Musings on (Working) Motherhood: Can you really have it all?
I wrote a post this week about being your own role model. But what I really want to write about today is the concept of “having it all” or doing it all. I don’t have any advice or insights to offer, but this is the rambling of my own mind, and perhaps one day I will find more pieces of the puzzle. I am writing a longer post on mummy guilt to try and tease all this out for my own sake, and maybe for other mums’ sakes as well. By the way, I’ve been really touched by all the comments and replies to my previous posts. Please keep them coming!! It makes me feel like my musings are not in vain :)
I often wonder why the modern 21st century woman has created such an impossible life for herself. We were raised to believe that being female should not impede on our abilities to “succeed” in life. We grow up with such a strong sense of self-esteem, willing to fight the good fight for our careers, always aiming higher and higher, and deriving enormous satisfaction from our work. We climb corporate or career ladders, travel, do extreme sports, drink lots of beer and generally think, yeah we’re awesome. Go women!! We can do anything!
And then we get knocked up, and all of a sudden we do a 180 degree turn and melt into Hallmark and Huggies mamas. We fall apart at the sight of tiny baby socks, and spend way too much time and money researching the right sleeping bags for our babies (ahem). We know everything about our baby’s feeding and sleeping schedules and delight in sharing each minute detail with our fellow mamas. For many of us, we suddenly realise, this is what I want to do. This is all I want to do.
Some of us, however, miss our previous lives. We want to have it all. The tender moments at home, the happy vista of a mama with her babies, baking, going to Story time, going to the park. Pushing a toddler on a swing. Playdates. We also want to sit at a desk and plan for the future. Interact with work colleagues. Keep studying. Keep working. Get a paycheck. Get a degree. Then there are the needs and wants beyond home and work. A social life (ha ha). The ability to make witty conversation that goes beyond jokes about toddler antics. Travel (ha ha again). Finishing your first triathlon. But can we really have it all?
I’m reading a book at the moment called “The Cultural Contradictions of Motherhood” that examines some of these concepts. Particularly, it traces the history of motherhood as a social and cultural construct. I am slowly unpacking the images of motherhood that have seeped into my brain. Where do these come from? Are they innate, like I believed? Or is that melty, smooshy sensation when I snuggle my babies simply the result of a Pavlovian release of oxytocin – because I am conditioned to believe that motherhood is a tender, instinctive, natural and ever moral state of being?
And what about the drive to succeed? Where does that come from? It is interesting to consider that women participating and leading in the workforce is a relatively new social construct. Imagine if we went back 100 years, and women were considered to be incapable of doing anything apart from domestic or menial labour. At the time, I am certain that many good men and women truly believed that it is not in a woman’s nature to be a breadwinner or have capabilities beyond bearing children and running a household. And now there is no question that women have the intelligence and capabilities to equal or exceed that of men. For example, females now dominate males in the medical undergraduate world, but had to fight to be included in medical schools at the turn of the century. Is this drive innate or does it stem from the competitiveness of modern culture?
Then there is also the feeling that perhaps I am just too privileged and this is a “First World” problem. Simply the angst of a relatively affluent woman in a world of opportunity. Too much choice resulting in a kind of paralysis. When other mothers are simply wanting their children to survive and have a better adult life, I’m pondering cultural paradigms in my ivory tower.
Mine is only one of the myriad voices in this incessant conversation. I don’t really know if I have anything else to add. But my point is that our beliefs about what is “right” and “innate” do change according to the prevailing sociocultural climate. Perhaps how we see ourselves as mothers, and women, has to change. We have to redefine what “having it all” means. Especially defining what “it” is. Maybe we even have to stop defining ourselves as mothers first, humans second. Could that be part of the problem? It’s a bold and somewhat confronting concept which I am willing to explore.
Certainly you can’t have it all at the same time. You can have bits of it, here and there (loving bedtime rituals, boisterous weekend outings, putting on vomit-free clothing during the week). And you have to say goodbye to other bits (cooking an elaborate meal every day, making your own jam, catering an entire birthday party on your own, non-essential work-related travel and evening meetings). Most of all, you have to decide what’s important, what “it” means to you. Keep society’s values at arm’s length and examine your own deeply founded values. Realise what you’re doing that panders to society rather than being in tune with what you think is truly important – both as a mother and as an employed woman. Protect yourself, even, from the pressures that you feel from the outside. And find the courage to be the person that you want to be. Not just someone in a cereal commercial.
And sometimes, when you do feel like you’re “having it all” – when the joy overflows out of your heart, the planets align and you are at one with your little Universe, practise gratitude and hold on to that feeling. Keep calm and carry on, and be strong. Keep on redefining, searching for a better way. Perhaps one day our daughters will thank us for redefining working motherhood and easing the way for them.