between a rock and a hard place

Last year, I read the book Anne-Marie Slaughter wrote, since I had been one of the millions of people who were grabbed by her Atlantic article, ‘Why women (still) can’t have it all.’ Millions of women, maybe. Not that men wouldn’t be interested, exactly. But part of the problem that Slaughter identifies is that care is a women’s issue. Again, not that men are not or cannot be caring, involved parents–even ‘lead’ parents, if we can call it that. It’s complicated.

So I’ll bring it home. In my life, it looks like this: when I was 5, I had two big goals in life. One was to go to Harvard Medical School and become a neurosurgeon; the other was to get married and have a family. The awesome thing about being 5 is that those two goals seem perfectly compatible, not like a superhuman juggling act that’s only really possible if you don’t need sleep. By the time I was in high school, I realised the whole neurosurgeon thing wasn’t going to happen. Yet I clung to the idea of having a career, nurtured graduate school ambitions, and definitely still wanted the marriage-and-kids option. Still, the idea that those two things might be on a collision course never really occurred to me.

Now my life mostly looks like the train wreck I never expected. Not that the house is a mess. It is, of course. One only needs to step one foot in the door to realize that I am in way over my head. Eventually I might find someone to clean, though, and I’d still be sitting in a train wreck. Because I did get that PhD, somewhat later than I maybe anticipated. And I did get that marriage-with-kids, also somewhat later than I had hoped. At the same time, actually. But even the collision of these two major undertakings–motherhood and the academic career–did not produce the wreck that surrounds me.

No. The wreck is this: that I find myself, as a 40-something woman, constantly worried that I should be doing something else. It doesn’t matter what I am doing, usually. (By child #4, I’ve finally settled into the idea that unless someone is bleeding or the house is on fire, if the little ones ask me to read a book, there’s nothing else I should be doing. But that’s about it.) Whatever it is I am doing, I have the nagging feeling that there is something else I should be doing, for my children or my career, that’s more important than my current activity. Like now, for example. I’m writing a blog post. What is this accomplishing? (Nothing, probably, but it does help to keep me from going completely insane.)

At the heart of the problem is the sense that I should be secure in some sort of employment, or employable at the very least; I should have some measure of independence. I should make money. My half time lecturing job (which of course is not anything like half time) pays embarrassingly badly. If suddenly I had to support my four children (and my husband is under-insured, so that’s not going to solve it–but is there a good way to nag about that, really?), I couldn’t do it. And I feel like a failure.

But why? Why should I feel like a failure because I haven’t managed to do what so many women seem to have done? Every family is different. Our family life has unfolded in the way it has because I was a grad student and my husband already a professor when we met and married. It’s because our first child has Down Syndrome–she had two heart surgeries before her second birthday. It’s because we were worse than completely broke when we got married. It’s because…the list goes on. It’s the strange set of events and circumstances that have shaped our available choices, and we’ve muddled through, probably making the wrong choices as often as not.

Somehow, though, the struggles all settle on my head: there’s the train wreck. If only I had done something better, spent some time more constructively, I would not be 40-something, wondering whether I will ever ‘amount to anything’. I can’t look around me and see four children who know that I love them, and think I’ve amounted to anything. I can’t see the book I wrote as an achievement. Hell, everyone I know has written a book or two–that’s just what people in this line of work do. I’ve no idea how I did it, either, so I am finding writing another (maybe that will be an achievement) somewhat daunting.

I didn’t want this to be a rant. I didn’t want to complain. The thing is, I am glad that I have had the opportunities to study, to write, to teach. When I am not in collision mode, I love what I do. I LOVE it. And I wouldn’t be able to do any of it without being a mother, oddly. I never would have been able to give myself fully to the work if I believed that I was choosing it over having a family. But some days I do think that there is some elusive ‘all’ out there, and I could have it, if I could just work harder…or something.

But the truth is, being a full-time mother and a part-time career woman (as if one could have a career part-time; maybe that’s my big mistake) will always feel like being between a rock and a hard place. Because as a mom, I am (psychologically) ‘surrounded’ by all the moms who devote themselves fully to the work of motherhood, and I wonder why I can’t be like that. And as an academic I am constantly being compared to a variety of other academics who have totally different outside-of-work lives, and who work full-time. Whichever direction I look, I don’t measure up. Not remotely.

I still don’t have any answers. Tomorrow, I will get up and start again.

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