Who’s The One Who Can (Honestly) Have It All?
As we, young mothers, reluctantly realize that we can’t “have it all,” what about our husbands? Are they in a better position than we are as they struggle to make their adult lives work?
Knowing what to do and who to be in today’s world is pretty tricky. Knowing what to do and who to be while getting closer to 40 in today’s world is a real hardship.
While the external world seems on the verge of falling apart, so does our internal one, as we can feel mid-life crisis closing in on us like an approaching storm, threatening to shaken up the lives we are striving so hard to hold together…
Let’s be empathetic with ourselves: being between 30 and 40 today is a massive challenge. There’s so much at stake: we have to pass so many tests and fit into so many roles.
We have to succeed in building a career, strengthening our marriage, and for the majority of us, raising our kids. All of this while protecting our body from decay and our social life from obsolescence. If we screw any of these up (let alone two or three at a time), we know we will be miserable, feeling like we lost “the game of life”.
This pressure, I think, is familiar to many of us. For a long time though, I thought it fell harsher on « modern » women’s shoulders, who have grown up believing that they « could have it all », only to later feel trapped by this supposedly emancipating statement. What sounded like an encouragement in our 20s, sounds like an order in our 30s: the famous « you can have it all » sort of turned into « you must have it all ».
Which is why, from where I stand (ie. a 35 year old European woman, I insist, as I believe we have a lot more choice here than, say, in the US, when it comes to choosing what to do with our time when we become mothers), I still tend to think that men have it easier than women, especially during this high-stakes stage of our lives. When men become fathers, they are not suddenly overwhelmed by hormones, questions and lingering guilt, especially when maternity leave ends. They don’t seem constantly torn between career aspirations and the desire to spend as much time as possible with their kids, making sure they are good dads and fulfilling their children’s emotional needs. They don’t resent society or the corporate world for having to make these choices, which luckily prevents them from turning into frustrated, annoying creatures no matter what option they choose. They don’t have to worry about recovering their bodies after giving birth, let alone worry about getting old in general, since they apparently reach their attractiveness peak at 50, while women’s is reported to peak at…18 (younger would have been legally dodgy).
Put simply, it seems easier for men than women to go through these intense years of genuine adulthood and, provided they manage to get some sleep, they might actually be able to “have it all.”
Yet, as approaching maturity (40 being the supposed age of true maturity) makes me open my eyes, ears and heart, I am starting to think that being a thirty-something year old woman today is probably a better deal than being a thirty-something year old man (I might revise this view when approaching 50). Here is why.
It sure is complicated, but women now increasingly get to choose what to do with their lives…
As mentioned earlier, the feminist revolution left everyone a little confused about its legacy. Some women seem to think that is our duty to continue the struggle by showing as much professional ambition as men. Personally, I think that our only duty is to exercise our recently acquired freedom of choice, even if it is imperfect and still comes at a high cost, socially and financially.
It is obviously very hard to let the attractive idea that “we can have it all” go, or to acknowledge that it’s silly to imagine that we can simultaneously be a successful professional + dedicated mother + wonderful wife+ great friend + amazing looking milf etc… But once we accept it, we might feel pretty liberated.
For there’s the silver lining: we, (privileged, of course) women in our 30s-40s, cannot be everything, but we can be anything. And I don’t know about you, but I think that’s a pretty cool position to be in.
…While most men are still stuck in their traditional roles…
What about men?
True, in spite of the massive progress the feminist revolution brought, the outside world is still designed by and for men, be it in the public space (sports fields, schoolyards, road names etc), the political, or the corporate one (I like to think that had women made them, all jobs would be compatible with a decent family life). Yet, in the inner world of their homes and souls, things got pretty complicated for men too.
As I mentioned, I believe women can now choose what role we want to have in society and when. In theory, men can choose too. However, unlike women, they did not ask for this choice. It was probably easier for them when roles were clearly defined, when they were the « providers » while their wives were the care-givers. Although they would certainly have been happy to spend more time with their kids, this setup made their lives and experience of masculinity easier.
Now that things have changed, wives can claim the same roles as men, and basically, husbands have to adjust to their wives’ choices. When we ask ourselves a million questions at the end of our maternity leaves and can’t seem to make a decision as to whether to go back to work or stay at home a little longer, they are expected to listen and support us, whatever we choose. When we decide to go back to work, they are expected to adjust and support us. When we quit our too-demanding jobs in order to spend more time with our kids, they are expected to stick to theirs, adjust, and again, support us. Are they allowed to complain as much as we do about these choices? Not really. Would it work the other way round? Not really.
Not only are men still stuck in their role of providers, but they also sort of became the adjusting variable, as we increasingly set our own life priorities along the way.
The same now goes for children. Girls nowadays can be anything, behave how they want. Look at young parents taking pride when their daughter behaves like a boy, or say, chooses rugby over dance classes. How about the other way round? How easy it is for a boy to choose dance classes and make everyone happy about that?
Later on girls can aspire to be anything. Some choices will be tough, like say, making it to an engineering school, or the Fortune 500 CEO list, but it is possible. If they have a successful professional life, they will be celebrated. If they don’t, that is ok. For they are not necessarily expected to succeed to exist; They can exist socially in other ways, and are usually complex enough to want to do so.
I am not sure men really have that many options. Young mothers (provided, again, their husbands support them) can either go back to work or stay at home during a couple of years, and both options are common and pretty acceptable by all counts. How easy is it though, both socially and within the privacy of our relationships, when Daddy is the one choosing to stay at home to take care of the kids? Personally, as liberal, feminist, and open-minded as I would like to be, I have to admit I feel a little ambiguous about this scenario. Although I admire fathers who have managed to set their pride aside to take care of their kids while their wives are working, I am definitely not sure I would feel comfortable with my husband being one of them.
I’ll even take the risk of saying that, in spite of my deep frustrations, complaints and inner contradictions, since I became a mother I am pretty relieved that my husband stuck to the role of stable and last-resort provider, for it allows me not to stick to any. I am the one who gets to choose how to best use my time, as I know that no matter what I choose, he will be here to support us. Because that’s who he (still) needs to be.
The winner doesn’t take it all
The point of this piece, obviously, is not to make men and husbands stand for helpless victims of long overdue social progress. They had it coming. But it is an attempt to remind ourselves (wives, young mothers) that, as complicated as it might seem sometimes, we are now generally the ones with the immense privilege to choose. Maybe in the end we can have it all. Just not all at the same time. And that is precisely possible because men, husbands, fathers, cannot.
It is also an attempt to give them credit for trying to stand upright during this beautiful storm we, young adults, are in at this stage of our lives. To show them a little support and gratefulness as they too are trying to make it to their 40th birthdays without blowing their career, marriage, kids, health and masculinity on the way.
Good luck to us all.
P.S.: I strongly suggest an excellent piece from the Economist 1843 magazine, entitled the Man Trap.