Every woman and their mother these days in this blessed era of post feminism is speaking and writing about “having it all” and “why women still can’t have it all” and “leaning in” and “why you shouldn’t lean in too far”. But alas I’m going to write yet another piece. The existential question I’m posing this time is not so much whether we as working mothers can or cannot do it all but rather whether it’s all worth it, that is, the constant tug of war between conflicting priorities and the day to day struggle of trying to stay on top of it all and keep all those proverbial balls in the air.
Multiple study after study tells us that human beings are not meant to multi-task and that it brings forth diminishing levels of return. Yet modern day mothers are supposed to be multi-tasking on steroids.
Firstly, one must have a “career” job rather than a “job” job in order to meet the typical definition of “having it all”. For this, it’s not enough to just show up and do your job, you’ve got to excel and read up and become a leader in your field, and continually exceed expectations if you want to have any chance of getting promoted. Doing that in 8 hours a day is pretty much impossible if you know you’ve got a long way to go, so right there you are forced to make a choice between putting in more time at work versus being with your kids and taking care of your home.
On top of that, you are expected to raise overachieving kids who are not just academically inclined and socially well-adjusted, but also mini olympians as well who must excel at extracurricular crafts such as various musical instruments, foreign languages, ballet, girl guides, and chess. Why? Because it sounds weird when you say your kids don’t pursue any extracurricular skills and instead just watch tv when they get home from school (which is what my parents’ generation used to be able to admit without being socially scorned).
Furthermore, being a good mother is still very much associated with being a good cook. And it seems these days there are so many uber accomplished super moms who are not only career superstars but seem to know (or pretend to know) their way around the kitchen and “whip up” family dinners like it’s no sweat (damn you Reese Witherspoon). Is it just me or has my decade long plus US weekly subscription morphed into a collection of sunny pristine porcelain kitchens where every celebrity mom is wearing an apron, a perky smile, and showcasing her cooking skills.
Perhaps using celebrities as an example is extreme, however I think this is a reflection of the changing tides and what we have come to value in female role models – it’s those who can seemingly do it all. Regardless of whether you are a work-outside-the-home-mom or stay-at-home-mom, there is clearly an underlying sentiment that when you bring purchased food to school potlucks or social engagements, it’s not as well-received as if you cooked it yourself. And it’s not really socially acceptable for me to admit that I cook very little because I see raised eyebrows when I admit it. I guess I don’t get any credit for having successfully outsourced this function? 🙂
So even though on the face of it, women are encouraged – and I would argue somewhat expected – to be on par with men in their careers, the trade-off is that the expectations on us have exponentially grown.
The other day I got home late and had a full on meltdown. I did what every respectable wife does and called my husband in the middle of his work outing to wail at him about how I couldn’t take it anymore, the aforementioned day to day struggle of trying to stay on top of it all. You see, I was out for 12 hours but only at work for 8 of those. The rest involved shuffling back and forth between getting my kid to and from her very expensive Manhattan summer camp, and getting home on time for her piano lesson and to relieve the nanny on time. Of course I missed every bus and every ferry and dealt with a crying cranky hungry kid in the middle of a heat wave. My little one was bawling for me at home. The piano teacher gave up and left when I didn’t show up on time and my poor nanny was stuck waiting for me while she had her own challenge of getting home to her much harder life as a single mom with 3 kids.
The rest of the evening was the usual chaos of heating and serving the already prepared food to my kids, trying to get them to eat it, then getting it out of their hair and off the floors, walls, dishes, and then multiple hissy fits before bedtime (where both kids proclaim I like the other one better). Somewhere in there, as private secretary to my kids, there were also the endless administrative tasks related to playdates, school assignments & expenses, and doctors appointments.
So on a day like this which I’m sure is pretty typical for many working moms, how does one “lean in” and do any additional office work in the evening? I could barely even brush my teeth by the end of it all. If we, the women, are the primary caregivers, I don’t know how we can realistically achieve all of these things on a daily basis without screwing something up and then in turn feeling bad about ourselves at each incremental screw-up. Is it better to just give up something major in your life? And if there’s nothing else to feasibly give up (I don’t think I can return my kids :)), perhaps the most obvious answer is to give up my career. I cringe to even say it but if I’m not going to become the next Indra Nooyi and am just barely scraping by, trying to be a half decent employee, mom, and wife, is it all worth it? I don’t know how I will feel tomorrow but today I don’t feel like leaning in, I just feel like passing out.