On motherhood and “having it all”
Forget success; let’s try wholeness
I’m going to be honest with you: I have a hard time with the concept of being a “stay at home mom”. I struggle to accept it — at least, as the concept is generally applied in US culture — as a truly legitimate career choice, and as irony would have it, I blame my mom. My clasically conservative, boomer mother who refers to anything related to feminism as “that women’s lib crap”. But it’s the hard work and series of intentional choices she made throughout my childhood which, not to put too fine a point on it, cause my nose to wrinkle at women who are proud of their eschewing their income earning potential in order to “raise their children”.
I watched my mom do both — earn income, and raise her children, while raising about a half dozen other children simultaneously. She did it while feeding us from her garden and from Amish farms — a feat very few mothers of my generation can boast. And she did it in the fucking 80s.
For all her smacktalk about feminism, the truth is that my mom really has been an incredible model for “having it all”. And by “having it all,” of course, I’m referring to that impossible state of having a well paying, fulfilling career, taking good care of your family, and having enough energy left over for yourself to enjoy the whole kit and kaboodle. It’s the impossible challenge set upon women in the 70s and 80s — when my mom was entering the workforce — to rise above the status of domestic housecats by entering a functionally masculine workforce, without sacrificing your role as domestic nurturer and caregiver.
I’ve tried it. It’s no fucking joke. And I’ll be honest with you: I can’t hack it. Not the traditional 9–5, chained to your projects world. I can’t do that and be a whole person, let alone keep my family well nourished and happy and my laundry done.
Mom did the fulltime power career track for a bit, too. With her social work degree, she was a daycare center director for a few years before she took a 13 year tenure with a state-funded organization helping developmentally disabled adults (who’d been recently dumped out of mental institutions) participate in the workforce. She worked while dad got his bachelor’s degree, and while they built a house on 40 acres. Mom called it “getting my master’s degree,” with a grin on her face.
Then, with two small children, a brand new dream home, and a husband who was on tenure track as a public school elementary teacher, mom decided she was done. Done with dropping her kids off at someone else’s house and being away from home all day; done with quick, thrown together meals in the evening; done working for other people; done with the whole frantic pace.
But, despite the fact that a tenured schoolteacher salary could actually support a family at a lower middle class level in the 80s, mom didn’t throw in the towel. A single income would mean no summertime vacations, no new clothes, no cash for emergencies, no cash for dad’s many hobbies around the 40, and meager Christmases. As a partnership of two intelligent, educated adults, that scenario just didn’t make sense to mom. So after she retired from social work, she secured a license for an in-home daycare. She ran that for about 16 years, after which she helped my dad start a driver’s education business.
My mom would laugh (and undoubtedly will, when she reads this) if I called her an entrepreneur, but it’s absolutely true, in a literal sense. But no, she’s not an “entrepreneur” in the model of Forbes Magazine; she’s not a mogul, hasn’t amassed a huge fortune and built empires. She’s happy, has accumulated exactly the environment she wants, and has nurtured a thriving and joyful community.
I think mom’s secret was (wisely, IMO) sidestepping the trending second wave feminist narrative about conquering territories and so on. Instead, she took an intensely individualistic, almost libertarian approach. She used her skills and resources and hard work to achieve what she wanted — not what others wanted, or said she should want. She went after what she actually wanted. Which, most sensibly, was not at all unlike the desires of a hobbit.
Most sensible, indeed.
It’s not about money, in the end — not really. It’s about adding value. Right? My mom’s efficiency with growing and wildcrafting added huge financial value, as did my dad’s savvy as a mechanic. Mom’s daycare income, meager as it was, was exactly the amount mom and dad needed to close the gap between hard up and comfortable. They worked to achieve their mutual goals together. What they truly wanted — which was to live in peace. And by working to meet her own and her family’s needs, my mom ended up nurturing half the neighborhood. I think she racked up two dozen alum by the time she closed her doors; all of them remain in touch.
It’s nearly impossible to “have it all” under the weight of a corporate career. It’s something you can do for a short time — like sprinting. The family ends up getting sacrificed (starting with nutrition and ending with nurturing), as does your own sanity. I became an independent contractor ten years ago out of sheer survival. Because I simply couldn’t pull the 9–5 corporate gig and maintain the quality of life I thought I and my family deserved. For me, working when and where I want became my expression of freedom, and my patch between home and work, and my liferaft to sanity. The bridge became even more clear when my daughter was old enough to tag along to business meetings and ask intelligent questions.
No one in their right mind would ever refer to me as a stay at home mom, but technically, for the last few years I’ve been financially dependent on my husband, the primary caregiver for our kid, and the grocery shopper and creator of food, so…I have pretty much all the responsibilities of a stay at home mom, except I try to run a consultancy and write for and run a few publications and teach in my gap time.
My grandmother (Marjorie) made the local elementary school’s lunches — from scratch — in her volunteer time. And bussed half the kids in the neighborhood around.
So this is why, when I look at self-proclaimed stay at home moms, who forego any attempt at career in order to “take care of their children”, I can’t help but have questions. Questions like: What’s the extent of the value that you create for your family and your community? What do you use your time to contribute?
When I see women who have no freelance accounts, no side gigs, no pro bono work they crank out, I want to grab them by the arms and say: “please, please, please tell me that you keep a massive garden you feed your family with. And that you homeschool your kids, or that you’re a staff volunteer at some local organization. That you’ve started a nonprofit organization in your spare time.”
And some of them actually do. There are some women in my generation who do an amazing job of creating tons of value with their time and creativity in lieu of an income, in the form of homeschooling, gardening and preserving, farming, wildcrafting, cosplay, organizing, the list goes on. Even if none of these ever find financial form, their value is significant — possibly more significant than financial income.
But many women don’t, in my experience. Most of these privileged women go shopping at lululemon and have lunch with their girlfriends while waiting to pick their kids up from school. If the frantic pace of the corporate mother is exhausting, the modern upper middle class housecat existence seems so…hollow.
“Having it all,” I think, alludes to our attempt to simply be whole people. Industrial “civilization” works diligently to slice us into categories and labels; this is work, this is personal. But this is just a false reality — we’re all whole people. Business is always personal. Your personal brand and professional brand are not separate — they’re different expressions of the same identity.
Women (and perhaps people, in general) have been trying to “have it all” over the last several decades, but we’ve been sliced down to so many isolated functions that it’s difficult for us to remember how we see ourselves. Mother; professional; these both represent mere fragments of identity, yet each of us is bursting with an incredible spectrum of capability and expression.
The point in “having it all” shouldn’t be to win some kind of gender war, or to achieve a medal for the most combined hours worked and best parent awards earned. It should be to experience whole personhood — in whatever form which suits us best.
This is what I think my mom’s career trajectory illustrates so elegantly. It’s not about having “it all” — it’s about having what you actually need to be whole. This may be my premature old age setting in, but I have a hard time envisioning a scenario for whole humanhood which doesn’t involve gardening.