Saturday, July 14, 2012

Having It All

By now, everyone has read Anne-Marie Slaughter's article in The Atlantic—if you haven't, the gist is that even (or especially) women who have accomplished great things in their professional lives find the demands joys of parenthood to be a significant challenge to their ability to continue on the paths they've chosen. She argues that her generation of feminists has been telling women that they can "have it all" (career, family, self-fulfillment) if they just work hard enough, long enough, but that this message is deceptive and untrue. There are thousands of responses I'll never read (if I did read them all, I'd never write this post; this is a good one whose excellent points I won't directly address here). But I want to mention a couple of the ideas that came up for me as I was reading Slaughter's piece and a couple other pieces.

First, it goes without saying that I'm hardly in the category of "alpha leaders." High school English teachers don't exactly run the world, important as our jobs may be.  And I don't want to run the world. I want to garden, do yoga, and watch my boys grow up. I've made compromises already, scaled back my ambitions for the next ten or more years, as Dana Shell Smith asserts one must do even in an "insanely demanding job." Teaching is an insanely demanding job, even without the ambitions I have put on hold. Being a parent who is present as much at home as at work requires somehow fitting that insanely demanding job into very little time. But would it have made such an impression if, as a friend said to me, an English teacher had written 13,000 words about how hard it is to balance work, life, and ambition? Another friend pointed out that it's not just women with children who find balancing work and life difficult. She's right: some of the most over-worked people I know are childless men. Clearly, the system we live with isn't fair or pleasant for many (most?) of us. Indeed, people without kids often feel (whether correctly or not) that they're unduly burdened with expectations that do not fall on the shoulders of those with young children. I know I felt that way in the past.

And Slaughter herself admits that she's hardly the spokesperson for all women or all people—she has incredible privilege; after all, she left DC to go back to work as a tenured professor at Princeton. But her privilege does give her the opportunity to be heard. The part of her point that I felt most resonance with is that for many women the definitions of happiness and balance change when kids come along, and we're left with trying to choose among the things we love; the idea that this is in any way a choice for  women is a fallacy, according to Slaughter. Slaughter quotes Senator Jeanne Shaheen:
“There’s really no choice.” She wasn’t referring to social expectations, but to a maternal imperative felt so deeply that the “choice” is reflexive.
Children trump all—whether that means putting career plans on hold or working extra jobs to provide for their needs. Given my recent experience with just trying to tread water in my own career and life, never mind feeling fulfilled on all fronts, I'd have to agree with her.

After an adult life spent defining myself by all the things that I do, the shift to the so-called mommy track is hard.  I love the interactions with my students, the stimulation of the reading and thinking and talking that goes on in the classroom. I love the energy of adolescence, the perspective I'm gaining on learning as I watch my children grow. And I miss being the go-to gal for a presentation on integrating digital tools into the classroom. I miss feeling satisfied with hours spent in the garden. I miss calling my mom just to chat in the middle of the afternoon. I miss having friends at work chat with me about movies or books or TV; during the school year, I miss having friends.

But I'm home with the boys for the summer, and I'm quite relieved not to switch roles twice a day. I can just be a mom. It's so much more work than being at work. I'm not doing as much prepping for the school year as I should be doing. But I'm taking Sunday mornings off to go to yoga. I'm swimming once a week. I'm taking a dance class. I'm watching TV with my husband after the kids go to bed. No, I'm not gardening, but it's only a matter of time. I'm cooking a little, here and there. I'm making friends who are moms and meeting up with friends who aren't moms, too. For these eight weeks, I have just about enough.


Gerry said...

Larissa. I so admire your ability to juggle; you're doing a terrific job as mom and otherwise, and I know it isn't easy. I'm also glad to see you writing. Keep it up!

Larissa said...

Thanks, Gerry! I don't think juggling is at all easy, and I'm sure that if I'd written this piece during the school year it would look quite different. I'm hoping to write at least twice a month from now on (baby steps!).