Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Having it All ~ by Leah St. James

I came of age in an odd, in-between period of time. The hippie movement had passed, disco ruled, and the women’s movement was beginning to establish a foothold in the hearts and minds of America’s female population.

By the time I was a young teen, Billie Jean King had (successfully) challenged Bobby Riggs to see women not as a weaker gender but as equal.  A few years later, Helen Reddy sang“I am Woman,” declaring “If I have to, I can do anything.”

Women, once consigned by societal mores to traditional roles of wife, mother, secretary, nurse and teacher, could now do more. We could marry, raise a family, go to law school or med school, get an MBA from Harvard and run a company—we could do anything.

With the help of scholarships, I went to college and started taking classes like biology and chemistry. I didn’t know where that path would lead, but I knew I wanted to do something important. I wanted to make a difference—maybe decoding the genes that defined disease.

Then I met my husband.

Before I knew it, was married and living in a suburb of Washington, D.C., working for one of the federal agencies that hunts down bad guys. I was doing something that mattered. Another checkmark on my having-it-all list.

A couple years later, son number one was born, and my list was complete. I had the meaningful career, marriage to a wonderful guy, and motherhood with all its joys. Joys like breathing in that clean baby scent, watching him sleep, his little mouth making sucking movements as he dreamed of eating. Playing at bath time, water splashing and sloshing over the rim of the tub, onto the floor. Watching him toddle those first tentative steps. Reading to him, singing to him – Okay, he preferred my husband’s impersonation of Elvis’s “C.C. Rider” over my Linda Ronstadt, but whatever.

I also remember sleepless nights, constant exhaustion and weekends filled with cleaning and shopping and hours at the Laundromat. I remember fighting D.C. traffic morning and night, using “vacation” days to stay home with a sick baby, and daycare bills that took most of my pay. And the worst—the GUILT of leaving my baby with strangers for more than 50 hours a week.

At work, I stumbled from day to day, watching the clock until I could bolt for home. I was doing it all—marriage, motherhood, career—but struggled to do it well.

When our second son came along, I quit my full-time job to do transcription work. The pay was lousy but I could work at home on my schedule. I joined PTA committees, served as grade mom and went on class trips. I worked crazy hours—late nights and weekends—but I had a ball.

My sons are grown now and I'm so proud of the men they've become. But I can't help but wonder how things would have turned out had I stayed the career course. Money would have been easier over the years, and my sons probably wouldn't be carrying the same student debt load, but would they be different men?

So my question is: Can a mother be successful at having “it all”?

I think you can, with the right circumstances. (Alicia Dean shared her story on the 19th.) For me, it wasn’t until I’d redefined “it all,” that I was happy and counted my choices a success.

What about you?

Leah writes stories of mystery and romance, good and evil, and the enduring power of love. Please visit Leah at LeahStJames.com.


Alicia Dean said...

Excellent post, Leah. Yes, a different take on mine. You captured the joys and struggles of motherhood so well. I think a mother can be successful at having it all, but as you said, it needs to be under the right circumstances. I always worked a full-time job, but it wasn't one that consumed me. But, it did take a lot of hours away from my children. Again, great post!

Liz Flaherty said...

Very well said, Leah, and I think I did the same definition of all, though I never managed to work at home. In retrospect, I don't know what part of the "all" I could have given up to have been less tired. That's the only part I would change, I think--I'd like to be able to remember a time in my adult life when I wasn't tired! :-)

Christine DePetrillo said...

Great post. It really does come down to defining "it all" for yourself. For me, having it all does not include children (well, not my own anyway. There are those 40-something children I spend 180 days with every year). I've got the husband, the house, the beige, vinyl fence (white picket gets too dirty), a dog, and two cats, two jobs and most days, a big smile on my face.

Diane Burton said...

Great post. I was a stay-at-home mom by choice and, thank goodness, a spouse who agreed. While it was rewarding, I missed human company--talking to an adult during the day, challenging my brain. Later I did all the volunteer stuff--church, school, scouts. Again, rewarding. As I watch my daughter (who also has a choice), a working mom, I admire her energy. What my grandchildren learn in preschool is amazing. A lot more than I taught my children back in the day. I'm just glad the Women's Movement was responsible for women having choices.

Betsy Ashton said...

I was part of the Women's Movement. I burned my bra in a HUGE demonstration. I marched for equal pay. I marched for so many ways to improve women's lives. Still, today, we don't have equal pay. I once read that I made $.10 per dollar less than a man. I wanted that damned dime. I collected degrees like boys collect baseball cards. I did well. My daughter now has the choice of working at home or working outside the home. I want to think part of we who came first is bearing fruit through them And I want her to get herd damned dime.

Jannine Gallant said...

I worked in a management position at a ski area when my oldest daughter was born. I floundered through the end of the ski season and then had the luxury of summer that was mostly preparation work. I cut my hours and brought her in to work with me one day a week. She went on strike at daycare and refused to eat. The lady threw up her hands and said she'd never seen such a stubborn kid. I held out for 5 months with no improvement. By Sept. I knew I'd never manage the stress of the winter season with a baby determined to starve herself. I quit my job. Being a stay-at-home mom was great--but financially it was a struggle at times. Now the girls are teens, and I work part time in addition to writing. FYI--that baby is still the most stubborn kid on the planet! You're so right, Leah. We all have to make the best of what we're given, and there is no magic formula for what works best.

Leah St. James said...

Thanks, everyone, for sharing your stories.

Alicia - I give you so much credit and feel more than a bit whiny! I was more fortunate than many.

Liz - The physical demands of new motherhood are bone-deep exhausting, and then you add the emotional and physical demands of a job and boss. Sometimes I wonder how we ever recover! (But then I remember, we are strong and invincible!) :-)

Christine - My younger son's girlfriend teaches 6th grade, and I sometimes think the experience will turn her off having her own family! But that's a whole other topic. (I've always had respect for teachers, but today's teachers are saints. Truly.)

Diane - You make a good point. That's why the flexibility I had was so great. I could do play dates with other moms and be the class mom, plus maintain business relationships. I always thought part-time would be idea.

Betsy - You were the brave ones, and you did pave the way for the young girls today who choose to put off marriage and families to fulfill their career dreams first. You paved the way for me, too (only a few years behind you) to make the choices I did. I'm grateful.

Jannine - That must have been so stressful! It is hard to give up more financial security, but what else could you do?

Margo Hoornstra said...

You could say I was given the best of both worlds by having twins when my original two were thirteen and nine. (Unplanned but not unwanted) With the older two, I pretty much stayed home or worked part time, or had a job where I could take them with me. With the twins, I happened to be on the fast track of a full time and then some career. Day care for them and my husband developed the mommy's ear. All four turned into adults to be extremely proud of. Looking back, I wish I'd stayed home more!

Alison Henderson said...

I admire all the women who work so hard to have it all, whether by choice or necessity. I'm a mid-level Baby Boomer, so I came of age in the teeth of the women's movement. I still believe in every precept, but trying to have it all brings a lot of tough choices. I was lucky enough never to have to make those choices. I worked until my daughter was born, then stayed home until she was eight. At that point, my husband and I switched roles. He stayed home and I went back to work for the next twenty years. I know that path is available to very few, but I often think it saved my sanity.

Leah St. James said...

Wow, Margo, those must have been some wild times! Sounds like you worked it out wonderfully for you and your family.

Alison - You as well! Love to hear "Mr. Mom" stories. My husband and I have alternated being the main bread-winner throughout our marriage, and it was usually based on what we thought would work best for the kids.

I think the ability to choose is the main benefit of the women's movement--the ability to decide for yourself what will work for you, and the opportunity to make those choices a reality. There are still issues, as Betsy pointed out, but I see huge changes since the days when I watched Billie Jean beat Bobby, and I thank all those (like Betsy) who made it possible.

Thanks for joining in the discussion, ladies!