I come from a long line of women who get shit done.
My mother’s mother, Emma, was a force unto herself. After her husband became blind, she went to work as nurse, so that she could support him and her four girls. She learnt to drive, becoming the first woman in her small town to do so. I remember watching her get ready for work: starched, pressed pristine white nurse’s outfit (no scrubs for this head nurse), polished shoes, perfect up-do, red lipstick. After she was ready, she’d drive to the hospital for a night shift, after which she would come home, take a short nap and spend her afternoon tending to her beautiful garden. Her enduring legacy to her daughters and granddaughters was this lesson: do it yourself, if you can. And if you can’t, learn how. Never rely on a man for anything; not your sense of self, or your livelihood.
When my son was born, my plan was to return to work. It had never really been a question. Every woman in my family was a working mother. Partly out of necessity, but my grandmother, my mother and my aunts were always clear about their professional ambitions, designs and dreams. They worked because they wanted to.
Like many women, I underestimated how difficult going back to work was. I found myself on an exhausting mobius strip, littered with breast pump parts and unopened emails. Some months into this journey, I wrote the following:
I keep meaning to write about this but WHEN?? When I’m not mothering I’m working and vice versa and don’t even mention wife-ing. Haven’t had a second free for that. So forgive this long status update which is rally a draft essay/blog post.
I can’t have it all. I didn’t think I could – we’ve been told by braver women who’ve gone be before that it can’t be done. But I honestly thought I could do it. I’ll work part time, I thought. I’ll be the best mom I can be with time for my kid and I won’t give up the parts of myself that have been shaped and formed by work. But man, was I wrong. There are days where I can hack it: I’ve had a productive five hour stint at work and I come home to my son and we have a happy afternoon napping and reading and playing and cuddling. But most days, my son hasn’t slept well, which means I haven’t slept well and I’m dragged into three meetings which means I barely have time to respond to the emails that came in after I left work yesterday let alone actually get to my work to do list. And I get home tired and discouraged and my son is not napping and is also tired and his stomach is unsettled or maybe he’s just a little person getting used to the ebbs and flows of digestion and he’s just being vocal about it. And story time doesn’t go great and I can’t get him to sleep. And before you know it, the day is over and I’ve done none of it right. Not the work stuff, not the mom stuff. never mind the wife stuff.
This shit is killer. I know why women do it though. I’m straddling both worlds trying to inhabit them simultaneously in the hopes that those flashes of success and competence I experience in both – when my son wraps his tiny arms around my neck and gives me a full open-mouth kiss, when I successfully get a work project done in a week in spite of the massive bureaucracy in which I work and all its meetings and emails – can stretch and bleed into each other until I feel good at life again. I’m a Type A achiever scholarship kid; I’m used to doing well. Motherhood knocks that right out of you. So maybe this is why I cling to both work and motherhood – to cover the most surface area and maximise my ‘success’ and feel like me again… And feeling like me will enable me to be the best mom to my kid.
Maybe that’s what we mean when we talk about ‘having it all’ or finding the ‘work-life balance’.
After months of this agony, this state of half-existing in two worlds at once, I quit my job. The job was just a job, anyway. A purely administrative role I had taken with the hopes that I could save some of the emotional energy that I had been spending at my previous NGO job and invest it into my writing. But then my son came along. And suddenly my careful realignment felt all wrong. I didn’t want to spend time away from my son, idling at a desk job I was only marginally enjoying. If I was to be away from him, it was going to have to mean more to me. So I quit the job and became, for all intents and purposes, a stay-at-home-mother, taking on small project-based jobs that didn’t require long-term attention and energies.
When I saw the news about new mom and all-round G.O.A.T Serena Williams’s decision to postpone her return to the grand slam circuit, I felt a flicker of the familiar. Motherhood changes everything. For me, it meant a fresh twist on an old feminist family tale. Going against the grain woven through my family history, I am one of the first in this long line of women who work to choose a different path. Or am I? bell hooks’s critique of Betty Friedan’s seminal work, The Feminine Mystique, points out that working outside the home is not the feminist prize it was made to be:
Friedan’s famous phrase, “the problem that has no name,” often quoted to describe the condition of women in this society, actually referred to the plight of a select group of college-educated, middle- and upper-class, married white women—housewives bored with leisure, with the home, with children, with buying products, who wanted more out of life. Friedan concludes her first chapter by stating: “We can no longer ignore that voice within women that says: ‘I want something more than my husband and my children and my house.'” That “more” she defined as careers. She did not discuss who would be called in to take care of the children and maintain the home if more women like herself were freed from their house labor and given equal access with white men to the professions. She did not speak of the needs of women without men, without children, without homes. She ignored the existence of all non-white women and poor white women. She did not tell readers whether it was more fulfilling to be a maid, a babysitter, a factory worker, a clerk, or a prostitute than to be a leisure-class housewife.
My grandmother’s work outside of her home was part necessity, part passion. She knew intimately what it meant to have the financial rug pulled out from under you, and in her constant urging to her daughters and their daughters, she was trying to prevent the same. She also knew how important it is for women to develop a sense of purpose that is not tied to their relationships to partners and children. My grandmother loved fiercely and well, and I believe that her love was borne of a strong self-knowledge and self-worth. In my moments of existential clarity, when I am right where I should be in the world, I don’t feel all that different or distant from her. I have relative financial security, thanks to my partner. I have work that I love, both within and outside of my home. And I have my son, the full spectrum of him, from the tantrums, to the cuddles and tickles and laughing over nothing at all.
On a quiet Christmas morning, once presents are opened and special Christmas flapjacks eaten, we cuddle on the couch as I breastfeed him. I tell him I love him, and that I am so lucky to be his mother. I mean that not just in terms of the genetics lottery. I mean that in terms of the freedom to lean into this moment of motherhood. For, as all parents know well, it is all just a moment, even when it is difficult. He gazes at his new toy, a toy tow-truck called Tow-Mater: “I love you, Tow-Mater”, he says earnestly. At the end of the day, isn’t that what we all want? The space to recline into whatever moment is most fulfilling. To lean into our best selves.
In my rare moments of clarity, I feel that this is what my grandmother would have wanted for me. I feel I am fulfilling my small part of the promise she saw in all her girls, all of us daughters of Emma, the woman who got shit done.