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I Can't Have it All, But I'll Make Do with What I Can Get

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It's fitting that parenthood begins by getting screwed, because that's roughly what happens every day thereafter. Though children are long on delights both existential and immediate, the practicalities of parenting are daunting, especially in the United States, where there is little subsidized childcare and most parents are only eligible for six weeks of unpaid parental leave, if that. Making matters more complicated, the rhetoric surrounding parenting is often heated and misguided.

Before I was a mom I taught a gender studies-themed freshman composition class at USC. Inevitably the "mommy wars" and the question of women "having it all," as mourned by Anne-Marie Slaughter's recent Atlantic cover story, would come up in discussion and most of my intelligent and excruciatingly confident students would take a side. The young women (90% of my students were female, because why discuss gender unless your's is the one encumbered?) each announced her side in the upcoming battle: They were either ambitious or cheerily domestic, as if it all were simply the choice between those two options.

I never begrudged them their certainty. I was once sure, too: I was a feminist, so I would have a career. I scoffed at women who bailed on the workforce to play patty cake and bake casseroles. After college I surged into the workforce like a tsunami of unrequited ambition, but I struggled to find work that was challenging or engaging. Then, by happenstance of love, I married at 23 and began to tune into the mothers in my workplaces to observe their -- more often than not -- misery. Eventually I understood what the feminist movement seems slow to surmise: if housewifery is the frying pan, most jobs are the fire.

At 26, in anticipation of motherhood, I decided to pursue a graduate degree in writing because I hoped writing would be a career I could perform without choosing between full-time work and no work at all. After paying my way through grad school teaching, I was able to stay on as a undergraduate writing instructor on a semester-by-semester basis, doing the same job I'd performed as a student, but full-time and with more responsibilities. It was my first glimpse of rewarding employment, but I showed up to the first day of work a few months pregnant. I was 28 and overcome by my personal biological clock. My urge to be a mother was far more potent than my ambition.

That fall, as my tummy grew, conversations with my students about the "mommy wars" became more personal. The "traditional" students asked, "Will you miss teaching when you're a mom?" Then the career-minded students asked, "Will it be hard to put your baby in day care?" I had no idea. All I knew was that even if I weren't due to give birth during the spring semester, it was unlikely that I'd get another contract (adjunct teaching being notoriously unstable). I reluctantly admitted to my students that it wasn't up to me if I was going to be a working mom. As tantalizingly polarizing as the "mommy wars" are, parents -- both mothers and fathers -- rarely get to choose their side.

I didn't get a teaching contract that spring and thus, as suddenly as I became a feminist housewife, my feminist husband became a breadwinner, though if our job situations were reversed, our roles would have been reversed. When our daughter was born my husband used all his vacation time to take a paid week off, then returned to his middle-class job as a purchasing manager, leaving me alone in our rented cottage with our squalling child for 45 hours per week. No housekeeper. No nanny. No nearby family. Over the next several months, my husband and I delineated our new roles, sometimes with evolved third-wave debates and other times with petty bickering. We established that I'd do most of the housework and errands, but when he was home, we would divide up housework and childcare evenly.

I am not the kind of housewife that Elizabeth Wurtzel recently trampled on in her own Atlantic essay, which denounces the "1% wives [who are] helping kill feminism and make the war on women possible." Being a stay-at-home mother in Los Angeles, I have met a few of those shiny one percent mothers, the ones who leave their children with nannies so they can get bikini waxes and have three-martini lunches, but they are rare birds. They are no more indicative of stay-at-home moms as one-percenters are of Americans in general.

Then I was briefly a working mom. I was able to get a fall teaching contract the following year and the math dictated that I take the job. I cleared enough over the cost of part-time daycare to take a full-time post and fill in the extra hours of childcare by working when my daughter napped and on the weekends when my more stably-employed husband was home. But then another spring rolled around when I couldn't get a contract and it was shortly after that that I became pregnant with a second child, one who ensured that the math wouldn't fall in favor of me working outside of the home for the indeterminate future.

I don't begrudge the shift of my circumstances. During that semester when I was a working mother, when my daughter was in the golden days of her infancy, babbling her first words and learning to crawl, the task of nagging after late papers and the endless grading seemed less rewarding than it did before I was a mom. Nor do I dislike being a stay-at-home parent to my two children, now 3 and 1 1/2. Though the work is often derided as "drudgery," it is just as often a literal and figurative walk in the park. I cringe when stay-at-home parents mourn their wasted educations, just as I hate that I ever reduced my current post to playing patty cake. I am no more overqualified to wipe my children's butts than I am my own. My children are the beneficiaries of my education now, and they utilize it far better than most of my former employers ever did.

The only thing I have opted-out of is an unstable teaching gig and the string of mediocre jobs I had before. I understand the stakes are heightened for women like Slaughter, who left her post as Director of Policy Planning under Secretary Clinton to be with her teenaged sons. I appreciate her dilemma, but mine was never so grand. Nor is it for most parents who stay home. Though I had little choice in the matter, I am glad to stay home, even though it means my family must make sacrifices. As long as we live on one income, we will never own our own home. We are saving only very little for their college funds and our retirements. It is not stable in the long-term for me to stay home. We will eventually have to come up with another plan, perhaps when they start school.

I do continue to write, though I now realize that writing is as likely to earn money as a side-venture in quilting, which is to say, some but not enough. And I am only able to get work done when I can eek out the time. This essay came about thanks to my friend's 12-year-old, who I paid a small sum to play with my kids for a few hours, and my husband, who took over childcare immediately after he finished eating the dinner I shoddily prepared. (I am a good mother and housewife, but an incurably mediocre cook.) And from all this I strike a balance, but perhaps not the one that my feminist foremothers predicted.

I wish that women were better represented in power positions and I crave the superior work-life balances prescribed by Slaughter. I didn't get to choose my side in the "mommy wars," and I hope that my students and my children don't have to. While I can't have it all, but I'll make do with what I can get.