I think every generation of women since probably the 1970s has wrestled with the idea of how to have it all. The solutions each generation has found might be slightly different, but the quest is the same—how do I balance my career ambitions and need to make money with raising healthy happy kids. Oh, and where does my role as wife, daughter, friend, and volunteer fit into the mix? I’ve more or less made peace with this question in my mind, but the discussion still fascinates me. I ran across this really beautiful essay in The Atlantic that turns the question on its head.
The author, Marie Myung-Ok Lee, is a novelist (Somebody’s Daughter*) who teaches at Columbia University. She is also the mom of a severely autistic 12-year-old son. She, as is the case of many parents of special needs children, sees “having it all” in a different light.
When I look at friends and acquaintances, many with perfectly beautiful children and wonderful lives, and see how desperately unhappy or stressed they are about balancing work and family, I think to myself that the solution to many problems is deceptively obvious. We are chasing the wrong things, asking ourselves the wrong questions. It is not, “Can we have it all?” — with “all” being some kind of undefined marker that shall forever be moved upwards out of reach just a little bit with each new blessing. We should ask instead, “Do we have enough?” …
But one thing I’ve learned is that the minute I start fixating on what I don’t have — time, money, a child I can send to camp for the summer, central air conditioning — I just feel that much hotter and put-upon, and those bad feelings seem to attract extra obstructions to my day. …
For all the people who are puzzled by my seeming happiness, I’ll be glad to let them know my “secret.” I’m not in denial, I’m not on antidepressants, and I don’t live in a fantasy world. I have a wonderful husband and I am pursuing a career I’ve dreamed of since I was nine years old. I have a beautiful son, friends, and a working stove. I am not paraplegic. I have parents who, through luck and fate, had me here in the United States, and not in North Korea. I live in a time where my awful vision can be corrected with glasses. I am a college graduate. I am never hungry unless I choose to be.
I don’t discount the balancing struggles of woman. It is hard and speaking for myself, I am always questioning if I am doing enough. Lee’s essay is a refreshing reminder that I need to re-frame the question.
* Some of you may know of Marie Myung-Ok Lee from her 2005 novel, Somebody’s Daughter, about nineteen-year-old Sarah Thorson, who was adopted from South Korea as a baby by a Lutheran couple in the Midwest. After dropping out of college, she eventually moves to Korea in search of her birth mother. Paralleling Sarah’s story is the tale of Kyung-sook, a Korean woman who placed her child for international adoption. I’ve also enjoyed some of her essays in Slate.
Image credit: Gilzee
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As a mother of a special needs child (though not nearly as severe as the author’s son), I just loved this article. It reminded me to not benchmark and instead appreciate what my child brings to my life (I guess similar to the poem “Welcome to Holland”). It also questions whether we should really want what is “easiest” – even though that doesn’t necessarily make you the happiest. As a society we have become too accustomed to not having to work for or wait for anything any longer and have lost the fulfillment that comes from hard work and anticipation (my motto has always been “the berries taste sweetest at the top of the mountain”). My child’s milestones come later than your child’s do – and take a lot more work to achieve – but when they arrive she is SO proud and it is cause for celebration.
Kelly, I think that’s why I liked this article as well.
Dawn, I wholeheartedly agree with your last sentence. If we weren’t all struggling with society’s issues on an individual basis, the story and analysis of the pregnancy of a newly-hired CEO wouldn’t end up on our front pages and opinion pages for days to weeks. She’s a prominent example of the tradeoffs (and expectations and judgement) that parents are facing in their own lives.
I’m still thinking about that article…aaaand…nope, it still irks me. sigh… I just can’t get past what I see as an oversimplification. Redefining “having it all” when it comes to the things you can’t change is reasonably straightforward, if a struggle at times. It’s managing the things we can affect, beyond just our attitude, that cause the sleepless nights and pain. There are real decisions and tradeoffs that we have to make with regards to our chosen or imposed obligations, and Lee’s article was so weighted to acceptance of the unchangeable that I’m struggling against it.
I am not sure what to make of this, honestly. I don’t disagree with her message–that people should actively choose what their benchmark for “all” is–but I have a bit of difficulty because she of the position from which she’s saying it. I read the essay in The Atlantic, and I cannot imagine what her family’s day-to-day life is like. While handling a very difficult situation, she and her husband have still achieved the following:
– a career as a novelist and essay writer, with a visiting professorship at Brown U. and, according to the byline, a teaching position at Columbia. (Lee)
– The fulfillment of a lifetime’s dream of being a successful writer (Lee)
– a full professorship at Brown (husband)
– the financial resources to obtain treatment and care for their son and the career flexibility to not be at risk of losing a job because of missing a day of work to meet with the docs
In other words, she and her husband have, while caring for their son, achieved career success and, in part due to that, have achieved a healthy emotional space for their familial and personal obligations and choices. Becoming a successful novelist and becoming a full professor…these are not easy things! They take time, dedication, and hard work. Raising a severely autistic child…I don’t have personal experience, but it sure sounds like it isn’t easy either. It sounds like it also requires time, dedication, deep and abiding love, and hard work. Lee cannot tell me that these two things, career and family needs, have never been in tension with each other and have me believe it. I also don’t believe that simple acceptance and awareness of what one has is enough to make that tension disappear.
So, that’s one side of things. One the other hand, I think the broader “have it all” conversation has been more about the comparison between male/female work/personal life balances than about any one person or couple trying to sort out their own balance. The point I’ve seen is that there are societal influences that affect how we perceive our respective obligations and expectations in both areas, and this affects how individuals and couples work out their own choices.
Finally, acceptance and appreciation…those are fine things, but encouragement to accept and appreciate what one has been used to help people to “stay in line” for centuries. Pushing against the edges of our assigned boxes is how societal progress occurs. Every individual has to find their own balance and determine where they push and where they find peace, but I really don’t like it when people tell me just to redefine my expectations and be at peace (especially when they have already achieved significant career success under difficult circumstances themselves).
Anon WP, I don’t discount the struggle to try to find the right balance between achievement, money, personal fulfillment, and parenting. I don’t think Lee is doing that either. Clearly she has had her struggles, but 12 years down what has likely been a hard road, she has redefined what it means to have it all.
I can only speak for me, but my “having it all/work-family” struggle didn’t have much to do with the male/female work-life balance discussion. It had to do with what how I defined success. Not that their aren’t societal expectation inequalities, just that they weren’t necessarily front and center for me. Although perhaps a more accurate view would be that I incorporated those expectations so fully, that they became mine rather than society’s.
I think it is extremely important for parents to have a balance between self and family – for everyone’s sake. But I can’t help but wonder if this discussion is akin to the other question Americans seem to be constantly asking themselves: Am I really ‘happy?’ – happiness being ill-defined usually, and limited to short term, personal gain or satisfaction. (If I read another article about how having children diminishes personal happiness, I may scream!) I like what Marie says here and I’m off to read the full article.
As a side note, I think men are getting left out of this discussion about balancing family and career. We just assume they’re content to put family second to work, when really, fathers are becoming more involved in family life. Come on media, let the daddies in on the old ‘mommy wars fun!
Anon,I guess it is directly related to the “Am I happy?” question. And I agree that more and more dads are struggling with the life/work balance.