Best Left Unsaid

I should have known when the organizer gave us panelists our instructions. “I’ll ask questions, like how should you handle guilt, and each of you will have a chance to respond.”  There I was with my carefully printed remarks on work-family balance.

Mom & MeMy mother believed (because her mother believed) that children were essential.  As it turned out, she was prone to eclampsia, so it is only a modest exaggeration to say that, like so many women before her, my mother risked her life to have children. [Here I thought a remark about Downton Abbey might bring a chuckle.]  She then poured her life into raising children, keeping house; poured her life, that is, until Betty Friedan et aliae pointed out the triviality of domesticity.

Then, like so many women in her generation, my mother decided to go to graduate school and get a real job. She told me “You can have it all.” Of course, the unspoken message was “Have it all. Do it for me.”  So many of us look to our children to complete ourselves.[“Hey, I ain’t judging here.”]

So I, like so many girls of my generation, was raised to believe I could (or should) have it all. We all knew that meant career and children [as opposed to transcendence and chocolate sauce].”I am going to be an astronaut,” I explained to adults who would listen (Even before the moon landing we were all going to be astronauts) and I was going to have four children, like my grandmother. My aunts and my mother just smiled and nodded.

Even the new math wouldn’t make an astronaut of me. “I am going to be a professor,” I explained to the admissions committee, while telling my brand new in-laws I was going to have four children. I wonder what went on in their minds as they listened. Did my mother-in-law feel a hint of envy? Did Mom wish she had had the chance to go to Berkeley? If so, I never knew. They just beamed approval and did all they could to help. [Not yet time for it takes a village riff]

A younger woman who did her degree a few years after me heard that I lived in Utah and had gobs of children. Years later, at a conference, she came up to gush about the role model I’d been. How fantastic that I had an academic career with all those children! The myth of me helped her believe it was possible. She had 4 children and an academic career in Canada. I hated to destroy her illusions. I have two children and feet of clay. [Illusions, they lure us along and dump us in a heap.]

People used to ask “How do you do it?”  I’d laugh and say, “I don’t sleep” (which was true) or “I don’t do it.” (which was also true). [cue the riff] Work-family balance is not an individual issue. Or not just an individual issue. Hilary said “It takes a village” and that phrase has caught on all over the world because it is so true. It takes a family, it takes employers, it takes a community, and it takes a nation to make possible the kind of work-life balance we envision. It takes policies that require all employers to provide for family leave. It takes good, affordable child care. It takes schools that are open all day. It takes safe, walkable communities. It takes a health care system that doesn’t impoverish patients. It takes work that can be done from home. It takes recognition that families come in all shapes, sizes, and genders. It takes true reproductive freedom.[cut the riff]

How did I do it? I gave up things that matter: leisure, sleep, exercise. I gave up moments of stillness. I gave up time with my husband, time with my children and time with my colleagues. I gave up friendships. You say work-life balance and I remember nursing my son while working on my computer, holding my squirming daughter while introducing a speaker, fending off children to take a work call from home, worrying desperately about a sick child when I was away at a conference. I remember spending half of my take-home pay for child care. I remember taking a sick child to work. I remember firing a babysitter who took my son to her other job when he should have been home with the flu. I remember being late to pick up my child because an urgent meeting went on and on. I remember leaving urgent meetings to pick up my children.

There was no time for guilt. There was no time, period.

Once, I came home while my mother was visiting to find her neatly folding the sheets and towels that I’d rolled up and crammed all wiggly piggly into the closet. I remembered her linen closet with its labels “single flannel” “double cotton” “flannel pillow” “cotton pillow” carefully spaced on each shelf with symmetrical stacks of unwrinkled linen, each in its place. After she left I realized she had neatly folded the plastic bags in my recycling drawer. I shrugged it off. There was no time for judgments.  

That’s how I managed work-family balance. I scrambled. I organized. I improvised. I cut corners. I set priorities.  I bent over backwards at work to make up for the times I couldn’t be there. I bent over backwards at home to make up for the times I couldn’t be there. And it was hard and I have regrets and I am angry that my country’s policies and my culture’s norms were so restrictive. And sometimes I feel like a failure. Hop & Me

I like to think my daughter will have more options, more freedom, more support to pursue her dreams. I like to think she will live in a country that values women, not as baby machines or super-employees, but as thinking, feeling, evolving complicated human beings; worthwhile in our own right, not for the widgets we produce or the letters after our names.

The panelist before me launched into her perky advice, “Control your thoughts. If you think of grocery shopping as recreation it becomes your me time!” “Here’s how you handle guilt,” another explained, “You make your choices, you think it through. And then . . . no regrets.” Nods around the room, and whispers, “No regrets, yeah, no regrets.” “You just have to plan. Make a to-do list and tic things off. It’s so rewarding!” Another woman offered the a-b-c’s  “. . . attitude, belief, consequences.” “You gotta control your attitude.” “Keep a gratitude journal.”

I folded and stashed my printed remarks. “Change the rules!” I shrieked, whenever I had the chance. “Use your rage!” Eventually I realized I was on the wrong bus . . .

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2 Responses to Best Left Unsaid

  1. Ginny Richardson says:

    Most powerful of all because I can relate, many can relate. Brought tears to my eyes. I also raise my fist at changing attitudes. No, no. we must change the rules. Does anyone hear us?

    • Amanda says:

      Hi Ginny, I’m glad it resonated and am so glad we’ve both got our fists raised! Maybe it’s generational, I think our children may be way beyond us on transcending binaries. Thanks for your note!