My mother and I have been carrying on discussion about life and work for nearly half a century.
It didn’t start out as a back and forth, of course. At first I mostly watched as she crafted a life that included three children, a husband, various cats, dogs and canaries, and work that she loved.
Over time, as I grew and developed most definite opinions, it became a conversation. And her side was usually about how my generation didn’t invent this dilemma and that we’re missing a glaringly obvious point when it comes to solving it.
“Having it all,” she’s always said, doesn’t mean piling everything onto your plate. It means selecting what is most delicious and nutritious to you. The women’s movement made a mistake, she believes, when it aimed for women to be like men. The higher goal was to do things better than men, and bring them around by way of example.
After I wrote about life and work earlier this week, Mom decided it was time, once again, to set me straight. I found this in my inbox this morning, the latest installment in our lifelong chat about what makes for a rewarding life.
Mom's advice is too good to keep to myself.
I am writing this in response to your blog discussing Catherine Rampell’s article on “The Balancing Act”. I know exactly where Sara Uttech is coming from; her choices reflect the story of my life and my choices.
I believe that the choices Sara made have enabled her to “have it all." Many working women like Sara come much closer to “having it all” than do most men; they recognize that “all” encompasses much more than work or career and that “having it” is much more than a statistical report. Your father was one of the few men I knew who recognized that “having it all” included an orthodontic practice very close to home so that he could work but could also be available for children’s plays, games, trips etc.
In a prior blog post, you mentioned that had I, your mother, “been born a generation later”, I would have “run the known universe.” What you did not understand was that I chose the life I led with care and great deliberation. I wanted it all and believe that I got it. I spent the early years of family life in postgraduate education so as to have a career to enter as my three children grew older ( a Ph.D., law school etc.) I was fortunate enough to have a husband who volunteered to share in child care so that I could do this. Sharing was not done through contracts or other written agreements but through mutual respect for the needs of all family members.
After law school, I engineered a corporate position as a full time lawyer where, by arriving early I was always able to leave work in time to arrive home for dinner and the evening with my family. (This also enabled me to get a seat on my inbound commute on the LIRR—a definite win-win situation). As you well know, dinner was usually brought in, or we ate out at the local diner -- I did not rush home to prepare the meal. I must emphasize that I intentionally chose a corporate position because I wanted both a work life and a family life. This was not a compromise forced on me; having started as a lawyer at age 40, I knew that a full life required more than achievement at work. Work and a career were only part of life, and I wanted it all.
AND I GOT IT!!
Once you three children were on your own (more or less) I assumed more and more responsibility as an international regulatory lawyer. But I STILL demanded a full life for myself. My career developed well, leading to my serving a Chair of the Administrative Law section of the American Bar Association as well as other demanding and rewarding roles.
Throughout my adulthood, to the present day, a primary goal of mine is to maintain a balanced life where personal satisfaction and enjoyment comes from more than work achievement. This started when I first read “The Feminine Mystique" as a young mother of three. I was surprised back then at Friedan’s underlying assumption that women needed to be liberated to enjoy the “perks” of a man’s life.
Yes, there were some truths to her argument, but the assumption that women should try to (or want to) pursue the lives of men amazed me. In my view, I felt sorry for men who, in order to succeed in work, were often forced to abandon the joys of parenting.
And yes, legal equality was necessary but, to me, the basic principle was that men were missing the benefits of watching their children grow and participating in their lives. Men were supposedly working in order to provide for their families but frequently ended up providing the financial wherewithal for the mother and children to enjoy their lives essentially without him. This never seemed fair or desirable to me and still does not. It is no coincidence that men who are divorced and remarried frequently choose to spend much more time with children created within that new family.They know what they missed the first time around. I never envied men’s lives; I pitied them.
There are so many factors that must be considered in selecting one’s ideal life style. More men and women should recognize that there are any number of paths to a fulfilled life, and that balance should always be a key factor. After all, work was once a means to an end, not an end in itself. That concept needs to be revisited, and we should make it the ideal that we pass on to our sons and daughters.