24 March 2014

choosing not to "have it all"

I'm reading Jennifer Senior's All Joy and No Fun and finding it so incredibly relevant. I just finished a section about working from home. Senior writes that on the one hand, there is the camp who says that women are their own worst enemy when it comes to professional and life achievement and they need to stop acting oppressed, and the other camp that believes that society and the system have made things rather impossible for women.

I love what Senior has to say about this: "There's truth to both arguments. They're hardly mutually exclusive. Yet this question tends to get framed, rather tiresomely, as one of how and whether women can 'have it all,' when the fact of the matter is that most women--and men, for that matter--are simply trying to keep body and soul together. The phrase 'having it all' has little to do with what women want. If anything, it's a reflection of a widespread and misplaced cultural belief, shared by men and women alike: that we, as middle-class Americans, have been given infinite promise, and it's our obligation to exploit every ounce of it. 'Having it all' is the phrase of a culture that, as Adam Phillips implies in Missing Out, is tyrannized by the idea of its own potential" (pg. 41).

Senior discusses the unique dilemma of working from home, as well. The flexibility of working from home is undeniably advantageous in many ways, but Senior points out many of the complications that result from trying to parent and work from home concurrently. The everyday minutiae of child care involves both anxiety and boredom, and without a structured environment, one that provides rules, goals, and feedback, it's hard to achieve a sense of success, autonomy, and satisfaction that we find so rewarding. If your job is good at providing the structure for you to succeed, and even if it isn't, then working on its own in a dedicated time and place can be a lot more attractive and pleasant than staying home with your kid in a lot of very real ways. Children have limited attention spans, their needs are always changing, they are always around, and they are completely uncivilized by the standards of adult society. Senior quotes Csikzentmihalyi, who says "Being a parent consists, in large part, of correcting the growth pattern of a person who is not necessarily ready to live in a civilized society."

The non-physical but real borders between work and family life are fundamentally dissolving, and it's stressing us out and putting us on literally endless guilt trips. This is what really spoke to me about Senior's discussion of the trouble with working from home, and ultimately it's why I chose to quit and stay at home with my child. At times when I am feeling the boredom that goes along with spending most of my time in the company of one very inarticulate two-year-old, I think I should be doing more. I should be filling all of my time with productive and important things, no? I think, "Maybe I should be working and earning money right now! If I'm not, I'm worthless!" And I feel bad that I'm not contributing as much to the family economy by bringing in a full-time income. (Although I do feel like I need to justify myself often and at this moment in this discussion by noting that I still do freelance work on the side and am not completely absent of any income or work-life conflict as a result.)

But me working from home, especially as the demands at work seemed ever-increasing, was too much for me and my family. Even though theoretically, my child's needs come first, often work's call was more urgent and essentially easier to respond to. Constant interruptions and multitasking disrupted my sense of accomplishment to the point that I felt like I could never relax and call a day "finished." Work never went away and the boundaries were hard to establish for myself and maintain. I always felt guilty that my work was negatively affected by having a child around with his own set of constant demands. I won't try to lie, either, and say that it wasn't affected. I was a better employee before I had a kid, I think. Maybe the quality of my work was still competent by others' standards once I became a work-from-home mom, and considering how hard I tried (not a little because of my guilt about it), my work was probably very comparable to coworkers' from an objective standpoint. But having a child and trying to work from home at the same time and in the same space does inevitably mean that both pursuits are negatively impacted.

At its core, I believe this arrangement is unsustainable, at least for me and my family. I guess I can't say so about society at large, but it seems like a precarious establishment. I want every mom I know who works from home to join me, because even though we're low-income now, I'm not living with constant guilt and stress hanging over my head all the time. I hope I'm a nicer wife and mom for it. I'm grateful, in a way, for a kid that has been relatively high-needs. His temperament and needs made the conflict between work and parenting even more profound and potent, and ultimately I think it was my sense that I wasn't meeting his needs that prompted me to take the leap and seize any opportunity to remove that conflict.

In our societies, families build financial lives that depend on two incomes, and that doesn't really give us the freedom to make the choice. It's always hard to go from more to less, but if you've never had more, it doesn't seem like a sacrifice. So at least for me (because no matter how you slice the pie, being a parent is tough), here's to living poor and not having it all.


About Us said...

I really appreciate this! Way to go! It's not easy (for me) to make that sacrifice, but I'm glad we're making it, and I hope I can always keep perspective whenever those "I feel like we will be poor forever!" days come around. :)

Luke and Andrea said...

Whoops! That previous comment was from me, Andrea. Apparently I was signed into a blog Luke was going to do and never really did...

Heather Burdsal said...

Totes magoats, Awkrowan. If you "have it all" in the traditional sense of having both a career and a family, but aren't fully happy with either, then you really have nothing.

If you want to "have it all," you have to change your definition of "all." You really can have it all, if by "all" you mean whatever it is that makes you happy--in this case, a more fulfilling home life without the encumbrances of full-time workforce commitments. I very much respect your decision to take life by the reins and have your own "all."

Blog Archive