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Familiar Balancing Acts: Conversations with the Women We Know Best

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I don't know firsthand what it's like to balance work and family -- I graduated from college last year -- but I bet there's no hard-and-fast, works-every-time rule. There's no one article that will tell us exactly how to fill the many roles we envision for ourselves. There are stories and insights that guide our decisions. We glean them from articles and lectures and observations, and, as with the insights and stories that shape many decisions we face, we hear them from people we already know and trust. The conversation sparked by Anne-Marie Slaughter's article in the Atlantic, "Why Women Still Can't Have it All," struck a chord with many of us in our early twenties who hope to have a family and a career someday. My friends and I are still talking about the article. The public conversation it sparked may be quieting, but we're not ready to let this topic go. By asking the people we know best how this balance has played out for them, we can widen the conversation and keep it going strong.

Kids still seem far off to me, though I know I want a family. Work feels immediate, exciting and I change my mind almost daily about what work I want to do long-term. After graduating from college last year, I moved to south Texas and ran an outreach program for a legal aid center along the border, and now I'm in Argentina on a year-long research fellowship. I don't know what's up next. Examples to which I might turn for the decisions I face now, the fairer workplace policies for which I could fight and the balance I'll work to strike someday catch my attention. Slaughter's article told one important story. I wanted to hear more, and I wanted to hear from the women whose efforts to balance the careers and families they love I've observed my whole life.

I started with my mom. She knew from before she can remember that she wanted to have a career and have kids. Managing both, she has found, isn't something you learn to do once. It's something you figure out as you go. "This balancing act is at the center of our lives," she said. My mom works full-time as a child psychiatrist in Amherst, Massachusetts, and my dad commutes to teach at Boston University, an hour and a half away. They said it's harder than they expected to divide household responsibilities equally. I thought back to the countless nights I've watched them plan the next day and realized that in those moments, I was watching them try. I was watching them figure out together how to coordinate their work schedules with carpools for three daughters, babysitters, clarinet lessons, family dinners and house cleaning in a way that didn't leave one person always in charge.

I grew up with parents who were equally likely to make dinner or pick me up at school. Showing me that such a relationship is possible and being honest that it hasn't been straightforward or comfortable each step of the way are two of their greatest gifts to me.

My writing professor from Yale and her husband, also a writer, take turns writing books and working jobs with salaries and benefits that support the family. Together, she said, they've raised two children and written six books. She can't write and teach and cook and spend time with her kids as much as she'd like to all in one day. But over days, weeks and in some cases years, the different pieces have fallen into place. "We have progressed sort of in parallel," she said, shifting responsibilities so that as a couple they are the writers and parents they want to be.

My mom's childhood friend said that even with a partner who "values your family the way you do, and values your career the way he values his career," there are moments when dedication and almost boundless energy aren't enough. There will be many days you leave work earlier than you'd like. At some point you will miss a school event. This balance won't be one you figure out in advance; it's something you'll tweak day after day after year. With varied examples and turns of phrase, everyone I talked to said that being both the parent and writer or doctor or professor or whatever you want to be is exhilarating and unquestionably worth it and still difficult and messy.

A couple I've known since I was born said that when they were my age, they thought everything needed to be symmetrical in their marriage to be equal -- jobs of equal prestige, equal contributions of time at home. In the end, his work allowed for more time at home than hers, and that helped them build the family and community life they wanted. They've come to see the options for ambitious couples in a more open-ended way and don't think two high powered careers should be the goal for every family.

I asked my mom what she would want her younger self to know. Her response came as a hope for my sisters and me: that we will notice all the things we are pulling off, and not just the places we're coming up short. Keep dreaming as big as you do now, I heard her saying, and don't work any less hard, but know in those moments you feel pulled in many directions that you aren't necessarily doing something wrong.

So maybe the goal isn't flawlessness. Maybe the goal is giving it your all. When I was in high school, Mom worked until nine or ten on Mondays, and I often sat with her while she ate dinner. I learned about her profession, but more than that, in these in-between moments I got a sense of how she approached her work and what it meant to her. When my boyfriend and I interviewed his mom together, she described a smiling, briefcase-carrying woman he had drawn on a welcome-home sign when he was 6-years-old. She had been away on several business trips that month. "I was feeling conflicted and guilty about my absence," she said, "although very stimulated and happy as a journalist." Seeing the picture her son drew of his working mom, she remembers realizing that "kids really care if their mom is excited and happy about what she's doing," and that her work contributes to her family beyond the income it provides.

I don't know what stories I'll be telling in thirty years. The stories I heard from family and friends will stick with me because I already know the cast of characters, and because the experiences and reflections people described don't add up to a single answer or plan. Everyone I called had a lot to say, but no one tried to tell me what to do or pretended to know what the path forward will look like for women my age.

We face a world of enduring gender inequalities, but we have so many more professional women as role models than our mothers had. Some of them we hear from in articles or interviews on TV. Others we can just call. We've seen up close the way they handle this balancing act. We've seen them make mistakes. Whether or not they are the models we most want to follow, their perspectives will hit particularly close to home.

I called the people closest to me and heard one set of voices. There are so many more, and I'm curious to hear them. As we create pictures for ourselves of how the generations above us have built their lives, our pictures should include the women -- and men -- whose daily lives we've long observed, but who maybe we've never asked how they manage the many roles they play. It's on us to start asking. We have the most at stake in the debate over having it all and what that even means. We have so many decisions still to make.