Originally published on Medium and republished here with the author’s permission.
Okay, first, allow me to check my privilege so you don’t have to: I am a white woman with a college education. I am married. I live in a beautiful little town in the mountains. I have a career I genuinely like. I am one lucky bitch.
And yet. Here’s what “having it all” really looks like, in my experience:
The other day I was walking down the street to get my mail, feeling pretty pleased with myself. I have a three-and-a-half year old and I had a baby exactly one month ago. In that month I have worked almost constantly and it has paid off: I have made enough money to pay all my family’s bills and keep our business afloat. I have produced quality work that I’m proud of. And not once have I mentioned to anyone that I just had a baby.
Right about the time I was congratulating myself on these “accomplishments,” a not unsubstantial amount of pee just came pouring out of me. I was wearing light-grey sweatpants, so it was pretty obvious. Kind of embarrassing when my neighbor walked by and waved.
By the time I got home, it was time to dial into a conference call, so I had to sit in those pee pants for quite a while. Thankfully the baby stayed asleep and quiet during that call, but woke up screaming to be fed as soon as it ended, so another half hour in the pee pants. Burped the baby. Got throw-up in my hair, but no time to do anything about it so just threw it back in a clip. Boom. Quickly changed pee pants.
Ready for more work. Throw it at me world, I am a strong woman and I have it all and I have got this. At 5, my other kid comes charging into the room, asking if I’ve made the brownies I promised him earlier. I have not. Then my husband asks what the plan is for dinner. So, I throw the baby into a sling, go downstairs, sort out dinner and brownies.
“Uh oh, what?”
“I think I popped a stitch.”
“What? How do you know? Isn’t that bad?”
“Well, it definitely feels not right down there, and yeah, it probably is bad, but realistically what am I going to do about it?”
Back upstairs. Shower, finally. The wound formerly known as my vagina is definitely stinging (seriously, at my postpartum checkup, here is what my doctor said: “The stitches are almost dissolved but your wound is still healing.” Gross.) Then back in bed, icepack on crotch, baby on boob, laptop on lap.
I have not left this room except to grab food from the kitchen in a month. I took precisely one day off to have a baby. Let that sink in for a minute. Lucky for me, this room has a full bathroom attached.
From where I’m sitting, I’m staring at a stack of laundry. (And I’m noticing my disgusting feet now, too. That nail polish is at least two months old.) There’s a bag of poopy diapers sitting two feet away from me. Right next to the other giant stack of laundry. (It really smells like diarrhea in here.)
I’m not a single mom. In fact, my husband helps out way more than the average husband or father. I’m not working minimum wage jobs, I’m not really disadvantaged in any way except that I am a working mother in the United States.
Here’s what I think is going on: this whole “having it all” business has been grossly misinterpreted by our society at large.
The purpose of all that bra burning back in the 60s was to give women choices. You wanna have sex without getting pregnant? Cool, hit that. You’re pregnant but in no position to raise a baby (or were sexually assaulted and impregnated, or are pregnant with a severely ill or deformed baby, or any number of other scenarios)? No problem, you can choose not to have that baby.
You want to go to work? Do it! You want to stay at home and raise kids? Great. You want to do a little bit of both? Groovy. You want to be stylish and wear makeup? Or frumpy and never wash? Hey, you do you.
Doing all of it at the same time was never the idea. By that definition, single working moms have been “having it all” for ages and yet society does not hold the single working mom up as the goal for women everywhere.
No, no, that’s just what happens when you’re poor and have no choice. Except actually, that’s what happens to all but the very, very rich when you encourage women to work and have children but don’t change any other part of the world they live in.
No woman (or man, for that matter) ever said, hey, you know what would be great? If I could get up at 5 AM, make breakfast for everyone, then get dressed (with heels, natch), drop my kids off at daycare, go to work for 10 hours, pick the kids up, come home, cook dinner, clean up, put the kids to bed, work in bed ’til midnight so I don’t get behind at work, then do it all again tomorrow on 5 hours sleep.
It’s like we all said hey, let’s change the narrative for women, but not change anything else. And then expected women to be so grateful that we’re allowed to have casual sex and work now that we wouldn’t notice that we’re being pushed toward an ever less attainable and less desirable goal.
Here’s what we tell women today: You not only can, but should have a career and children – because if you don’t, you’re basically A) lazy, B) weak, C) not a real woman.
But also, you should do it without any support. Without government-paid maternity leave (what are you, a socialist?). Without too much childcare (because then you’re a shitty mom) or falling behind on the job (because then you’re a shitty employee – typical woman!). Without too much help from your husband (because then he’s a pussy).
We applaud companies for paying for female employees to freeze their eggs, but don’t push them to give women the space to have children during their actual child-bearing years and come back to work without losing their place in line.
Instead of changing the systems, we tell women to lean in. Because of course, it’s our fault for not taking initiative. Fuck you. I’m leaning so far in I’m falling flat on my face.
And yes, I know, cis men are parents too and paternal leave is also important. But there is a very real physical component to recovering from child birth and to dealing with a new baby (especially if you’re breast feeding and are thus the only one that can handle night feedings) that we like to pretend doesn’t exist in this country. It’s okay to say that cis women may need more time off than cis men.
For the record (tune in here, men’s rights advocates), this is not a rant against men, it’s a call for society in general to do better. I have routinely had women pass me over for work because I’m pregnant, or complain that I can’t make an evening meeting because I have kids. In fact, I’ve had more women penalize me for having kids than men. And it’s only been other women who have called my parenting into question because I work.
Sexism tends to play out in different ways with men, usually in the form of assumptions about my intelligence or grasp of a subject because I’m a woman, not because of any particular reproductive choice.
Nor do I think that the world owes me an easy life, or that I should get to make choices with no trade-offs, or have all these things without working really damn hard for all of them.
I do think, though, that we should cut it out with the fairy tales already. Stop telling women they can have everything without sacrificing anything. Here’s the truth: You want to have a career and kids? You totally can, but both will suffer.
You will never feel like you are devoting enough time to either. You will never feel like you are good enough at either. You will never get time off (at least for the first several years). You will always be choosing between things that need your attention, and you will almost never choose yourself. You will be judged for nearly every move you make and you will never measure up to anyone else’s expectations.
If we’re going to embrace a new narrative for women, we need to change some social norms too. We need to make it truly okay for women to opt out of having kids.
We pretend it’s okay today, but if it were, all my child-less friends wouldn’t get asked about it all the damn time and I don’t really think I’d be reading so many essays defending the choice to — gasp! — be a woman and not have children.
Seriously. There are so. many. essays.
And don’t even get me started on the legions of women dealing with fertility issues and feeling like the choice has been taken from them completely, but still having to field questions about if and when they’re having kids. How about we just stop asking women about their personal reproductive choices, period? If they want you to know, you’ll know.
We need to make it truly okay for women to opt out of working, too.
Not sort of okay, but behind your back everyone thinks you’re wasting your potential, so then you feel like you have to parent the shit out of your kids and run yourself ragged taking them to activities and teaching them things. But, like, really okay where you can have your friends over for mimosas in the afternoon and lock those little animals in the backyard for an hour if you feel like it, because Jesus Christ spending all day with a small child is exhausting and infuriating and any sane human would need an hour off.
Then we need to make it truly okay for women to opt in, too. Not in the way it is today, where you’re supposed to basically (and in my case, literally) pretend you haven’t had a kid and just take on all the baby duties without letting any other thing slip. But really, truly okay. Like, everyone knows you’re pregnant but doesn’t freak out and assume you’re not going to ever do any work again or that you won’t want to take on anything ambitious.
Okay, like you don’t have to freeze your eggs and wait until you’re 45 to have a kid — unless you want to, in which case, freeze away — because otherwise your career will get derailed at 28 and never get back on course. Okay, like you don’t feel compelled to drop your newborn off at daycare so you can rush back to work, and then regret the decision for the rest of your life.
And we need to provide that support for all women, irrespective of color or income level.
The VP at a tech company is no more entitled to maternity leave, job security, and adequate childcare than the waitress at a restaurant. It’s the price of not just allowing, but requiring, mothers to work. Which is what we do today. Working is not a luxury or a choice for the vast majority of mothers and we need to stop acting like it is.
I’m not talking about special treatment here. I don’t think we need to get all Oprah about it and coo on and on about how being a mom is the toughest job in the world. Nor am I saying, as one men’s rights advocate put it to me recently on Twitter: “Give me money and special treatment. Because, vagina.”
I’m saying let’s make it okay for women to admit they’re pregnant, or take a little bit of time off to recuperate from having a baby without having to worry about tanking their careers. Let’s redefine “having it all,” or better yet let each woman define for herself what the best version of her life might look like.
Because when you think about it, reflecting back on the first month of my son’s life and reveling in what a good job I’d done at covering up the fact that he exists is pretty fucking sad.
Amy Westervelt is an award-winning writer and editor who contributes regularly to The Wall Street Journal and The Guardian UK among other publications, focusing on the environment, psychology and health, technology and business. Westervelt also reports for Reno Public Radio, an NPR member station, and is co-host of the Range Podcast.
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