05/22/2014 12:05 pm ET Updated Jul 22, 2014

All Matters, So Stop Apologizing

Lisa Svelmoe

My husband has always traveled a lot for his research. Now that we are empty nesters, I occasionally go with him, something that rarely happened when our kids were home. Simply put, we couldn't afford airfare for me and childcare for them, and the closest family members who might have helped us were 500 miles away. Also, honestly, our family functioned better when one of us was more or less at home and in charge. The children experienced fewer meltdowns. We, the parents, experienced fewer meltdowns.

But the kids are now in college and beyond, and a few months ago I found myself waiting to hear my husband give a Ted-like talk halfway across the country. Unsurprisingly, the morning's kick-off was delayed by technological difficulties. I watched workers move cables and screens for awhile, then moved into the lobby for a cup of coffee, where I was immediately engaged by two young mothers who were also there for the event.

As so often happens in social settings, we women introduced ourselves by including what we do or do not do for a living. And then we apologized for what we don't do. One woman seemed embarrassed to say she has opted to stay home with her two school-age boys; she said it as something of a confession, explaining her decision in a rush of words that left her almost breathless. The other woman had already told me, at dinner the night before with a noisy group, that she had been away from home and her two young daughters for over a week on business, one gig running into the other. She had attempted to laugh it off, but she had seemed conflicted, especially when talking about one of the girls who is unhappy and struggling. She now repeated almost every single word. Without laughter.

I returned to the talks with a lot more than a Chinet cup in hand. In a remarkably short time, I had learned two fundamental truths about these women: They had made different decisions regarding their work-childrearing lives, and neither seemed at peace with her decision. What their home lives are like I could only imagine, though it wasn't hard to intuit that one woman's life is very stressed and loaded with guilt and the other's may one day not be enough, not what she went to college for.

This kind of conversation between women happens all the time. No matter what you as a mother are doing -- or in my case, no matter what I did when my children were living at home -- the air is almost always charged with angst, incredulity and/or defensiveness. My husband and I made a decision over 20 years ago, when our second child was on her way, that I would work from home as a freelance writer when I could and when I couldn't, we would live accordingly. I am still explaining our decision, now more than ever. It's absurd.

What more can I say? It was not always easy, not the least because our finances were often tight. My husband was an ambitious, untenured academic with a paycheck to match. He never stopped working. I had taken a scary leap into a new career shortly before we married. I had put a lot of effort and money into graduate school -- minimizing my debt by assisting a wheelchair-bound elderly woman in exchange for a free room -- and had landed a job I liked. I could have learned a lot and presumably moved up had I stayed, but we had commuted during our courtship and didn't want a commuting marriage, so I gave it up. Plus, we had figured it's easier for writers to find work than it is for Ph.D.s. We were partly right. I found work at a university press, but I didn't make nearly enough money to cover childcare for three children under the age of 5, and there was no chance of advancement. The reality was that not even combining our incomes would pay for the kinds of necessities (and conveniences) that make it possible for career couples to climb ladders and stay sane -- and married -- while raising a family.

Like all parents, we gradually learned that raising kids is a heck of a lot of work, and that someone has to do it 24/7. You or your spouse will wipe all those bottoms, sit through all those Nutcracker rehearsals and rush your son to the doctor because his cold symptoms have worsened strangely in the hour since he came home from school and you're afraid he has pneumonia -- and you're right -- or someone else will. Your kids and their friends will simultaneously throw their backpacks on your kitchen floor and start rummaging for food, eventually glancing up to say hello, or they will spend those after-school hours at someone else's house. You, the parent, will observe, sometimes very quietly, what your teenager is experiencing academically, socially and emotionally, you will agonize over what the best course of action is, or someone else will. Someone will raise your children.

We compared my husband's impossible hours and modest pay with my ordinary hours and lower pay and we made a decision. He got up in the morning and went to the office. I got up and went to the laundry room. We were both stretched thin at times, though my primary responsibilities were strikingly different than his, though I never graduated to a corner office or had my name on a door. (I did eventually set up a writing desk in a retired nursery, which meant our girls shared a small room so filled with dolls and books and soccer cleats that it was almost impossible to turn around.)

It was hard. It required a lot of imagination and dedication on both our parts. I learned how to do things I'd never considered, like helping build a fence with a baby in a backpack leaning over my shoulder, and becoming proficient enough with finances and old-house renovation that I considered becoming a contractor. I helped execute sabbaticals -- including one in Nairobi right after the American Embassy was bombed -- taking care of hundreds of house, medical, educational and family details. And I put in late-night hours on what I called my bread-and-butter work, which was a nice way of saying it wasn't the kind of writing I wanted to do but it helped pay a few bills. Meanwhile, my husband regularly returned to the lab after he helped tuck the kids in bed. In the small hours of the morning he wrote academic articles, pulled in grants and gradually lapped the tenure track.

Our decision -- to parent as well as we could while living on his salary -- demanded everything we had as parents and as a couple. We said no to a lot of things: private education for the kids, new cars, even Starbucks. Sometimes it felt impossible and we considered alternatives: Should I return to full-time work? Should we move to one of the other universities that beckoned? Nothing seemed better than what we were doing, so we kept at it. We made our share of mistakes, but the children learned and grew and flourished. And then they flew the nest.

And here I sit, amazed at how quickly they left, grateful for who we are as a family, humbled that we are financially solvent, still at it as a freelancer. Admittedly, I vacillate between wispy hope and despair about my next professional step. But I fought for what I wanted when the kids were around. That essential part of who I am has not changed.

A lot has been written and even more has been said since Anne-Marie Slaughter wrote in the Atlantic in the summer of 2012 that women still can't have it all and Sheryl Sandberg responded that indeed women can have it all if they will only lean more forcefully against the massive obstacles they are up against at home and at work. Maria Shriver. Jane Pauley. Arianna Huffington. The newly-minted Ph.D. mother standing in our foyer after brunch last weekend, her toddler endlessly climbing the stairs. The conversations and questions and turmoil surrounding women and careers and co-parenting and pay and personal happiness and reinvention never stop.

For those of us fortunate enough not to be a single parent working a minimum-wage job (or two) I think it's time we ask a fundamental question: What is all?

Are we talking about all or are we talking about more? More money? More power and prestige? More stress on parents and children, everyone frantic, exhausted and sometimes downright mean with homework and meals and sports and piano and a burgeoning stack of bills and chores to get through before bedtime?

Are all and more synonymous?

As I've listened and reflected on my husband's and my decision I've concluded that more can only move it one direction: it can only get bigger. More is never satiated. Likewise, all can grow. But it can also contract. All is not only about what I as a professional woman can do. All lets me think and decide for myself; it grants me the right to measure success on my terms, not society's. All allows me to chart the best course of action for me and my family, given our particular circumstances.

I'm sure it was difficult for Slaughter to leave the State Department for family reasons, but she called the shot. She made the decision. That sounds like all to me.

Sandberg has not had to make this kind of choice yet, and maybe she has made enough money and earned enough clout that she'll never have to. But even if she and her husband never look back and seriously question their choices, their children will. I am certain of it.

At some point, all children measure and weigh and sort what they are beginning to discern as the meaning of their lives against what they perceive to be the meaning of their parents' lives. They might not get it right -- what matters most to us as editors, professors, CFOs, civil servants, moms and dads -- but they will form an opinion, and it will be based more on how we live than what we say.

I grew up along the Outer Banks of North Carolina. Paradise now, but times were tough when my parents married as teenagers. They lived hand-to-mouth while my father was earning his license as a harbor pilot. I remember waking up nights as a child and wandering into our combined living/dining room. My father would have pulled a full two- or three-day shift as a line-handler on a tugboat, but he would be up, studying at the only table in the house, surrounded by nautical charts, compasses, sharpened pencils and a slide rule.

Dad eventually became a pilot and in later years he made a very good living. He loved piloting ships and he liked having the means to buy a large piece of land and build a nice house for my mother and pay for college for us children. But his life was a lot bigger than his work. It encompassed curiosity and learning and challenge and doing everything from keeping chickens and bees to training bird dogs just so he could watch them work the fields. And there was family. He used to tell me to treat my siblings well because one day family would be all I had that was worth anything in this world.

One afternoon, a gentleman from our small town stopped by and asked for Dad. This man was quite wealthy; his family orbited a different social planet than ours. Dad was across the yard somewhere, at the barn or cleaning out the dog pen or tinkering with his skiff. I eventually found him and told him who was standing in the driveway. The two talked for a short while, then the man waved goodbye and left.

"What'd he want?" I asked.

"Oh, he's been asking me if I want to invest in some projects with him and a few other men around town," Dad answered.

"Like what?" I was completely surprised.

"Restaurants, developing, things like that. But I've been thinking about it and I told him no," he said.

"You don't want to make more money?" I choked out.

"Well, the way I look at it, I've got about everything I want. If I go in with those men, I'll just be spending more time in meetings and stuff like that and frankly, I'm not that interested. When I'm not working, I want to do the things I like doing around here. I like my garden and I like my boat and I like hunting when I want to. I like being home with your mother at night if I don't have a ship. What good's more money gonna do me if I don't have time to enjoy it? I'm just not that interested."

Why have I remembered this conversation for so many years? Because my father had just told me that as far as he was concerned, he had it all. How many children hear their parents say such a thing -- and mean it? I knew how hard he had worked to get where he was. Given an opportunity to grasp another ring, he had reassessed what mattered most to him at this stage of his life. And it wasn't more money, power or accomplishment.

Which brings me back to those young mothers at the university event. I felt a little sorry for both of them. They are afraid they have made the wrong decision precisely because the stakes are high. How we live, and what we live and work for, matters. How we raise our children is important. Like any worthy undertaking, raising a family well requires time, finesse and attention. Add a professional job and the number of moving parts grows exponentially.

I wanted to tell those women to stop apologizing. I wanted to tell them to come up with a working definition of all that they can live with. It takes strength and flexibility to do this. It might mean one parent working for pay or it might mean two. One parent might step off the ladder because it makes more sense financially or because of the taxing hours the other parent puts in or because he or she is needed in an unexpected way by their children (or elderly parents) or because there are so many other ways to serve society that don't contribute a nickel to the family bottom line. I am not talking about not stepping up to the challenge. I am talking about giving the big, intangible all -- what you have decided are the most important things in your life -- everything you've got.

If we women would quit apologizing, we might be able to enjoy our decisions a little more. We might listen to each other more closely and hear the real fears and challenges that lie beneath our conversational openers. We might offer each other support. We might become courageous enough to voice at home and in the workplace what is or is not working for us, our partners and our families.

I was once where those young mothers are today. I thought about it, I worked all the angles, I did the math, and I made a particular decision.

It was not about more, but my vision of all.