In one of my my favorite series for older children, A Series of Unfortunate Events, the three protagonists encounter a bratty child who insists that she is “a tap-dancing ballerina fairy princess veterinarian.” We all know kids who are this, er, ambitious, right? If you ask my five year old what she wants to be when she grows up, she’ll tell you “A ballerina and a princess and a mommy!” Am I killing her ambition to tell her that she’s a middle-class American girl, not a princess? Is it cruel to tell my son that it’s great to love outer space, but since the US has stopped doing manned space exploration, it’s unlikely he’ll be the first man on Mars? Rather than encourage my children to pursue impossibilities, I prefer to promote difficult-but-actually-attainable dreams.
So where do moms fit into this picture? Can we really be everything we want to be, all at the same time? Should we reject the limitations of our finite bodies and reach for the stars, feeling unsatisfied when reality falls short of our dreams? Are we selling out if we “settle” for “just” being a fully engaged mother while our children are in those precious early years?
The Sheryl Sandburgs and Anne-Marie Slaughters of the world want to tell us that we should be able to be powerful businesswomen AND great moms, as long as we lean in hard enough or elect more female members of Congress. Because if Congress were 51% female, the problem of being two places at once would be solved. Naïve college graduates write blithely that as women, our world can be a “choose your own adventure” where we get to call the shots! Career? Yes! Kids? If and when we feel like it! Both? Sure! What all this nonsense boils down to is that raising one’s children is less a full-time occupation and more a hobby that we should be able to fit in around the edges of a more ambitious career. We can and should be able to do two things at once—the fact that we’re biologically set up to bear and nurse children is just coincidence, not God’s beautiful design for families. And anyone who points out the obvious is trying to push us back down to the oppressive days of yesteryear when we weren’t allowed to reach our full potential because men were threatened by us.
I’m going to volunteer to be the bad guy here: you can’t be anything and everything you want to be, at least not in the modern feminist way of having it all, all at once. Can women have successful careers in science, law, business, the arts? Certainly. I have girlfriends in all of those fields, though most of them do not have small children in the home. (The ones who do have little ones have to send them to daycare.) God did not make women less intelligent or less competent than men. Can anyone juggle work and family so that she gives her best to both? That’s where that tricky limit of only having 24 hours in the day comes in. And if both parents are doing the juggling act, their children find themselves bouncing between parents and caregivers, being raised by committee rather than a committed parent. The problem is that little kids don’t just need nurture when it’s convenient—they need it round the clock. And their lives can’t be planned or micromanaged like the employees of a corporation. They can sit chomping on the same teether for days, then suddenly they’re crawling, cruising, saying real words. They don’t wait for Mom and Dad to be home from work to take their first steps. They get pinkeye. They have fevers. And they want to stay home and snuggle on the couch with mom, not have their temperature masked with Tylenol and get sent off to daycare. Add to that shaping their immortal souls, and parenting sounds more and more like a full-time occupation. You can care for a cat in the spare hours after a full-time job. A child has infinitely more needs than a cat.
(I anticipate ruffled feathers with this post, and the inevitable question of why isn’t this true for men, too? It absolutely is. My husband and I have always been very open about the fact that he can’t do it all, either. When he worked for a prestigious law firm, he only saw our children awake on the weekends. Fortunately, we don’t worry about an exact 50-50 partnership, so I was able to focus all of my time and energy on raising our kids. But those years served to convince us that certain jobs are simply not conducive to healthy family life. My husband has absolutely had to make career sacrifices to be a father. When you choose to become a parent, you must re-examine your priorities. This is true for moms and dads.)