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The Poetry of Women's Work

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The bed and desk both want me.
The windows, the view, the idea of Paris.

With my minutes, I chip away at the idiom,
an unmarked pebble in a fast current.

-- Rachel Zucker, from "After Baby After Baby"

I've never liked the term "working mother." To me, it implies that I'm some kind of subcategory, and not a full member of the club. The label also combines a bit of praise for a superhuman effort with a whiff of disapproval for the fact that balancing work and family means someone is getting shortchanged. "Working father," meanwhile? You don't hear it.

For as long as I can remember, I wanted success as a researcher. I wanted to be in all the best journals. I wanted to discover great things and write books about what I learned. I never even thought about being a mother. But then early in my 30s, motherhood was all I thought about. Unlike today, that was the age when most women reached their go/no-go decision on having children. This was not a conscious choice. It was an emotional, even physical need. Every tick of my biological clock sounded like a rifle shot.

We had a son. And much later in life a baby girl. And that whole world-class research thing? It's still here, and as insistent as ever. But what made my emotional struggle especially difficult was that my life wasn't. My husband did quite well quite early. Basically, I didn't have to do much I didn't want to. The idea of stretching ligaments to embrace both work and domesticity, I know, must leave many without my options asking: "Are you nuts?"

Maybe. But I'm certainly not alone. We've been at this whole women and work thing for several decades now, with an ongoing public debate over which option -- working or not -- makes mothers happier. And in the early months of 2013, we've found ourselves here once again. Commentary on the subject has ignited the pages of cultural magazines, not to mention the media's renewed discussion of Betty Friedan's The Feminine Mystique, which celebrates its 50th anniversary this year. Whether it's the "feminist housewife" profiled in a recent New York cover story, or the woman rising to corporate leadership discussed in Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg's book Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead, the ideal role of women in the modern world continues to be a subject of popular contention. Meanwhile, in homes and offices and laboratories and classrooms, wherever we exercise our life's calling -- or callings -- we share more similarities than the debate over "a woman's place today" suggests.

What a better time than this, National Poetry Month, to enter another sort of discussion: the common space poems create for reflection -- on the challenges we face, the choices we make, and the invaluable importance of all women do.

"We tried, beyond work, at work, to keep what we loved," wrote Sandra MacPherson in her poem "Resigning from a Job in the Defense Industry." These words, published in 1970, still sum up the struggle at the center of the work-life tug-of-war. While the message is firm in its realism, it's also affirmative. With clear eyes, and a bit of absurdist humor, poetry can provide solace in the storm. Take Brenda Hillman's "Time Problem," part of a longer meditation on time, family, and busyness:

My girl came to the study
and said Help me;
I told her I had a time problem
which meant:
I would die for you but I don't have ten minutes.
Numbers hung in the math book
like motel coathangers. The Lean
Cuisine was burning
like an ancient city...

Here we are, juggling priorities with immense sensitivity to the sacrifices we make with every decision, the micro-worlds it seems we compromise with every choice -- in the workplace, too. Elizabeth Willis tackles the problem with similar wit in "January":

My office alerts me
I have only so much time

Prosperity is just around
that hairpin turn

In this way the poem
lays its hand against your head

Its words are using you
to power-down the view

In times of self-doubt--after all, we're living in an era of "hairpin turns": career changes, a tumultuous economy, and technology advancing at a dizzying pace--poetry can provide a space for recalling the fundamentals of our choices. Crystal Williams writes in "God Is Good":

Today my accomplishments crouch in the corner
not jabbering happily or raising their hands,
but with their grubby heads down murmuring something dull.

But then there's a turn:

Maybe this is the good life, this sudden uncertainty.
Maybe this is the woman all women once were.

Whatever we choose to do, or find ourselves doing, poetry can remind us to be present and do that thing well. Julia Alvarez considers her mother's command of the domestic realm in "Woman's Work":

Who says a woman's work isn't high art?
She'd challenge as she scrubbed the bathroom tiles.
Keep house as if the address were your heart.

Ultimately, this art form that can sometimes elude us can also, in quiet moments, validate us deeply, and reveal the power in our shared connections. "We're fighting against our acculturation that tells us when we write about our lives, it's trivial. We write out of fury at being relegated to having our lives called 'trivial,'" says the poet Daphne Gottlieb in the anthology Woman Poets on Mentorship: Efforts and Affections. "And we help each other get our words out there, because one voice alone won't move the world forward, but nations of women together might."

Ultimately, in my own life, I accepted the fact that motherhood was not the choice. Work was. And if I wanted that choice, I would have to embrace the chaos, even if that meant occasionally showing up to lecture medical students wearing two different shoes. This is how I came to be content in the way you are when your choices, your words, are your own, and they take you to a place you accept and understand.

Wherever you focus your efforts, or "lean in," to borrow Sandburg's phrase, what are your words?

Read more from these women poets:
"After Baby After Baby" from Museum of Accidents by Rachel Zucker (Wave Books, 2010)
"Resigning from a Job in the Defense Industry" from Elegies for the Hot Season by Sandra MacPherson (Indiana University Press, 1970)
"Time Problem" from Loose Sugar by Brenda Hillman (Wesleyan University Press, 1997)
"January" from Address by Elizabeth Willis (Wesleyan University Press, 2011)
"God Is Good" by Crystal Williams from Women Poets on Mentorship: Efforts and Affections (University of Iowa Press, 2008)
"Woman's Work" from Homecoming: New and Collected Poems by Julia Alvarez (Plume, 1996)