt at being away any more lightly than the women. The press section of every military plane I’ve ever been on was filled with men passing around pictures of their kids. (Still, one can’t help but notice that school nurses never call them first. Sometimes the problem isn’t the demands of our bosses but the expectations of our society. As one friend—a high-powered NPR journalist herself—puts it, “Mothers remain the default for everything.”)
One sentence stood out for me: “Mothers remain the default for everything.”
My Mom Ego loves this. My Professional Ego cringes a little. I’ll admit to having both.
When I left home for book tour last year – sometimes striking off for 2-3 nights – my eldest daughter started faking a leg injury. I would get calls, mid-reading, from her care providers, that she was refusing to walk. I panicked. Feeling guilty about leaving her, I started driving ridiculous hours through the night after readings, eager to be home in the morning. When I was selected for a Breadloaf Fellowship last summer, an honor I’d dreamed of, I drove the two hours home from Middlebury every night but one, missing out on readings and potential friendships. Finally my husband stopped me. “Maximize your time,” he said, “and for Christ’s sake, be safe. I’ve got this. Trust me.” Sometimes I’m afraid to let go, even for a day, to stop being “the default for everything.”
But I’ve had to. I want to, theoretically.
But there’s my philosophy about how things should be, and then there’s how it feels. I’ve found the feeling part harder to reckon with.
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Look. I’m not going to lie. Having two children hasn’t always felt equal, and I have the stretch marks to prove it. My husband is a veterinarian and doesn’t have the flexibility I have as a writer. There are some days he can fetch a feverish child from day care, and other days when he’s inches deep in the bloated stomach of a Great Dane and can’t break away without executing a complicated suture. That’s our jam, the result of other major life choices we made together. I accept this truth: on a daily basis, there is less at stake surgically altering sentences than surgically altering a Rottweiler.
In our own personal quest for balance, we moved to a small farm in Vermont; I know that sounds quaint and very cute, but it was hard, and it meant some big changes for me. I quit my corporate job, took some freelance consulting work, finished my manuscript, mothered. My husband took two months off of work and fathered full time before starting his job at the animal clinic. I also spent more time outside, more time with my family and less time commuting or talking on the phone, stopped using buzzwords that had started to feel empty to me. I lost fifteen pounds more than my pregnancy weight gain and my blood pressure dropped twenty points, even though I had a colicky baby.
I guess I leaned out of the corporate world and into my dream life. And when I say dream life, I also mean: we worked for almost a decade to get there, pulling off three graduate degrees on top of full time work schedules, coping with rejection, mourning the loss of beloved family members, balancing individual needs and dreams with financial constraints, soul-searching about what kind of adults we wanted to become. And neither of us, I think, could have pulled it off without the support of the other. I’m not a believer in the sanctity of marriage. I believe in partnership.
(It strikes me that in these types of conversations I, and many other women, feel that we have to explain our choices, justify them to ourselves and others. I find myself very much wanting to do that right now.)
I also know that we’re lucky to have the start that we did, good educations, supportive families. Even though it felt like we were struggling some years, I know we weren’t, not in the way some families with young children do. Or the way single parents do.
On the cusp of motherhood, I started a new career as a writer. At first, I was sure I’d never really work again. I was afraid to give up the corporate job that made me feel successful. But my husband was the one who pushed me, and swore that he understood writing was a “real job.” When asked if we wanted a shower for our first child, we suggested a co-ed baby shower. “It’s not just my baby,” I said, shrugging at some who questioned our choice. One thing I love about my Vermont friends: even if the women are off doing a motherhood ceremony, the guys often follow it up with a fatherhood ritual. Vermonters really love any excuse to drink beer and get incense out - but I feel as though a lot of my male friends here are taking on fatherhood in a very modern way.
So what did a stab at balanced parenting mean for us? It meant I could work hard at carving out a literary life, and traveling to support my book. It meant that my husband could pick out a rug I thought was ugly for the nursery. It means that I “let” him dress the girls, even if it results in an outfit that only a colorblind outdoorsman would pick out. It meant that one day my husband, thinking our daughter’s hair was too long, took the kitchen shears and cut off her ponytail. Just like that. Without asking. When I told that story to a group of women once, one woman got very tightlipped and growled: “I would kill my husband if he did that. I. Would. Kill. Him.”
Well, okay. But is that fair? Most women I know would take their children for a haircut without consulting their husbands. One thing I remind myself: if I want parenting to feel more equal, I have to stop lording over the small things I consider motherly domain.
If I make dinner most nights, it’s not because my husband won’t cook; he’s a great cook. It’s because I’m controlling about food and love cooking, and we’ve negotiated that. I’m not saying we have it all figured out. God, we DON’T. I still lord over some very silly things. But I do feel as though my husband is genuinely in the thick of all of this with me, sleeves rolled up, hands dirty. I could not have pulled off this last year of book travel if he wasn’t.
Just last week I had a family friend jump in to take care of both of my kids while I was stuck driving home from Boston in a snow storm after a reading. I vowed right then and there to do that for someone else. Yes, I’m busy. But I’m into Mom Karma. No, let’s make that Parent Karma. Remember that time your parents helped you drive twelve hours through the night with your six week old daughter in the back so you could make it to your mother-in-law’s funeral service? Remember that time someone put dinner on your counter when you had to teach a class and were past due on your novel and your child was vomiting in your hair? Remember that time a family friend jumped in to babysit so you and your husband could go eat dinner together and feel human again? Remember that time your sister and sister-in-law flew down to take care of your daughter while you were busy birthing the other one?
Some days I don’t feel very far away from that very scared new mother who spent hours walking circles in the pasture, cradling a shrieking baby, wondering how she was ever going to do anything else, including walking out of the house with the right clothes on, let alone succeeding at her job or getting dinner on the table.
It’s hard for me to imagine still being Corporate Megan, giving any more of myself to that particular work life. I’d wager a lot of men and women feel that way – just totally maxed out as is, unable to give anything more than the 70 hour work week they’re already putting in. It’s a miracle that people pull it off; it really is. I think if there’s one thing we can all agree on, it’s that this working/parenting gig is hard. The stay at home parenting gig is hard. Whichever mode I'm in doesn’t always feel good, or right - for me anyway. Every day I have to sort through the collision of emotional and rational feelings and try and do the “right thing,” when no “right thing” exists.
I like women in power. I like women doing the things they love to do, whether that's running a company or staying at home. I like women shattering glass ceilings. I understand those moves take sacrifice, but they also require partnership. I think women need more help and support – from employers and spouses. And me. I guess, like my wonderful friends who have stepped in to help me balance my career and family life lately, I need to put more random acts of kindness out into the world, and support my parent friends. New resolution: anticipate need, share the load.