Before I became a parent, I was a bestselling author and speaker pounding up the escalators of a different airport every week. I worked insatiably, sometimes meeting three different contacts for a drink, dinner and dessert. When my daughter was born, I was thrilled — and anxious. I had heard the old adage, “You can have it all – just not at once.” On my first day back after maternity leave, I packed up my breast pump and parking meter quarters. I was ready for my life to change.
But here’s what I didn’t count on: feeling ashamed because I refused to put work above all else. Because I yearned to spend quality time with my daughter. Because I wanted actual work-life balance.
Instead of shutting down my laptop at 7 or 8 pm, I now relieved my sitter at 4:30. I rarely logged on after bedtime, or on weekends. But as I played with the baby on the floor, I was miles away in my head. Would my clients and colleagues write me off if I didn’t produce at the same pace? What would my next big project be? I read my daughter books in a toneless, distant voice, ruminating furiously.
I had plowed through a pile of work that month – finishing a grant, giving speeches, writing an advice column, teaching 60 high school students, answering countless emails – yet I still felt like a slacker. It never occurred to me that I was working, and working hard. Why?
Our culture sings in only two keys about how successful women manage motherhood and work: either you’re driving a hard line to the C-suite, parking the crib in your corner office, or you’re shredding the Mommy track.
But what about those of us who are still working hard, and who live and work somewhere between the two? I love being a mom, and I also love (and can’t afford not to) work.
So why do we speak in such crude terms about the nuanced, ever-changing dance of work-life balance? To begin with, the choices are rigged. To hear popular media tell it, the alternative to leaning in seems like a thinly veiled insult: the words “opt out” or “mommy track” suggest that the “in” – the standard of true success– is paid work.
In our million-mile-an-hour culture of never enough, working less is interpreted as working less well. This isn’t always the case. Parents quickly become expert at doing more work in less time, redirecting chit-chat and out-for-lunch hours toward getting the job done faster. Yet it’s mothers, far more than fathers, who are judged critically.
Perhaps even more galling, the suggestion that women can either elect to work harder or opt out demeans the nearly 50 million working mothers who maybe can’t afford the choice.
Brown University Professor Yael Chatav Schoenbrun knew she wouldn’t fit the mold. “I made a decision,” she wrote in the New York Times, “to back down, but not bail out.” She would work hard, just not as hard as she did before parenthood. Recalling her angst over choosing her own path, she shared a puzzling conclusion. “The real problem,” she wrote, “was me.”
But was it really? This kind of self-blame comes so easily to women. It recalls the self-flagellating angst of a generation that Betty Friedan profiled in The Feminine Mystique. The reality is more complex. New research has confirmed what many have suspected for a long time: moms are less likely to be hired for jobs, perceived as competent, or be paid as much as equally qualified male colleagues. But for men, having kids helps their careers. Dads are more likely to be hired than childless men and are more likely to earn more after they have kids.
Doesn’t some responsibility lie, too, with a culture that insists on pigeonholing its women into two extreme, unattainable ways of being? It is a familiar trope: We are to be nice, and liked by everyone; or else we are labeled aggressive. We’re humble or conceited; compliant, good girls or sluts. Rarely are women offered a middle road, one that imagines them as real, complex, dynamic beings.
When we frame women’s choices in terms of extreme work or extreme mothering, women think they have to define themselves in terms of a single goal, everything else be damned. Instead of having the chance to succeed in either realm, women committed to both work and mothering end up feeling inadequate in both. Mommy wars are the sad by-product of the drive to prove one’s worth in a contest where no one ever gets to feel like they are enough as they are.
Working mothers who feel inadequate, even as they continue to work hard, may suffer from what Brene Brown, author of the bestseller Daring Greatly, calls the “never enough” problem: a persistent, self-defeating belief that we will not be worthy or lovable until we are richer, thinner, more powerful, more successful, and so on. We are made to feel, she writes, “that an ordinary life is a meaningless life.”
Perhaps this is why working women are inducted into motherhood being warned that we will never feel like good enough moms or good enough professionals. Ruthless perfectionists that we are, we drink this kool-aid without question.
But what if it’s precisely that juicy, flawed mix of experiences that adds up to a life well-lived? What if by trading in the fruitless drive to be perfect, we inherit a richly textured self?
Besides, the endless diaper changes and tantrums give way, soon enough, to the first day of kindergarten – and a lot more time to devote to a career.
I have spent my life in fear of being average. But the joy I experience as a parent is driving me to face that fear in a way I never thought possible. As I bumble through paving my own third way, I am learning to lower my standards when I need to: to prep last minute; to write bullet points instead of full paragraphs; to say no. At first, I was sure the bottom would literally fall out of my career – and therefore my world. Slowly, I saw that no one really cared. They may not have even noticed. (It’s often said that we are our own worst judges. In some cases, we may also be our only worst judges.)
Waves of anxiety about my career still find me, often in the middle of the night. It is an ongoing struggle to remember that I am enough as I am. But now, when I sit on the floor with my daughter, I see our time as anything but a detour from my ambition. She is the passion project I was waiting for.