Recently I held a reading of a new anthology I have an essay in. I read aloud a sort of audio-word cloud of some of the words that polka dot its pages:
guilt, should, competitive-mothering, just a mom, bad mommy, crazy mommy, balance, fluidity, exhausted, having it all, choices, shame and LOVE
I'm proud to be one of 47 authors in Torn: True Stories of Kids, Career and the Conflict of Modern Motherhood (Coffeetown Press, 2011), which exposes the difficult choices women face about work once becoming a mom. I say once, and not when, because a big theme for many of the women in this book is their shock that choice, which they thought they had so much of when younger, is not one single choice -- to work or stay home with their kids -- but rather a series of choices that they need to make over and over.
This doesn't just mean that these women are often unhappy about and continually rethinking the choices they've made, but also that they are constantly facing small choices that replay the competition between kids and work, again and again. Consider Liesl Jurock who says in her piece "Cupcake Crazy,"
Staying late for a meeting meant I wouldn't see my son before he went to bed. When I indulged in chitchat around the water cooler, it meant I'd need to wake up at 5:30 the next morning and log into my remote desktop to get caught up. When I got sick, I didn't get to rest until Lucas did. When I chose to talk to my husband, I sacrificed sleep. When we both tried to get enough sleep, it meant we skipped any chances for sex.
Hand in hand with this realization about choice and sacrifice, many of the mom-writers here talk about their overall surprise at the difference between what they thought their lives would be like as mothers, before having kids, and the reality of their lives as mothers once they have them. This is partly because when they were young, the second wave of feminism told these girls that they could and should "have it all". And many of them have -- they've become very heavy hitters in high heels, who stuck together and changed the world.
But again and again, these writers are incredibly disappointed, once giving birth, to find they can't really have it all -- be on the fast track at work and be the kind of mom they want to be at the same time. Torn speaks a lot about white knuckling through the day, and not feeling like you do any one thing well anymore. So many moms I know can relate.
That's why I love when, in her essay "Are You Fat, Or Just Pregnant?", Amy Schneider says, "I'm trying to do all these things in a misguided effort not to be 'just a mom' -- when what I should be doing is existing in the moment with my kids and my husband and myself."
The book presents all different kinds of working-mom voices: corporate, military, low income, full-time, part-time, even stay at home moms (yes, they work too). That's the perspective of my own essay, where I talk about the odd bond of co-parenting with a single wage earner when your work schedule becomes completely dependent on his.
In her essay, "From Harvard to Homemaking", Bracha Goetz defends her choice to "give up" her Ivy League education and stay home with her kids, and I applaud:
I feel that in order to be committed to be a homemaker, a mother, and a guide to trusting souls, a woman a woman has to love to think. Being a homemaker, with an awareness of the potential inherent in the position, is the most challenging intellectual pursuit I could ever envision.
I'd say I'm not as torn about career as many of the women in the book. But I am still living my own work/life struggles with the choices I've made.
Edited by Samantha Parent Walravens, a journalist, mother and Princeton grad, there are plenty of essays in the book by Type A, Ivy League graduates with high-powered careers. This is very different from my reality here on the Southern California coast, an eclectic resume in the workforce behind me. But I'm so grateful for that difference because hearing their stories helps me understand a world I probably was judging before.
I have no idea what it is to receive an education more costly than a home, give up your life to get every promotion that comes your way afterward and realize only once your baby has been born that something needs to give, because you feel you simply can't breastfeed and travel for work every single week. In her essay "Dr. Mom", Dr. Tara Bishop wonders if she can still read an EKG or diagnose pneumonia since having put her medical career on hold while her kids are small. In the margins of this one, I wrote "WOW". I cannot imagine what that would be like.
So, in reading Torn, I am truly appreciative of all 47 voices -- those who are different and those who echo my own. But I am also sad at the disappointment and guilt I hear so much of there. I find myself often wondering, as I read, how much more supported would we all be, all parents, if we still lived in the village it does take to raise our kids right.
As I read, I also try to keep in mind how talking about parenting can really sound much worse than it is, especially on paper. To someone without children, there's no way we can explain why cuteness and cuddles and even love could be worth the amount of work having them is. The nature of life is so changed once you start a family: the rhythm of life goes from work, then leisure, work, then leisure to, simply, work.
Carrie Lukas' piece echoes many of her fellow mom voices as she says, "Unfortunately there is no set of policies that will solve the real root of the problem: we only have 24 hours in a day and can't be in two places at once."
Similarly, Joana Jebsen talks of giving birth to her twins in "The Good Enough Mother" and asking the doctor if she can take a break after pushing out the first baby. "No, she said sternly. And that's when I first learned the truth about motherhood. There are no breaks."
How can it be worth it, right? It's hard to explain until you're in it. Hard to explain, too, how much the goal of striking a balance for yourself and your families, or simply just having enough to make ends meet these days, can lead women to feel so inadequate and stressed. But Torn comes close, and shows us that when you want to talk about motherhood and work, 47 different voices are probably just the tip of the iceberg.