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Maybe It’s Time To Redefine What It Means For Women To ‘Have It All’


In The Atlantic, Hana Schank and Elizabeth Wallace decided to write a seven-part series, in which they talk to their former college classmates about their ambition and successes after graduation.

After conducting the interviews, they divided respondents into three groups: the “High Achievers,” the “Scale Backers,” and the “Opt Outers.” Their description of women in the Opt Outers group was particularly interesting:

Many were on maternity leave, with daycare or a nanny lined up, and found that they simply couldn’t bring themselves to leave their child with someone else. Others asked their employers for flexible schedules, were turned down, and quit. Many said that they’d done the working-mother-cost-benefit analysis and the math just wasn’t on the side of their careers—their spouses earned more than they did, daycare or a nanny would eat up a sizable chunk of their earnings, and therefore the reasonable thing to do was to leave work and become a full-time caregiver. Some simply didn’t like their jobs, had spouses who could support the family, and decided to stay home.

A little later on, when the authors state their intentions for this series of stories, they write, “For the world to finally see a woman sitting in the Oval Office, for women to dominate a cabinet list rather than be excluded, for the Supreme Court to meet Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s definition of ‘enough women,’ we believe that the first step is to understand what women’s lives are really like.”

Your Kids’ Wellbeing Matters More Than Your Career

But such musings treat children as booby prizes to those who were not enterprising enough. The authors obviously put certain career work above others, vesting meaning in the most powerful, the most political, the most visible careers.

In contrast, I would argue that many women—even bright women who graduate from the nation’s most prestigious universities—don’t want power as much as they want meaning. And the role of mother is perhaps the most long-term, meaningful, and “powerful” career a woman might ask for.

Motherhood requires the sort of long-term investment that, Lord willing, will continue after we are long gone. It’s not just about making or doing something for posterity: it’s about creating posterity.

Obviously, I still have some career ambition. I’m not an “opt outer,” I’m a “scale backer,” to use Schank and Wallace’s phraseology. However, it would be a mistake to say that my primary ambition is to be a journalist. Motherhood is my primary career. It’s a fulfilling, lovely one at that.

Women Can Find Fulfillment Outside The Office

Schank and Wallace graduated college with a group of career-driven young women. But at one point, they speculate, “After we’d interviewed a cluster of stay-at-home mothers and women with jobs that were noticeably less starry than the careers they’d intended to pursue, we at first wondered if we’d misgauged their level of ambition.”

This sort of statement ignores the whole host of non-paying, non-career-oriented work that a woman might find ambitious or personally fulfilling. Thankfully, the authors do recognize this later on: they write about “A former lawyer who left the Justice Department to home-school her nine children in rural Colombia, [and] volunteered as a legal advocate for women coffee pickers in a nearby village. She and her children had also begun an informal program to teach the local police English, in an effort to boost tourism. These women’s ambitions clearly hadn’t disintegrated once they became mothers.”

If we see ambition as a sort of energy that gives life and vigor to one’s projects, then it’s easy to see how that ambition can be channeled in different ways. We might dam it up into one specific arena—a career, for instance—or we can let it flow into various avenues and pathways.

As one interviewee told the authors, “I saw at IBM what those people were like, what they sacrificed. Most of them were divorced, grossly overweight, exceptionally ill. They were good at their jobs but that’s all they did. They had no other hobbies. They never went on vacation because they didn’t know what to do when they had free time. So I do not aspire to that. I aspire against it.”

The authors realized that “Just as many of our classmates had previously aspired to be the best in their chosen field, they now wanted to be the best mother, the best partner, the best everything else.”

Being a Parent Can Bring Fulfillment and Meaning

The irony is that, as much as many of us moms (or stay-at-home dads, increasingly) might moan for a day off, a weekend away, or a full-time nanny, we also often love it too much to let go. As one mom told Schank and Wallace, “I could ask [my husband] to make more of the doctors’ appointments, but I kind of want the control. I like getting the kids on the bus every day. I love the routine. The fact is, I call a lot of the shots.”

When my mom offers to watch the baby so I can go work from a coffee shop, I first want to nurse her, feed her lunch, cuddle and rock her before setting her in the crib, smelling her sweet baby smell. Then by the time I’ve been gone a few hours, I ache to hold her again.

In part, I feel this way because I know these moments won’t last forever. But more than that, I feel this way because I love my baby girl. I spend all my time with her. She’s my companion and friend, as much as she’s my daughter—as strange as that might sound to a lot of people. I enjoy my time with her. Just as I miss my husband at the end of a long work day, I’m eager and excited to see my daughter after a time of separation. It’s love.

We should foster, promote, and praise love. We should cultivate it in people’s lives. It’s the fruit of a healthy relationship. It brings sunshine to our lives. It gives us meaning.

Work can, too. But at least for me, interviewing congressmen or reviewing movies or getting ten thousand “Facebook likes” on a story have never given me as much meaning as getting to care for this little human, who is singularly mine—and singularly my responsibility.

When Others Must Sacrifice Ambition For Us

Many working individuals move to where the job opportunities are. However, when this carries us away from family members, it can have a detrimental impact on mothers’ ability to work, as Schank and Wallace note:

The 2010 U.S. census found that 53 percent of working mothers rely on a grandparent to watch their preschoolers while they’re at work. But many of our former classmates’ jobs had taken them far from their families (which puts them in line with this 2012 study by Atlas Van Lines showing an increase nationwide in corporate relocation), and they had no one to call on in an emergency, never mind day-to-day childcare.

This reminded me of one particular childcare blessing we’ve received in our family: my mother-in-law (who was a stay-at-home mom and homeschooler herself) now hosts a family-wide “Grammy Day.” She invites her daughter and daughters-in-law to drop off their kids at the house for an afternoon, so that they can get work (or grocery shopping, or exercise, or what-have-you) done. Meanwhile, the kids work with Grammy in the garden, color or make crafts, read books, and nap. It’s been a godsend to many of my siblings-in-law, and the kids love it.

But my mother-in-law, in order to support and bolster the work of her children, has had to be flexible in her own work. One could ask whether it’s fair for her to have to sacrifice her “ambitions” for the good of her children—except for the fact that, I’m quite confident, she’d laugh at the question. Her ambition is to serve, to love her children and grandchildren, to provide a hospitable space for them, to nurture and foster their wellbeing and success. Honestly, I think she’s done more good in her lifetime than most CEOs, investors, judges, and politicians.

We Need to Reconsider What It Means To ‘Have It All’

Some folks say that in a perfect world, women would be able to “have it all”: the perfect career, the perfect home life. All the time in the world at their desk, all the time in the world with their kids.

But I keep wondering if we’re defining “all” just a little bit wrong. I wonder if this black-and-white, all-or-nothing approach to life actually prevents us from seeing the beauty in this patchwork quilt of a life: one filled with a jumbled assortment of pursuits and ambitions and vocations, one that requires constant mending and stretching—but one that is good, in and through it all.

Perhaps limitless career acclaim and power—being the first woman president, or the next RBG—isn’t what every woman wants. Perhaps such positions have their drawbacks, as well as their rewards, and not all women want to pursue such roles.

For those of us who aspire to a more quotidian, staid sort of life, Schank and Wallace’s series can be a healthy reminder of what it means to strive to be the “best” you can be, to work heartily at whatever your hand finds to do. They remind us that becoming excellent at anything often requires saying “no,” so that we can say “yes” to the things (or people) we love most.