A few weeks ago, my husband and I were driving back after visiting with his grandmother. At 83, she’s lived a long life and she often reflects fondly on her years as a busy mom and wife. Just looking at her, you can see she wears the look of someone who has been content with knowing she lived the life she was meant to lead.
And I will admit that in a way, I’m a bit jealous. I envy what the benchmark for living a happy and fulfilled life as a woman used to be.
Of course, I know there was extreme prejudice and sexism and discrimination and downright stifling back then, but we have a different kind of struggle today. Instead of freeing us, our modern-day expectations for women have added to our load. My husband’s grandmother knew exactly what was expected of her. She was able to take that expectation and look back and say, “Yep, nailed it.”
But for mothers today? It gets a little more complicated.
Mothers today are expected to have it all and want it all. To be #fitmoms and #workingmoms and #sexymoms and #stayathomemoms — all at once.
We are expected to have passions and pursue them and to work, but only if it’s to fulfill us, like working is some kind of option and not about cold, hard cash. We are expected to be open about our sex lives and hit the gym, but not care too much about our appearances because that’s just selfish. We are expected to somehow hit the magical balance every day of enjoying our kids, while also letting them learn independence, while also fostering their education, but not too much, so we give them free play. And we are expected to understand that breast is best except when it’s not and care about things like 8 Ways to Clean Your House Faster and How to Make a Garden of Fairies From Paperclips and host birthday parties that our ancestors would have snorted at and join (manicured, because we believe in #selfcare) hands as non-competitive peers and believe the lies that we can have it all if we just try hard enough.
I recently read a piece of genius by Amy Westervelt on Medium, and if I hadn’t been reading her article while going to the bathroom (you do it too, don’t pretend), I would have stood up and cheered, because the woman really did nail it. She hit the one crucial piece of the puzzle that so many of the articles and the interviews and the books miss — that essentially, we are demanding more of women and telling them they have to figure it out for themselves. Here’s just a few of her most important points:
“Instead of changing the systems, we tell women to lean in. Because of course, it’s our fault for not taking initiative. F*ck you. I’m leaning so far in I’m falling flat on my face.”
“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.”
“If we’re going to embrace a new narrative for women, we need to change some social norms too. 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 crazy special treatment here.”
I feel like I have been trying so hard to “have it all” for so long, but do you know what “having it all” has meant for me?
Working during labor because I couldn’t afford not to.
Getting through mastitis over 20 times because I never had any type of real maternity leave to allow myself to rest and would never consider “giving” up on breastfeeding.
Taking governmental assistance. Yup, I can admit it — I am who I am today because I had help. I’ve worked hard and pulled myself up with my bootstraps and all that, but I also had help when I needed it the most.
Running from work to the gym to the ER because I wasn’t there and my son broke his arm. I did everything “right” and my child still got hurt.
Fighting tooth and nail for my marriage because I can’t seem to figure out how exactly I’m supposed to manage to have it all on my own.
There is so much good about the progressing realization that women are just as capable as men in anything that we set out to do, but there is also so much harm in being told that we aren’t good enough unless we do it all.
The problem is that we always seem to want to blame women, isn’t it? We either want to blame those blasted feminists for getting us in this mess in the first place or blame the women who insist that staying home is all the fulfillment they need or blame women who work too much or have too many kids or neglect their husbands or don’t have husbands at all or don’t step up or step up too much. But it seems to me, the real solution is admitting that women never really needed to change all along.
Instead, we need to admit that life, and the workplace, and family situations have all changed, and it’s time that as a society, we all adapted to those changes.
And for goodness’ sakes, let’s stop pretending that “having it all” only extends to women. Because if having it all was really so great, wouldn’t men want it, too?