Within 20 minutes of The Atlantic publishing an article entitled, “Why Women Still Can’t Have it All” the blogosphere basically exploded.
I very much enjoyed reading the (long, very long) article but I’m honestly finding all of the varied responses to it just as interesting. I liked reading Alex’s piece here and Jen’s here and this one here, and many others as well. I really appreciated the response piece from The Atlantic online and the very good points it made about the raw deal dealt to many modern fathers in the work place.
I too started drafting a response post almost immediately. Reading the great debate over “having it all” made me think a lot about how much my life has changed in the past three years. When I need to think, I write; but I’ve rewritten this post several times though and almost decided not to publish it. I can’t decide if it’s too self-indulgent, or if I feel the way I do because I really have no other option, or if I’m perhaps just too close to see the forest for the trees.
I’ve decided though, that it doesn’t matter. I’d like some record of these thoughts, at this moment. Because I once was the sort of girl who would have nodded along like some over-caffeinated bobble head, envisioning my own future through Slaughter’s descriptions of her own life. I distinctly remember once asking a boss I admired how she managed to “have it all”–hoping to learn the secret to juggling work and family in the same capable but unapologetic manner she did.
Then I went and met my soulmate, who went and joined the foreign service and, as I’ve mentioned far too many times here, I watched my “life plan” derail in spectacular and irrevocable fashion. I got married at 23. I moved to China and became a stay-at-home housewife at 24. I worked a desk job in Chengdu for awhile and then quit when our son was born 2 months before I turned 26.
And while there were many moments when we first moved to China in which I literally cried myself to sleep wondering if I’d totally ruined my life, I have to say that it was with equal parts relief and gratitude that I read Slaughter’s article and could recognize in her words only the person I used to be and not the woman I am now.
This post you are about to read isn’t really about “having it all.” It’s not about being a stay-at-home Mama versus a working-outside-the-home Mama–I imagine I’ll be both at different times in my life. Instead its an epilogue of sorts for the Confessions of a Temporary Housewife series I did over two years ago and an answer to the question: “what would an ambitious young woman feel like, what might happen, if she opted out of the rat race described in The Atlantic article?”
Before China, I was the consummate chaser of gold stars. I don’t think I realized the extent to which I lived for recognition and praise and external validation from my supervisors. I loved where I worked of course, but looking back I think sometimes I enjoyed the feedback I received for my work more than the work itself. I enjoyed knowing that I worked for a reputable organization and that my work there would (hopefully) be a springboard to bigger and better things. I think I would have ended up a little like the Slaughter in a few years. I would have jumped at the chance to take on an important and exciting leadership role without thinking for one second about whether it was truly what I wanted to be doing or not.
And then we moved to China. I had no network, I had no clue what to do. Moreover, for the first time, I found myself truly embedded in the culture of the foreign service. Don’t get me wrong, I love my husband’s employer and the wonderful benefits and opportunities I enjoy as a diplomatic spouse. It’s just that I never realized how much being someone’s wife could possibly overshadow every other feature about me, from my name to my intelligence. Suddenly, nothing I did, nothing I knew, mattered to anyone besides Chris anymore. It was demoralizing.
But oh, did it hurt so good. It hurt me in all the ways I needed to be broken down and made to feel small. I’d always been such a teacher’s pet, so eager to do whatever work would have the greatest, most public result, the most opportunity for advancement or praise. In China that sort of external validation and career path no longer existed for me. I had to find ways to fill my days doing whatever would keep me sane, make me happy, allow me to go to sleep at night feeling like I’d done something worth doing, even if no one else would ever know what it was I did.
It was the first time since before kindergarten that I found myself working hard to please only myself and my small family. I started to devote my free time to doing what I loved, what I felt compelled to do, whether anyone was ever going to pay me for it, or even pay attention to me, or not.
I began trying things I’d always told myself I wasn’t good at because, with no one else watching, I found myself, for the first time since I was a kid, unafraid to fail. I found myself imagining possibilities–becoming a small business owner, designing websites, becoming a freelance writer–that I’d never thought to entertain before. Heck I even found myself drawing and painting and knitting, doing origami, writing letters to people who inspired me, listening to new kinds of music, attempting to make croissants in our easy-bake Chinese oven.
Absent the need to please anyone but myself, absent the pressure to conform with my faraway peers, I aimed to become something of a renaissance women–reading and trying new things for the sole purpose of seeing the world from perspectives I’d never considered before.
I realized that if writing was the one thing I’d been doing non-stop since I was a child, then maybe that’s what I should be trying to do with my life. I realized that if the only reason I ever wanted to wait until my 30’s to start having children was because that was what everyone else was doing, well then maybe there wasn’t anything wrong with being a young Mama living overseas. Heck, if I’d already blown my chances at becoming a Slaughter or a Clinton, I might as well be a 100% genuine me.
That’s not to say that I never want to work in an office again or that I hope to take up flower-arranging and perfect the art of impersonating a 1950’s housewife. No, I still have big dreams and ambitions. I still love me some gold stars. I wouldn’t keep a public blog or dream of being published in print if I didn’t still love and thrive on comments, feedback, and recognition.
But–and here’s the big but–I’ve learned how to value doing work for which there is absolutely no payoff except my own joy and fulfillment. I no longer feel like I absolutely need a career path that vaults me up into super industry stardom–or any career path at all–to feel good about myself and what I do. I don’t need to be paid for the things I do in a day to make them worth doing. I think I’d rather be the person at the cocktail party about whom people say “My God, she’s had an interesting life!” rather than “Oh my goodness she’s so successful!”
I don’t begrudge anyone who does find fulfillment striving for the kinds of success I once dreamed of, far from it. I admire so many of my fellow women working hard and kicking ass from 9-5 (or, more often, 9-9). It’s just that I no longer feel like I also have to live that life in order for my experiences to be meaningful.
Is my life perfect? Of course not, but it’s incredibly blessed and it’s perfect for me, for right now. I might not have it all, but I have what I want and I want what I have, and that is so much more exciting and worthwhile and fun than I ever thought it could be.