Sweet Nothings

Children, Choices, and Everything Else

Jackie Kennedy and her daughter photographed in a time when being a stay-at-home mom was the only choice many women had

Have you read the recent Atlantic Monthly article titled Why Women Still Can’t Have It All? It is basically one high-powered woman’s account of why she left government so she could be a better mom to her teenage sons, and it’s also full of policy-making suggestions on how bosses and corporations can make it easier for women to balance their careers with parenting. In a sense, the article attempts to be a ground-breaking piece that flies in the face of feminist optimism, but I think the article itself is actually a whole lot more blindly optimistic than it seems upon first read. While I appreciate the suggestions Anne-Marie Slaughter (former director of policy planning at the State Department) makes and I think her ideas could improve work/life balance in this country for both men and women a great deal, I disagree with the way Slaughter implies that once these changes are in place women just might be able to finally “have it all.” I think these implications are extremely faulty because – drum roll, please – even with all the money and flexible work hours in the world, it just ain’t possible for anyone (whether male or female) to have and/or do it all…

Is it possible for people to lead lives full of a select few great things and foster the appearance of having it all? Sure, but the keyword here is “appearance.” This is because in order to create an existence for ourselves that is anything other than half-assed, we all need to set priorities and make tough choices about the things we do and don’t pursue. Whether or not to become a parent is, of course, one of those big choices that is rarely treated with enough gravity or logistical frankness in our society. You see, although family planning has come a long way since the 1950s, we rarely acknowledge that the actual roles parents must play haven’t changed that much. Yeah, I realize women are no longer expected to wear heels while ironing and have dinner waiting every night, but – no matter how you divvy up house chores and child care – parenting remains a full-time job. This means bringing kids into the world yields a full-time job that someone’s got to do. Sometimes this means parceling out childcare hours between two parents, a nanny and a babysitter, in which case no one person is “having it all” or “doing it all.” And, in other cases this means women taking on all parenting responsibilities while maintaining their lives as modern career women, which entails working two full-time jobs and conceding a whole lot of sacrifices in order to make every hour count (a lifestyle that is doable, but would leave any sane person hard-pressed to say they feel like they “have it all”). What it all comes down to is this: the most any of us can do is “have one heck of a lot” or “have all the things that really matter to us,” and depending on people’s individual priorities this may or may not include having children.

Maybe I am dwelling too much on semantics, but in my heart of hearts I know semantics really matter when it comes to how we view the choice to become parents, astronauts, or dog walkers. And, I don’t think it’s fair to women or men to promise that if the world just changes a little and we just change our time-management a lot, it will one day be possible for us to have it all. In fact, I think this promise is downright cruel and I doubt it’s what my great grandmother wanted for me when she marched with the suffragettes, nor do I think it’s the future my grandmother daydreamed of when she was stuck at home alone raising seven kids. Rather, what I’m pretty sure these women envisioned was merely a world in which women had a choice – a world in which my mom, my sisters, and I would be free to choose between marriage and single life, and between child rearing and a career. Anything beyond this choice would have been science fiction to them, because these were women who knew how hard it was to care for and mold little human beings into responsible adults. A simple-yet-complex choice was what they fought for, though, and the fact that women now have an array of personal/career options is such a beautiful thing…

I only hope that our society can do more justice to these women of yesteryear and women of today by acknowledging and even celebrating that life is all about choices. Yup, that’s right: life (among many other things) is about choosing what matters to us most and going after it. What makes one person’s life feel full and rewarding may not fit the bill for the next person, but that’s the beauty of choices – they’re 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 motherhood or on the idea of what it means to have it all? I’d love to hear from you! Leave a comment.

Image via Pinterest.

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  • Reply Michelle July 21, 2012 at 8:04 am

    My teenage daughter and I were just discussing this very thing! I agree with you 100%. What worked for me, might not work for everyone, and I am okay with that. I just want the freedom to make my own choice. I want my kids to have that freedom too, and also to be kind to other people’s choices. I think that is the harder lesson to teach them.

    • Reply Coté July 22, 2012 at 12:13 pm

      Thanks so much for sharing your perspective, Michelle! I think you are very right that kindness and understanding is such a hard lesson to teach. I still feel like I have to reteach this lesson to myself sometimes even though I’m a grown woman. 😉 It sounds like your daughter is one lucky girl to have a mom who teaches her all the important life lessons. 🙂

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