I’m tired a lot of the time. I work a lot. I play a lot. As a single woman living alone, I am my own maid, cook, laundress, tailor, grocery shopper, and bartender. This is no great feat, mind you. People do it all the time. But sometimes it gets a little exhausting not to have another person around to pick up the slack. But sometimes I feel like I don’t have the right to be tired. When I tell my friends with kids about my life in the city, I know that it sounds glamorous and exciting, which it is, but not frequently exhausting and frustrating, which it also is. And while it is probably me projecting my own inward bias, I don’t tell them about how tired I am, because I don’t want to feel the guilt of a single, childless woman, who can basically do whatever she wants (within reason, I’m not knocking over liquor stores or anything). I find myself involved in the Mommy Wars, and I don’t even have kids.
Of course Lean In by Sheryl Sandberg has fanned the flames of this debate, but I’ve referenced The Retro Wife in an earlier post, and I think it is a decent representation of a recent wave of post-feminist homemaking apologias. To give you the general gist, here’s a quote about one of the women featured in the article, Kelly.
“She believes that every household needs one primary caretaker, that women are, broadly speaking, better at that job than men, and that no amount of professional success could possibly console her if she felt her two young children—Connor, 5, and Lillie, 4—were not being looked after the right way. The maternal instinct is a real thing, Kelly argues: Girls play with dolls from childhood, so “women are raised from the get-go to raise children successfully. When we are moms, we have a better toolbox.” Women, she believes, are conditioned to be more patient with children, to be better multitaskers, to be more tolerant of the quotidian grind of playdates and temper tantrums; “women,” she says, “keep it together better than guys do.” .… Kelly calls herself “a flaming liberal” and a feminist, too. “I want my daughter to be able to do anything she wants,” she says. “But I also want to say, ‘Have a career that you can walk away from at the drop of a hat.’ ” And she is not alone. Far from the Bible Belt’s conservative territories, in blue-state cities and suburbs, young, educated, married mothers find themselves not uninterested in the metaconversation about “having it all” but untouched by it.”
There’s a lot to unpack here, but I’ll start with a few quick notes: 1) Despite being in full possession of a uterus, I have little to no patience with children; 2) Growing up, I played with dolls as much as I played with dirt, but that doesn’t make me predispositioned towards ditch digging; 3) You can technically walk away from any career at the drop of a hat, provided you are either willing to be poor, or are independently wealthy; and 4) I reject the premise that every household needs one primary caretaker and would suggest instead that every household can do whatever the hell it wants in order to function the way it wants, including having spheres of effort, two equal partners, and/or using your children as slave labor (the method favored in my home growing up).
I must confess my first reaction to the alleged waves of women retreating from the office and returning to the home was “GET OFF YOUR ASSES YOU LAZY BITCHES!” which was very untoward, and mostly mired in jealousy. I don’t want to go into the office every day. I would really very much like to stay at home and focus on domestic projects, or writing, or cooking, or freelance napping. But sadly there is not a lot of income to be had in these endeavors, nor is there a lot of respect for unemployed unmarried non-mothers. But more than that, there is a part of me that resents the hell out of women opting out of a workforce the previous generation fought tooth and nail to enter, especially when we still live in a very real environment of pay disparity.
We are celebrating these women for making a choice, for choosing to be mothers and wives not just first, but exclusively. Where is the parallel celebration for a woman who chooses to be a corporate officer and forego the domestic sphere? Where is her party for choosing work over children? There isn’t one, because that’s not seen as a respectable choice. She is shirking her duty as a woman, to mate and to breed (which also explains why stay-at-home Dads are still regarded with some suspicion). As a woman, taking yourself out of the rat race to focus on your children (as though single focus were even possible or reasonable) is heralded as the brave choice (it now being a choice, rather than a given, thanks to decades of women fighting to get into the rat race), demonstrating to your children that they are and deserve to be the center of your unadulterated attention, because that will help them grow into self-sufficient and well-adjusted adults…
The fact is, most driven women who take themselves down the Mommy off ramp are going to need a place to put all of that stagnant ambition, and sadly it’s usually little MacKenzie and Brooklyn who have to shoulder that burden. Children become tiny stand-ins for adult accomplishments, which is a pressure no child should have to endure. Sure, a percentage of these women may honestly have thought they wanted to be corporate bigwigs and realized it just wasn’t for them, that the joy and satisfaction from concentrating entirely on their homes, husbands, and children, is of a different magnitude all together than making that sale or closing that deal [also insert here: standard spiel about how being a mother is the hardest job in the world-which I wholeheartedly believe, but don’t accept as an excuse to not do any other job, since billions of women across all socio-economic strata do it every single day]. But think back to what Kelly said above: “no amount of professional success could possibly console her if she felt her two young children…were not being looked after the right way.” What right way? Is the only right way to watch them yourself, 24/7, from birth to college? And as my friend R, who works at a University, can tell you, many parents don’t stop at college.
What women like Kelly are reacting to is the pressure to do everything, and perfectly, so they make a choice. I get that, and I certainly understand that pressure, and see women all around me juggling those same pressures. But when did the ability to be or do anything become the mandate that we must be and do everything? “Can women have it all?” these articles ask us. Really think about it: do we actually want it all? Or do we just think we should be able to do it all, and therefore want it?
Let’s all stop thinking about Career and Homemaking as some sort of false dichotomy. I would offer a third road. We can have both, if we accept that sometimes we will fail at one or the other. Accept that imperfection is part of life, for us and for our children. We all get knocked around a bit, and we come out better for it. We are Weebles. We shall wobble. Accept that we are human beings, fallible and not infinitely able, and that most days we get to the finish though a beautiful combination of sweat and divine grace.
Of course we must make choices. The Equal Rights movement was about the ability to choose. But instead of picking one from column A and one from column B, or even the tasting menu for the really ambitious among us, we went full-tilt smorgasbord, and like the disgusting scene at the end of Monty Python’s the Meaning of Life, we’re exploding under the pressure. So pick something. Pick many things. But doing all the things is too many things, not just for women, but for human beings. So do what you love, and do it well, and if you have to do more than that, be ok with being ok at it.
Didn’t we almost have it all? We did. It was exhausting. Let’s stop, and be messy, and imperfect, and authentic, and happy.