Having it all

March 27, 2006 | Motherhood | 4 comments

[This is an old article of mine from April 2003. I post it mainly because it expounds on my next post.]

For those of you who read this site at work, I have a question for you: suppose you were to walk over to the coworker nearest to you and say, “Man, isn’t being here great? I love this place!” What sort of reaction do you think you might get? Would it be one of gleeful agreement? Something tells me it wouldn’t. In this culture where Dilbert is a bestseller and the movie Office Space has a cult following, I think we all agree that sitting behind your desk eight to ten hours at a time, soaking up the ambiance of the fluorescent lights, is not exactly the essence of human experience. Or do we?

In the never-ending debate about women and their roles in the household and the workplace, it seems that everyone from far left liberals to religious right conservatives agree on one thing: when women leave jobs to run a household it’s a huge sacrifice.

In The New Republic Michelle Cottle talks about the “stark, painful lifestyle choices” women have to make when trying to balance career and family, and suggests that it’s crazy to “let [men] off so easy” by allowing them to be the only ones who have jobs. She asks, “Why isn’t Daddy expected to struggle with the same tough decisions about how to juggle work and family for the next four to eighteen years?”

Even family-values conservatives are behind Cottle on this one. Oliver North talks about how his wife “sacrificed” her career to raise their children; when presidential advisor Karen Hughes left her job as advisor to the president, Kathleen Parker assured readers that “this isn’t a Mommy Track; this is a career track for any man or woman to envy”; Suzanne Fields mentions “tradeoffs” like “sacrificing” a career in medicine to stay home with children.

Liberals and conservatives alike fill up endless pages with words of advice to women about how they can try to “have it all, ” meaning have both a family and a career. Liberals suggest having fathers stay home more and government programs to help mothers keep working after their children are born; conservatives usually recommend that women postpone a career until their children are in school full time. Such advice usually comes with the doleful caveat that, alas, it is perhaps impossible for women to have it all and they will inevitably have to make career sacrifices.

Wait a minute. “Having it all” requires having a job? When did we forget that work sucks?

Women seem to think that if they don’t work they’re doomed to a life of fretting about burnt cookies and ring-around-the-collar. It’s a sad state of affairs if people think that life degenerates into a lackluster, unimportant existence if they’re not being told what to do by a boss. Besides, what if being a housewife did mean your worries revolved around cooking and keeping the house in order? Is that any less noble than your worries revolving around total quality initiatives and process optimization so that the company you work for can make a little bit more money?

Feminists are often quick to cite the countless examples of women who, after leaving their careers to stay at home, report feeling bored, unfulfilled, and lonely. The assumption is that this is the inherent condition of the woman who does not work. But the problem here is not that being a housewife is boring; the problem is that years of politically correct social pressure have pushed women into the workplace so successfully that they can’t even imagine what it would be like to have a happy life outside of the cubicle. To compound the problem, workplace training has left women without personal goals or the ability to self-motivate. When you haven’t developed any interests or passions of your own, aren’t used to motivating yourself and setting personal deadlines for accomplishing goals, and don’t have a boss telling you what to do, it’s easy to let your days fill up with trivialities.

When I think of sacrifices and careers I think of the neighborhood fathers I knew growing up who stayed in jobs they hated in order to support their families. I think of single mothers I see who don’t have the ability to spend their days with their children because they have to have a full time job (or two) to put food on the table. While wealthy women shout from the rooftops about not being able to work enough, men and women who actually have to work get no credit for the sacrifices they make.

This is not to say that being a housewife is easy or doesn’t involve sacrifices. Like each member of a family that functions well, women who stay at home full time make plenty of sacrifices for the good of the team. But it’s a skewed worldview that counts not having a job as one of them. After all, what constitutes “having it all” if not the freedom to spend your time developing your relationships with family and friends and pursuing your own interests?

As the debate rages on I expect that liberal pundits will continue to talk about discrimination, unfairness, and, of course, sacrifices. But I hope that conservatives, especially those who claim to promote family values, will stop tossing around suggestions for how women can “have it all” by getting up and going to an office every day in addition to focusing on their families. The last thing women need is more advice about how to work. What they need is some advice about how to live.

4 Comments

  1. Christine

    Jen,

    Don’t forget that sacrifice is a good thing, too. Yes, I love being a stay at home mother. I love homeschooling. But I also know that it’s a sacrifice. Sometimes I think about the fall, when (had a decided to send my girls to government schools, or even Catholic school) I’d be home alone all day long. Or I think about what it was like when I worked part-time and got to have adult conversations on a regular basis that weren’t centered around kids or schooling. Okay, so a lot of them were, anyway, but they were had without the benefit of a tug on the sleeve every few minutes. And I actually really liked my job very much, too.

    But when I feel sorry for myself for not getting out of the house in three days, I remember that I prayed for this situation: being home with my girls and homeschooling them. And God knocks me upside the head, and I thank Him for it.

    Some sacrifices are totally worth making, and THAT is what the liberal pundits are missing in their evaluation of stay at home motherhood.

  2. KathyJo

    Well, I’m more in line with you, Jen: work sucks and I’m glad to be at home. 🙂

  3. abel

    I keep asking my wife if she wants to work so I can stay home. So far I think she has the better end of the deal.

  4. Keely

    I just found your blog and am reading from the beginning. As one who left a medical career to be able to raise my kids, I fervently agree with what you have written. I feel that I was not willing to sacrifice my children and home life to a career, not the other way around! If I had stayed in residency training when my first son was born, he would have needed 60+ hours of daycare weekly. No way! I’m thankful every day for getting to be with my kids. And just want to say… I am loving your blog!

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