Earlier this year, a special edition of TIME magazine caught my eye in the checkout line: Women Changing the World. A diverse cast of accomplished women graced the cover, including Oprah Winfrey, Hillary Rodham Clinton, and Serena Williams. Intrigued, I shelled out the $13.99 cover price and tossed it in with my groceries.
At home, I uncapped a highlighter, flipped open to the first interview, and prepared myself to be inspired and moved. And I was. Here are just a few of the quotes that hit home for me:
“…women will look at a new role and say, ‘Well, I can do these five things, but there are two areas where I don’t have experience, so maybe I shouldn’t nominate myself.’ Men seem to say, “Hey, I can do five of the seven. I should definitely put myself forward!’” — Mary Barra, CEO, GM
“It’s important to have strong female individuals to look up to — because everyone struggles. I love Serena Williams. People can say mean things to her, and she literally is just like, Nah, I’m still going to do whatever it is. You don’t get to tell me. She plays with the criticism. It’s awesome, and I want to start doing that. People can be so negative and so mean, but you just make it fun, and bring them back to love.” — Gabby Douglas, Olympic gold medalist
“People say you can have everything. No, you can’t. But you can have a lot more — and do a lot more — than you think.” Mae Jemison, first woman of color in space
Yes, I was inspired by these women who’ve accomplished so much even in the face of continued sexism. The issue left me feeling hopeful for the next generation of young women, who will grow up with incredible role models.
The TIME issue also reminded me of my younger self and a series of conversations I had with female leaders when I was fresh out of college.
I graduated with an English degree in 2001 and worked as a business administrator for a small women’s magazine. Mostly I oversaw interns and distribution, but I also pitched a series to my editor about interviewing local female leaders.
Similar to the idea behind the TIME special issue, I wanted to understand how the women I admired got where they were. I wanted to write a series that encouraged women, including myself, to aim higher and dream bigger.
Secretly, I also wanted to know how these women managed it all on a personal level. I was in my late twenties, married, working full time, and already feeling overwhelmed. I wanted to start a family, but I couldn’t imagine adding children to the mix without losing my mind or compromising important relationships.
I think I hoped through those interviews to find the secret to the ever elusive work-life balance dilemma. And to figure out if that was even what I really wanted.
When I first graduated from college, I thought I wanted to work at a larger magazine or newspaper. But as I looked around for a better job I began to wonder if the hours and energy required for those kinds of positions would leave room for the family I also wanted.
The women I interviewed worked in different fields — academics, arts, government, athletics. I figured if anyone could show me how to have it all, it was them.
Looking back through those interviews now, I feel a flush of embarrassment. How many successful women complain about the media asking sexist work-life questions that aren’t posed to their male counterparts? To their credit, however, not a single woman I interviewed shot me down.
Maybe, in the early aughts, it wasn’t as taboo to ask successful women how they managed to spend time with their loved ones and run a university or a city police force or an ACC basketball team. Maybe they sensed my sincerity, that I was really asking not because I was judging them, but because I thought I wanted to be like them.
Whatever the reason, each woman I interviewed was patient in answering my questions, even the ones focused on work-life balance. And the most common answer to, “How do you balance your work with your personal life?” was, “I don’t.” Most of the women I interviewed felt that their personal lives and important relationships needed more attention than they had the time and energy to give.
In all fairness, it was a fairly small sample size. I interviewed less than 10 women. And I think their answers were, in part at least, reflective of the guilt many people feel at ‘getting it right’. We feel like we’re neglecting our families when we’re at work and like we’re neglecting work when we’re with our families. These days, I know plenty of women who are great moms and great at what they do though few women who will congratulate themselves on both.
But we as a culture are not so great at having holistic conversations about family, careers, and equality. And we are not so great at celebrating people as whole individuals. Though many of the women in the TIME interviews talked about their childhoods, few mentioned their current support systems and relationships. I’m sure this is in part out of a desire to protect people’s privacy from the public. However, it also leaves the impression that these women exist and succeed in a vacuum.
My own experience with interviewing female leaders left me disillusioned. It seemed that the women I looked up to were no better at living whole and balanced lives than their male counterparts. To young me, who was one of the first people much less women in her family to graduate from college and had no personal female mentors, it seemed that my choice was still an either/or instead of a both/and.
On the one side of the equation, which seemed to be highly favored by most feminist voices, were money, recognition, and a career. On the other side, which feminists didn’t really like talking about, were the people I loved and the family I wanted. My husband was supportive of whichever choice I made, so it was entirely up to me to decide.
So I decided that instead of looking up or around at other women or the ideals of the feminist movement to make my choices, I would start looking inward.
As Anne Morrow Lindbergh puts it, “Woman must come of age by herself. . . In the past, she has swung between these two opposite poles of dependence and competition, of Victorianism and Feminism. Both extremes throw her off balance; neither is the center, the true center of being a whole woman. She must find her true center alone. She must become whole.”
I started by asking myself what I really wanted instead of wondering what I should want. Where did I want to be in ten years? What was I passionate about doing? And I found that although I admired the heck out of the women I interviewed, I wasn’t really interested in being them.
When I dreamed of my future, I saw myself not sitting in an office all day, rushing through traffic to scrape together a meal, collapsing exhausted in bed at night and getting up the next day to do it all over again. I saw myself home with my kids, simplifying life, and pursuing my passion of writing. Maybe dreams of staying at home with babies made me a second-class feminist to some, but they made me first-rate happy.
Not long after, I quit working at the magazine. Staying in the office until late at night and early into the morning to meet deadlines was thrilling in college but it wasn’t conducive to the adult life I wanted to live. I quit looking for jobs at newspapers, which were all laying off their writers any way, and took a part-time office job instead.
And I started freelancing and writing a novel. I guess I was at least smart enough to know either/or are rarely the only options and that if I wanted a both/and kind of life I could make it for myself. And that being a mother and a wife were fulfilling, but they wouldn’t be enough. I still needed something to call my own.
Twelve years later, I still haven’t accepted any full-time work, even though several of my freelance clients have offered. I just haven’t found anything else that’s as fulfilling and challenging and rewarding as the life I’ve created for myself.
I have three kids, and I’m still happily married. My kids are all in school now and need me less, so the balance of kids vs. work is shifting toward the latter. But I can take a day off if I want to and volunteer in classrooms and snuggle sick kids when needed. That brings me a lot of joy and gives my family the flexibility to do things we love, like travel.
I look back now, and I’m grateful for the past decade with my kids. I’m very aware that not every parent gets the opportunity or choices I’ve had. As hard as some of those years were, as much as I despaired at times that I would ever be a whole person again, I can appreciate what a gift they were.
My kids have shaped me as much as I’ve shaped them, if not more. I’ve learned patience. I’ve learned to listen better to others and to listen to and use my own voice. I’ve learned resilience and perseverance.
I’m sure I could have learned all of those things in a newspaper room or an office too. If I’d taken that route twelve years ago, when the world was my oyster, I might also have a flush retirement fund by now, a bigger office, a larger bank account, more respect. And I might not find myself standing in a checkout line staring at the amazing women who’ve accomplished so much, a part of me still wondering if I made the right choices.
If even one of those women I interviewed had said, “Yes, you can do it. I’m doing it. Here’s how,” maybe my life would be different. Or maybe not. Either way, I think we’re all better off for having more of those kinds of conversations.
Women, and men, face a thousand career, family, and life choices, each one a branch that can take us into entirely different versions of our lives. Some choices might land us on the cover of a magazine or change the world. Some choices might just bring us closer to a truer version of ourselves and make our own corner of the world better.
I don’t know if I made the ‘right’ choices in my 20s. I’m not sure there even is such a thing. I’m in my 40s now. I hope to have plenty more chances to make new choices in the future — for my dreams, for my family, for the world, for myself.
Christa Hogan is a creative fiction and non-fiction writer and veteran freelancer. She also teaches mindfulness meditation. You can find her on Twitter @christachogan and on the newly launched Creative Mercies community Facebook page, where she teaches creatives how to build more productive, sustainable and resilient creative lives.