Once upon a time, women wore aprons and spent their lives stepping over children on their journey between the kitchen and the laundry. Since they had little choice to aspire to anything else, life was carved out for them. Their place in the world was established. Many fought against these confines and became great heroines we continue to admire today. Many, however, did not. Although women have fought long and hard to be granted the choice – and I understand it’s about having a choice – I do wonder if women will forever have the raw end of the deal. Despite equality in the workforce and freedom for women to pursue whatever their hearts dream up (at least in the Western world) I do wonder if, despite all the catch-cries of “having it all”, women will forever feel that whichever they choose, there is always something they have to lose.
It seems to me that when a man has a baby, life continues on as it has – that is his work, his days and the ruler with which he measures his self-worth doesn’t change all that drastically – but he gains a child. He becomes enriched by the experience of fatherhood and it slots in nicely to the life he has already established for himself. When a woman has a child, life does not continue on as it has. Her work, her days and the ruler with which she measures her self-worth changes in the most drastic of ways. She gains a child, yes, but it comes at a cost. Usually that sacrifice is her work, and always that sacrifice flings her into the throes of menial domestic existence so shocking it can take months and years to adjust to.
As Angela Mollard writes in The Smallest Things, “In retrospect, what I needed was acknowledgement; a few words to say ‘You’re valuable in my eyes’, which Nige may have said, but it was lost in my ocean of self-pity. In rational moments I knew the work I was doing raising Edie was worthwhile. But as I recalibrated myself under a new job title that didn’t come with a business card, air miles and bragging rights, I felt my self-worth would fit into one of the tiny Tupperware containers I was forever filling with halved strawberries.”
A few days ago, I stayed up late reading old blog entries about my life as a new mother. It took me right back to that time, reliving the force with which I lost myself to motherhood. I had completely vanished. So much of what defined who I was – the passions I harboured, the career I’d built for myself, the things I loved to do – they were all buried under a screaming baby, a relentless feeding schedule, a dirty house and a shocking loss of personal freedom. I had stepped into a completely different world, one where I felt as if I lived purely as a person who served. One where all I usually wore was a bra covered in vomit. I remember crying a lot. Like my talents were wasted. Like I’d been reduced to something small, something unremarkable. I became completely undone by the wailing of my child and my inability to soothe her discomfort, and I drowned in a sea of everything I didn’t know. Like so many new mothers, self-doubt crippled me and all that I had previously been was squashed beneath a seven pound baby.
It has taken two years to reconcile who I am as a mother with who I am as a woman. Two years of piecing together the tiny fragments of myself I’ve found again in writing, in photography, in friendship, in paid work and in books. And yet, in my attempts to have it all, both my career and motherhood, as well as a balanced inner life, I still wonder if we ever really can. I still wonder if, as we spread ourselves as thin as crispbreads, we feel as though we’re failing in all camps – our careers, our children and own our selves.
I love being a mother. For all the jobs I’ve had, for all the passions I’ve fostered, nothing matches the thrill and fulfillment I get out of raising my babies and loving them the way I do. My greatest identity is wrapped within my children, and still, I walk down the street actually thinking to myself that people are watching on, admiring my beautiful children, the fortune of my life, and the wonderful role I’m blessed to play. It’s true. When people look at me and smile, I think that’s what they’re thinking.
But I’d be lying if I said that I didn’t yearn to be great for the world, and not just for my children. I’d be lying if I denied being moved by TED talks by incredibly inspirational women and feeling the slightest pang of envy for their making a mark on the world. For their living a remarkable life. Part of me wishes I was standing there on stage instead of them, sharing my gifts and talents and knowledge and passion that have nothing to do with my children and everything to do with me.
And yet, I know in order to do so, I would have to sacrifice time spent raising my kids. I would have to juggle commitments in the most stressful of ways. I would lose myself to the outside world and not be present for my children’s childhood – something I know will be gone in the blink of an eye.
And so, right there, we have the inevitable notion of sacrifice – of choosing one or the other. Or having both, but forever feeling split in two — of forever feeling that infamous Mother Guilt every time we’re off making a life away from our kids.
I’m not sure that we truly can have it all, not without the expense of a calm and peaceful inner life anyway, and I’m not sure what the answer really is. We do the best we can to juggle all the balls we’re grasping at, and we remind ourselves that it’s not really guilt we feel. It’s love. It’s love we feel, and once we’ve fallen into this love, nothing is ever quite the same again.