One recent Sunday morning, after feeding the baby, putting in a load of laundry, making pancakes for the big kids, changing the baby, piling the dishes in the sink, feeding the baby again, putting her down for a nap, and talking to my parents who live across the country, I finally sat down to breakfast–Trader Joe’s High Fiber O’s and my signature cup of black tea, with a heaping teaspoon of natural honey and milk. Ahhh. A slice of heaven. My son was playing Legos, and my big girls were coloring at the table. I opened up the New York Times and felt that twitch in my muscle memory–what is that feeling? Ah, yes, the ghost of relaxation.
It didn’t last very long.
“Hey,” my oldest daughter said, noticing a section of paper I had pushed aside while looking for the Styles section, “that’s my friend’s mom!”
Indeed, there she was, Susan Wojcicki, pregnant and beautiful, seated in one of those funky Silicon Valley-esque designy-playful spaces, the CEO of YouTube, whose younger kids attend the same school as mine.
“Wow,” I said, “she’s on the front page of the New York Times Business Section”
As I read, more exclamations of “wow” (and probably some milk) kept escaping my mouth.
“What?” my girls asked.
“I think she’s incredible,” I said. “She works very hard, and is very smart, and is making a big difference through her work.”
“And she’s pregnant–soon they’ll have five kids in their family,” my 6-year-old added.
“Right,” I said. “I always find it amazing when women are able to have such important jobs and also have a family.”
As I kept reading, my girls engaged in their favorite activity, comparisinitis. “Mama has a lot of children, four, that’s a lot! And she also works,” my 6-year-old said. “Yeah,” my 9-year-old quipped, “but she’s not pregnant, and she doesn’t make a lot of money.” I smiled at them and came out with one of my platitudes, a variation on different kids get different things at different times–different people do different things at different times, different women choose different paths at different times. But inside I was engaged in some comparisinitis of my own–“Not fair! How is she doing it all???”
Ironically, it was just a few weeks earlier that I was sitting at the Sunday morning breakfast table with a smug smile, fantasizing about living in Stockholm, or Paris. I had read an article that compared US and European policies of maternity leave and childcare, and, on a very personal level, it helped me feel less guilty, or at least less alone, about pulling back significantly from work since the birth of my fourth child.
“For many women with children, it seems, the decision about work involves weighing a particularly complex set of benefits and drawbacks. And often the challenge is insurmountable in part because there is a dearth of programs and policies in the United States to support women in their prime career and childbearing years.”
Interestingly, though, the article noted that while more women are happily employed in Europe throughout their childbearing years, they often have less access to powerful, lucrative, and highly influential jobs:
“Policy makers and employers in Europe and the United States seem to be making a calculation: Either keep a growing share of women employed or allow them good jobs and promising career paths. Neither seems to have figured out how to consistently do both.”
Except for Susan Wojcicki. And Cheryl Sanberg. And a handful of others. There are just enough of them to make the rest of us feel like slackers. They represent the American dream–a particular feminine and feminist strand–that if you’re born into certain privileges, and you work very hard, and are a little lucky, and take some smart risks, and play your political cards well, and meet the right guy who’s not threatened by you, and make a lot of money, and are blessed with children, then you can have it all. They’re the thorn in our sides, us women who want to do it all but can’t quite figure out how. It’s easier to sit at the sticky breakfast table and feel outraged at the system, or at peace with our own choices, when these women aren’t staring up at us from the newspapers and living in our communities, less than one degree separated from our messy lives.
Here’s what’s hardest for me. I don’t know what to tell my daughters. I was raised to believe that I could “be anything I wanted to be.” I was taught that “a girl could do anything that a boy can do, just better.” And then I grew up, and life hit, hard. The primary lesson it taught me was that you can’t do it all well at the same time. And that any choice in one direction means letting go of the pursuit that pulls you off in another direction. That big decisions in one realm mean sacrificing dreams in another. That you can’t create a stable, loving home and run off to join the circus.
I was all set to tell it to my girls like it really is–go for it all, but don’t expect to get it all, at least not at the same time. I was so excited not to perpetuate the myth, a myth that has plagued generations of women who reach for the stars and then fall hard. But what if that’s wrong? What if I should be holding up that newspaper, pointing to the successful, pregnant woman on the cover, and saying–see? Aren’t women amazing? Don’t we live in an incredible world, in which women can pursue their professional and personal dreams, and achieve them?
Which is what I ended up saying to my girls on that Sunday morning. “Look at your friend’s amazing mom. Look. A successful, powerful, pregnant Jewish woman on the front page of the New York Times business section. We live in an amazing time, in an amazing country! Imagine what you can do when you grow up!” Which sent them down the delightful path of playing make believe: “When I grow up I’m going to be a mother and an artist…when I grow up I’m going to be a mom and a gymnast…when I grow up I’m going to be a mom and a programmer” (OK, I pushed for that one). The problem, though, with that line of reasoning, with that view of the world, is that it tugs hard at my own heart, my own sense of self, and awakens those sleeping demons, my dusty dreams.