Inspiring Tidbits, Sweet Nothings

Cognitive Dissonance

The Kennedys and their once-picaresque model of American family life

First off, let me just say two words: silly me. S-to-the-I-to-the-double-L-Y me…Back in April 2011, when I wrote this post, I was under the impression that my anxieties about child rearing would somehow subside once I was married. After all, I would be fully committed to the love of my life – a man who happens to be my best friend in the whole world and loves me unconditionally for me (not for the power of my uterus) – and I thought this would provide unshakable comfort in the face of procreation pressures. Not only did I make this faulty assumption, but I also thought our move to Los Angeles would bolster me with the drive to put my career on the front burner and leave talk of children in the dust. However, even in this fitness-obsessed city where mom jeans and birthing stretch marks are considered shameful, I find myself surrounded by more messages than ever that I should be able to do it all – messages that tell me I am defective if I can’t figure out how to be both a successful artist, mom, and sex-pot wife. With these societal naggings conspiring alongside biological urges and ticking clocks, is it any wonder that family planning remains on the forefront of my mind? And, if an otherwise confident, career-oriented person like me is plagued with this anxiety, how on Garp’s green earth is everyone else out there coping with their own cognitive dissonance on the issue of work/life/family balance?

This is what my modern, American family will look like for the foreseeable future, and I'm realizing I need to find a way to celebrate this proudly

Whether we live in Los Angeles or Louisville, pregnancy and parenting are very touchy and personal subjects, which leads me to think the best way to broach them is personally. So, on a very personal note, I will admit that the big baby question is something I grapple with daily, and it is something that downright brings me to tears about once a month. I face so much anxiety about this issue despite the fact that my husband and I have had numerous discussions that all end with the consensus of “we don’t want kids, at least not anytime soon.” And, yes, we have had these soul-searching talks countless times in which the bottom line is always this: we didn’t meet each other until our late twenties and we simply want more time to enjoy one another’s company, share adventures around the world, and create the magnificent things we have it within us yet to create in our careers before bringing children into the picture.

In fact, one of the most vivid memories I have of our early courtship is of a romantic evening we spent eating French fries and plotting out our life together at a late-night restaurant in Austin, Texas. We must have made those French fries last several hours as we schemed about all the things he would invent, the books I would write, the places we would travel, and – eventually – the children we would adopt when and if we were ready. Sitting across from this amazing man hearing him talk about his creative passions and his desire to one day adopt children, I had one of those “ah-ha” moments in which I realized not only was I head over heels in love with this guy, but he was also someone whose life trajectory and values complemented mine perfectly; I was and still am such a lucky girl to have found a partner like him, who would never dream of rushing into parenthood and is able to talk these kinds of sticky issues through time and again with patient honesty…If my husband and I still revisit these French-fry-filled scheming sessions and our ideas on children remain so perfectly aligned, though, why is this such a big source of stress for me?

How is a gal like me supposed to reconcile her idea of family when her society expects her to be like this?

I’m sure a part of my anxiety about kids comes from my age and the biological imperative I feel to become a parent, but I have a hunch that a much heftier chunk of this stress actually comes from my line of work and how image-saturated it is. As a woman trying to climb the entertainment-industry ladder, I can vouch that I receive many mixed signals in my professional life. This is to say: it is undeniable that the decision to become a parent within the next five years would seriously hamper my chances of getting staffed in a TV writer’s room, and yet I find that many folks in the industry view women who aren’t mothers as cold creatures who don’t have their priorities in the right place. In a sense, I get the distinct impression that my age/gender and decision of whether or not to have children is pretty much going to screw me out of a career no matter what side of the issue I fall on.

So, shouldn’t all this just make me more determined to get my stories out there, forge a life as a TV writer and novelist on my own terms, and defy the odds? Yes, it should. But, my emotional landscape just isn’t that simple; I easily give into the glossy vignettes of motherhood I see all over magazines and on the Interwebs, and I feel an ache in the pit of my stomach when I think about how much I once looked forward to raising kids way back when I was growing up. Yeah, that’s right, the photos I see every day accompanying articles about women seamlessly balancing careers and children have the power to act like constant injections of anxiety into my life, making me question my meticulously thought-out plans. A simple Vogue spread can easily make my mind spin out of control, causing me to doubt my choice to make writing a higher priority than the option of raising kids, and I find myself repeatedly wondering: what if my husband and I find ourselves in our forties and still don’t feel there’s room in our lives to make kids a priority – can I live with that? My answer is ultimately “yes” every time, but the constancy of my answers doesn’t do anything to stop my resolve from wavering whenever I see Angelina Jolie or Jessica Alba beaming from the cover of a parenting magazine.

And, how can mere mortals feel good about their priorities when they see Angelina Jolie's life as a parent/actress/director looking so effortless?

It has taken me a long time to figure out why there is such a disconnect between my personal values/life plan and the feelings I have when seeing images of motherhood in the media, but I think I’ve finally figured it out. I’ve come to suspect that this dissonance plagues me because I’ve made my decisions about children based on the assumption that compromising and setting priorities is a necessary part of life, yet all the glossy images and magazine articles about motherhood are created in a world where compromise doesn’t exist – or at least a world where people pretend with all their might that it doesn’t. And it isn’t just celebrity interviews that propagate this zero-compromise myth either – I’ve seen many a mommy blog out there that is positively brimming over with “proof” that you can do your own nails, make ice cream from scratch every Wednesday, help your gaggle of children with their math homework, and run your very own interior-design firm all at the same time.

I don’t know any of these do-it-all mommies personally, so they very well may have superpowers or a time turner I am unaware of, but if they are in fact like me and not living in Harry Potter Land my guess is they actually make big compromises somewhere in their lives that they just don’t document. The creators of this mythical world would try to suspend our disbelief by showing us the tiny compromises that these perfect parents make, such as the way Sarah Jessica Parker puts up with a messy nursery or the way Molly Mommy Blogger X argues with her husband about leaving the toilet seat up and perennially buying the wrong kind of tampons. These miniscule cracks in their facades are superficial at best, though, and I can’t help wondering what deeper sacrifices they’re really making in their health, finances, careers, relationships with their spouses, or all of the above in order to maintain the appearance of doing it all. I don’t expect the mainstream media or many mommy bloggers out there to ever answer these questions in an achingly honest way, because “how-does-she-do-it?” stories are a whole lot more uplifting than tales of divorce, fertility counseling, alcoholism, and third mortgages. And – let’s face it -as consumers we’re a whole lot more likely to buy protein bars, strollers, and sports cars if they’re being sold alongside stories that tell us we live in a world where it’s possible to do it all.

Heck, I’m only human and I really truly want to live in a do-it-all world, too; I mean, if I’m being totally truthful with myself I have to admit that if there were a pill out there that let me eat Nutella-baked ham, pop out babies, stay skinny, and work 60-hour weeks I would buy up those suckers like there’s no tomorrow. But, and this is a big BUT, these pills only exist in a hyperbolic world of make-believe, whereas I exist in reality. And, the glorious thing is: when I stop comparing myself to the fantasy of a mythic woman who does it all, I realize my reality is pretty damn great…

Instead of filling our lives with images of people who do it all (like Vogue's 9-month-pregnant director of special events), we should look to role models who openly display their sacrifices (like painter, Frida Kahlo)

I think we all need to work hard to show ourselves this kind of compassion, and we can start by not doing any of our prioritizing or personal decision making in this world of do-it-allers. That’s right, we need to be really conscious of making informed choices based on the reality that we simply can’t do everything, and I think we’ll find that when we actually make honest choices that are the right ones for us, most of the time we’ll feel like we aren’t even making sacrifices. For example, when I think about my priorities in the context of the world I actually live in (a.k.a., the place where there just aren’t enough hours in the day to be the kind of writer and wife I want to be, let alone parent ), I tend to feel really proud of the things I’m doing instead of feeling deflated by my choice to put off/possibly never experience motherhood. Looking to role models who’ve openly made sacrifices and set priorities in their lives (like these creative souls) is another thing that is really helping me feel more secure in my choices, so I think we could all benefit from supplementing our daily doses of Angelina with images of heroes from the past and present who’ve done amazing things in their lives but have not had it all by society’s standards.

Images galore and distracting thoughts of Nutella-baked ham aside (yeah, I know you’re still salivating over that one), the most important thing any of us can do is talk openly with our loved ones about the baby question and beyond while continually making sure we’re doing the right thing for us as opposed to the right thing by society’s standards. I know it will be very hard for me to remain confident in my choices, especially since a part of me really wants to be a mom, but I will just have to remind myself that living a life full of the things that matter most is all about setting priorities. I’m sure I’ll have to make gads of compromises – even within the priorities I have set – as I go, but if I continue making judgment calls in the realm of reality and self-truth I know I’ll be happy with the outcome. And, I’m hoping that if I keep talking truthfully with you about my flaws and eternal indecisiveness on the motherhood front, maybe we can collectively construct an even stronger foundation for this honest place we must all make our decisions from. So, now that I’ve shared and will continue being vocal about my personal struggle with the kiddo question, I’ll ask you if you have any stories you want to share…Are you like me and currently experiencing a bout of cognitive dissonance on the issue of whether or not to have children, or are you perhaps a parent who’s embarking on the amazing journey of raising kids right now? Whether you have children or not, how do you cope with all the pressures out there that tell us we should somehow be able to do it all? Leave a comment.

Photo of the Kennedys via Pinterest. Photo of Sarah Jessica Parker from Vogue. Photo of Angelina Jolie from Vanity Fair. Photo of Sylvana Ward Durrett’s glamorous pregnancy from Vogue, and image of Frida Kahlo’s “The Flying Bed” via Pinterest. Oh, and the photo of my family is by Jamie Conlan.

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8 Comments

  • Reply Annette April 18, 2012 at 6:10 am

    I say try to live those french fry moments everyday, (maybe not in actually eating them). Do what you know in your and your significant other’s hearts affirm and screw everyone else and all those media images!

  • Reply Laine Griffin April 19, 2012 at 4:11 am

    Of course you have hit it head on – the image vs. the reality. Being a mother and “doing it all” is impossible, and you are right that most of these people are not telling the whole truth.
    Being a mother (especially one who works to earn money too) sucks ass a lot. It’s hard work that just.never.ends. Unless of course you have a nanny/cook/housekeeper/business manager, but then, what’s the point?
    We all have our journey’s. It’s like the movie “Parenthood” where Steve Martin and Mary Steenbergen are on the roller coaster. You think you have it all planned out and it will all go accordingly and then up-down-jerk to the side, it’s all gone another way. Whether you are a parent or not! 🙂

    • Reply Coté April 19, 2012 at 4:04 pm

      Oh gosh golly, thank you so much for your honest take on parenting, Laine! I began feeling a little more and more at ease with every single word of yours that I read; whether people are parents or not, it really truly is refreshing to hear someone other than ourselves admit that life’s damn hard and none of us can do absolutely everything…You’re so right that we can only plan for a certain amount of life, too; I mean no matter how much I over think the whole motherhood conundrum, I’m sure my personal roller coaster is eventually going to whip my life in a completely unexpected direction and most of my plans and worries will be rendered null and void. Ah, the things we can learn from Steve Martin movies. 😉

  • Reply Children, Choices, and Everything Else | coté writes July 17, 2012 at 12:19 pm

    […] ours and ours alone to make. For more on this topic, you can check out my take on baby madness, my decision not to have kids, and the importance of priorities. Do you have a perspective you’d like to share on […]

  • Reply Heather August 25, 2012 at 9:32 am

    First, I know this post has been up for a while, but I am just getting a look at it now.
    Second, I think your family is beautiful.
    Third, I think this is a really important and realistic look at what it means to be a woman with non-family oriented goals in our society. I have made many sacrifices/changes since becoming pregnant in February of 2011. It starts even before the baby gets here. It starts even before you’re pregnant. You change your exercise habits (maybe you have to stop doing what you love — riding horses, skiing, marathon running, hot yoga…take your pick), you change your eating habits, even if you’re a healthy eater already (I started eating meat, cut out the caffeine, as much artificial and processed goods as possible). It’s like, right then your body stops being your own, and the choices you make are always about someone else.
    After the baby gets here, if you choose to nurse, your body still isn’t yours. You are tethered to your spawn, are still monitoring what you eat, and if you love habaneros and your appendage doesn’t, you’re out of luck. Or you eat it anyway and then the baby cries all night and you get no sleep. And as amazing and helpful as your partner is, the majority of it will fall on you.
    I love being a mother. I love it so much; it is everything you think it will be only magnified tenfold. It’s more amazing; it’s more exhausting; it’s more frustrating. That being said, it’s impossible to feel like you are fulfilling the role you should be to everyone who is demanding a piece of you. I feel frequently like I’m not as patient as I could be with the baby. I feel like my house is not as clean as it should be. I feel like everyone needs more from me all the time, and sometimes all I want is ten minutes of real time to myself. A shower where I actually get to shave. A time where, when my husband says he’ll watch the baby, he actually watches her and doesn’t come to get me when it becomes clear I am what she wants.
    And in terms of career goals, I had to decide that for us, having a baby means my career choices are centered on our family planning goals and not on what will give me more prestige or a larger income. I feel societal pressure to be ready to leap back into a full time job, still nurse, still have a clean home, and somehow get enough rest to be functional. But I also felt guilt over not contributing to our family income after so many years of being independent with my finances. I also felt like we reached a point where, while my husband was still supportive of me being home, I felt like he was ready for me to bring in money as well.
    If we’d been in a place where money were a non-issue, and I’d felt comfortable not working until I’d had all the children I want and I had seen them off into grade school, then I’d try to reenter the work force, then what? There’s a hole in my resume and no one would be interested in hiring me. When I did take a job, I chose one based on the hours, the pay (would it be worth taking after comping for the childcare?) and our desire to have more children in the future. It will keep my resume current and it will bring in enough money to make a dent in our bills. Now I feel guilt that I am not home with the baby. I feel guilt over compromising my career goals. I feel guilt over not progressing in my field. I feel guilt over not being able to contribute more to our finances. I still feel guilty that the laundry isn’t done.
    I appreciate this post, and I think it allows for a tight look at what women are expected to be, accomplish, and produce during their crucial (and so few!) young adult years, and I admire the approach you are taking.

    • Reply Coté August 27, 2012 at 6:52 pm

      Thank you so, so, so much for sharing your perspective, Heather! You are just as eloquent and well-written as ever. 🙂

      I know I have no idea what motherhood really, truly feels like, because I’ve never experienced it, but I can’t help suspecting that what you say about motherhood and expectations must resonate with moms everywhere. This is to say, I just love your turn of phrase: “It is everything you think it will be only magnified tenfold. It’s more amazing; it’s more exhausting; it’s more frustrating.”

      You’re also so right that we can’t be everything to everyone. That has been such a hard lesson for me to learn in my adult life, and I still find myself feeling insane guilt about the things I fail to do as a daughter, sister, and wife. Goodness knows that my guilt and priorities would shift and multiply astronomically if I had a baby/children in my life. But, if I did in this scenario what I do now in my childless life (after having several panic attacks and eating a tub of Ben and Jerry’s, of course), I would take a deep breath, do a priorities/gut check, and then force myself to focus on the top two or three people/things that are important to me while disallowing myself to feel guilt about anything that doesn’t involve these select priorities. Even when I focus on the absolute top priorities in my life right now, though, there’s still so much to feel guilty about – so many shortcomings and “woulda couldas” that consume me. I really wish I knew how to shake this kind of guilt, and I wish you did, too; I mean, can’t there just be some fountain we drink from or some scroll we read off of to unlock the secret of guilt-free living? I know this magic elixir/secret scroll is a fantasy, but it sure would be nice. 😉 Short of these fantastical solutions to guilt, I guess the best any of us can do is just live and love day-to-day, and map out our careers and goals according to what’s most important to us…It sounds to me like you’ve made a really smart work/life choice for your your family of today and your career of the future, and I hope your new job is great (or at least that it’s a great fit for now). I’m sending you really happy wishes as you start back to work, and even more happy wishes as you continue building your life with your kiddo and husband!

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