Dear Bartender and Priestess:
Last night, I worked until after midnight, and I did so the night before, and at least two times the week before that. And so on, and so on.
I love my job. I’ve been an entertainment news producer for the last six years and I love the challenges that every day brings. But in two weeks, I am going out on maternity leave, and I’m trying to make sure I have enough of my assignments in the can to keep my name fresh and relevant to my bosses. Things move quick in this industry, and being away from it for twelve weeks means I will be gone for practically a lifetime.
Of course I know there are laws to protect me from losing my job while I am out on leave, but that doesn’t mean I will come back to the plum assignments I’ve earned. And also, of course, I hear the whispers: Will she come back? I realize that’s an option available to me, to stay home with this amazing creature my husband and I have created, but I don’t know if I’m ready to trade my briefcase for some diaper bags.
I’ve grown up believing in things like a “work-life balance” and that women can “have it all”, but I feel like I’ve put a big part of myself and everything I’ve been working toward for the last six years up for grabs to my colleagues with different obligations. I don’t understand how this is “having it all” if my professional advancement has to stall and/or get winnowed away from me. I’m even considering cutting my maternity leave short so I can get back in the saddle and on track ASAP, and my friends with children are “mommy track”, so they’ve cut back their work hours or accepted less taxing assignments at their jobs…or are “taking a few years off”…so they don’t understand my perspective at all. None of those options are acceptable to me. What should I do? How should I look at this? I can’t wait to meet my little girl, but do I have to lose other parts of my life to do it?
Signed, I want what’s mine
Bartender and Priestess: Sigh. Well, we knew this was coming, sooner or later. Let’s see if we can sort out our responses.
P: It’s hard to know where to start with this. Is it the notion that everything you can conceive of can fit in a day (Time), that everything is of equal value (Priorities), that people have ever done this (History), that the physical body is capable of this (Limitations), that you are somehow deserving of having everything you’ve ever wanted (Entitlement), or that this is somehow good for the world (Civilization).
As the Priestess, I’m going to start with your priorities. Being good at either work or raising children requires tremendous discipline and sacrifice. I wish you had thought to ask these questions before you conceived. Children are not something you check off a list. Humans, especially tiny ones, are frail little creatures demanding an enormous amount of time and attention. And in the beginning they’re not only endearing — they are fretful and demanding. When they don’t sleep, my dear, you don’t sleep. Even if you’ve hired a nanny whose job it is to get up and have those middle of the night screams and snuggles, most babies I know have a voice that rivals a fire bell. Now there’s nothing that says that you have to be the primary parent, your partner can be, but that is a delicate dance you should have worked out before, because a child is going to interrupt your busy lives and require sacrifices.
B: There’s a long-standing joke-y meme that’s been around for decades: imagine a woman, enthusiastically chirping out the message: I CAN have it all! A baby AND a career! Some version of this probably lives in some corner of your head, doesn’t it? Moreover, it sort of informs your opinion on how you should be able to manage your life, right?
I want you to stop that. Why? Because it turns your life into a list. Like Ann said, a baby isn’t something you check off when you accomplish it. Washed the windows, check. Had a baby, double-check. Do you think the best way to judge your life is by the number of tally-marks you’ve scratched on a scorecard? And no matter what structure you try and put into place, a baby will find a way around that and make things unpredictable and messy. In a conversation I had two days ago with a good friend and mom of two adorable munchkins, she said, “The thing about parenting is—and every parent I’ve spoken with has, at some point, reached this conclusion—it is NEVER what you expect it to be.”
Realign your life’s expectations. Checkity-check-check.
P: If you want a happy, healthy child who will eventually grow to become an active and contributing part of society, you’re going to have to contribute to that child. And the needs don’t stop with babydom, they just change. Neither Terri or I chose to have children. My choice centered on the fact that I thought I would be better at what I did, that I didn’t have what it took to be good at both work and raising children. Are there times I regret that? Of course. None more than when my sister’s two children died, and I couldn’t give her mine to love. But it was a decision based on my analysis of my ability to provide a child what was needed. Because child rearing is incredibly important, not just to us, but to our world. I worry about how we build a better world.
When your sentence starts, “I can’t wait to meet my little girl, but…” you’ve already clarified your priorities, and yet, here you are pregnant. Who is going to raise your child?
B: I assume you have some kind of child care in mind, though you don’t mention if it will be a nanny or day care or grandma’s house or if your husband is going to be a stay-at-home dad. All of these options are OK. But I want to point out to you that while you may not know how to juggle “having it all” in terms of baby and career, what you DO have are options. A tremendous number of them, and this is my plea to families everywhere: please stop looking at “having it all” as meaning that you can keep everything on the table in front of you and that it will hold equal weight. It won’t happen. It doesn’t happen, even without a kid to consider. Have you ever made a decision? Have you ever chosen to go to your husband’s parents’ home for Thanksgiving instead of your brother’s? Then you’ve been presented with two options on the table, given one more weight than the other, and let the less important one roll off the table. You physically can’t split yourself in two and be at both your in-laws’ and your brother’s homes at the same time on the same day. And, you can’t physically split yourself in two and be a full-time mom with a full-time career, and take care of both things at the same time.
And please, don’t point to people like Marissa Meyer, who’s CEO-ing Yahoo! while taking care of her baby. She’s not. She has a full-time nanny, and a nursery built onto her office. She has no work-life balance. Her office IS her home; she just has another place where she sleeps at night. Usually. Is that what you’re looking for?
P: Historically, we lived in villages. Children ran in packs and grannies and aunties and neighbors all mothered our children. For anyone who’s been part of the Mother Grapevine, you knew you were being watched: it meant you could get a cookie occasionally at someone’s house, it meant you could use the toilet, and it also meant if you misbehaved, you got yelled at by your friend’s mom who then got on the phone and called your mom. And if the behavior was egregious enough, the other moms might chime in. There was a village to raise the children and you played a part in it. Your job was critical to the village as well. Everyone’s was.
We don’t live in villages any more. We don’t live in extended families. And I know a lot of grandparents who, even if they live next door, have active and involved lives and are not available and or interested in raising your child. They’ve raised their own children already—you. They aren’t being selfish if they have their own lives. No one ever promised you that you could have children and not parent them.
B: So, going back to the options before you. I want you to take a moment to consider what a lovely and enviable position you’re in. There are plenty of parents who don’t have the resources available to make these decisions—they have kids, they have to keep them housed and fed. I grew up in a home with two parents who both had to work to support the family. There are lots of families who just have one working parent, which often means more than one job at less pay than she or he deserves. Child care is expensive, summers home from school are a challenge, and the question of whether or not the mother can stay home to be with her baby is often laughable at best.
I’m not asking you to feel bad for the single parent or the working-class struggle. What I am asking you to do is reconsider the idea of “It All”. What you have, which is ironically fueling your dilemma, is the luxury of choice. And you want to keep it all on the table in front of you and make it all equally important. You can’t. Decisions have to be made. You have the ability to decide the what and the who and the how of your daughter’s upbringing in a way that’s unencumbered by dire need. You’re comfortable with your and your husband’s capacity to provide, and you can be discerning about which things fall off the table, in ways that other families simply can’t. You have resources, ability, and the power to use them accordingly. You have “It All”, even if “It” isn’t on the checklist in front of you. You’re just not seeing it.
P: I’m sorry, you were probably coming to the two feminists looking for a different kind of support. I spend a lot of time looking at families. I spend a lot of time looking at society. Both of these need a lot of loving attention. Where are you going to be in creating a family — which is what a child needs to thrive? How will you be contributing to society? Who are you that the world should arrange itself around you?