“Does being a good mom and wife make us mediocre at everything else?”
My friend sent me this text message a few days ago. Her words stirred something inside me that I think about often—and then immediately stop thinking about because it depresses me. The answer? I feel like it should be an emphatic, Stuart Smalley-esque “Of course not!” But, really? Maybe. Maybe it does. I don’t know. My friend was experiencing one of those patches where we feel like we are pouring so much into our families that our own talents, passions, and maybe even careers, have been neglected. We’ve all been there. Or maybe you’re just the opposite: maybe your career has totally taken off and you feel like you’re mediocre at motherhood. Either way, it’s painful.
I think we’ve collectively realized that “having it all” is garbage, and not something to aspire to anymore. That’s fine. I’m all for letting go of myths that make us feel frustrated and crappy about ourselves. And many of us feel like we are doing it all, but doing nothing well. Working part time for me has often meant the best of both worlds, but also its less frequently mentioned ugly stepsister, the worst of both worlds.
Even though we that “having it all” is bullshit, it makes us a little sad to realize that we really can’t. We can’t live all the lives: the one where we climbed to the top of our profession and had one super chill kid and still had fun vacations; the life where we have a whole house-full of kids and don’t work at all; the life where we went all Eat, Pray, Love and traveled the world alone. As women, we often attempt to integrate some of all of these “hypothetical lives”—each holding a little piece of ourselves—into our actual life. This is tricky, as so much of our identify is entangled with motherhood.
We have to make choices. We know this, and we also know that people get mad when modern moms complain about things like not having enough time to pursue their dreams. Because (and we know this, and are grateful for it of course) our basic needs are met. We have a home, food, our families are (knocking on wood here) healthy. So we should probably shut up about not being able to fit in allthethings, and stop lamenting the fact that we aren’t rocking all our personal goals and dreams, right?
But this is the world we live in, and even if it’s a relatively comfy life in the suburbs with good schools and lots of minivans, it’s also a world of stress and pressure where we marinate in comparisons and competitiveness. We see our mom friends kicking ass and feel inadequate. I’m not proud of it, but when I see friends and colleagues with booming new businesses, creating viral memes and amazing blog posts, and adding hundreds of email subscribers and thousands of social media followers per week, even though I am happy for them, I also feel jealous and wonder what I’m doing wrong.
When other moms are killing it with their careers or talents, does that mean they’re not being good moms and wives? And what exactly does it mean to be a good mom and wife?
Am I a “good mom” because I remember which nights are bath night and pack my kids reasonably healthy lunches the night before and read with them and I tell them I love them over and over?
Or maybe I’m not so great, since I routinely yell stuff like, “IF I HEAR YOU GUYS SAY THE WORD LABIA ONE MORE TIME YOU’RE LOSING TV TOMORROW!” and also I got the giggles after my five-year-old ruined her big sister’s homemade “play” by being “funny when it wasn’t supposed to be a funny play” and I tried to be all serious and practice reflective listening and validate her feelings by saying, “It sounds like the play didn’t meet your expectations” but then I started cracking up and laughed until I cried. Probably not such a good mom move. Also I sometimes swear in front of them. Maybe good moms don’t do that either.
Yep, that happened.
And this whole “good wife” thing; what’s that about? Probably not like the TV show The Good Wife, unless we’re aiming to re-launch our careers, pretend to like our spouse in public, and then have an affair.
But seriously, being a goodwifeandmom (let’s lump them together so we don’t have to dwell on unfortunate gender role labels, no?) takes effort, and it probably means something different to each of us. But whatever it means to you, it’s a commitment: Making healthy food that people will actually eat, scheduling date nights (or at the very least, sex), balancing the family budget, juggling the kids’ appointments, listening to everyone, being fun and funny and fully present and not distracted by other stuff, and dutifully watching plays and magic shows (and display the proper reactions to said performances). Let’s not forget also speaking your spouse’s Love Language. Maybe that really doesn’t leave much room for anything else besides mediocrity.
Did you see that “Pick Three” thing that Randi Zuckerberg explained about a year ago? She ascribes the phenomenon to the dilemma of an entrepreneur, but I think many non-entrepreneurs can probably relate, too. The basic idea is this: of work, family, fitness, friends, and sleep, you pick three things. Three. That’s what you get. Sucky, huh?
If you have to work at an actual job, work is a no-brainer, right? And if you have a family, duh. And that leaves . . . what? Sleep? Being fit? Having a social life? The idea that you can’t have all of those things is pretty dismal. It doesn’t have to be that way for you, does it? Does it??!!!?
So, say I’ve chosen work and family. I can’t NOT choose sleep. Sleep always wins for me. I’m one of those people. I accept it; there’s no way I am sacrificing sleep for anything (besides my family during extremely dire circumstances involving vomit or bad dreams, and when their needs interfere with my sleep I am very, very unhappy about it).
Does that mean I cut out fitness? Thanks to my “hyper-mobile pelvis” (which sounds like fun, but in reality, not so much), if I don’t stay fit I exacerbate my lower back issues and end up in crazy pain. So I have to find some way to keep the gym and yoga on the table. And then there are my friends. I LOVE my friends.
So, people, what do we cut out? And is it really true that if we prioritize our families, we end up sucking at everything else? What if the answer is yes?
When I dialed down my writing ambitions and projects last year, I realized something sobering: I was a better mom and wife. And that made me feel uncomfortable and deeply guilty on a feminist level (very anti-Lean In, amiright?). Here’s what happened:
In the past year or so, I haven’t been writing very much. In 2014-15, I was publishing my writing on all kinds of sites. I was proud of myself; it was exhilarating. And then at the end of last August, the HerStories Project, of which I am co-editor and co-founder, published So Glad They Told Me: Women Get Real About Motherhood, our 4th book in three years, which is kind of insane. In 2016, I had focused most of my “work energy” on producing the Listen To Your Mother Boulder show and getting the book published. Other writing projects just weren’t happening.
My book! (You can buy it here!)
If you are a writer or an artist of any kind, you know that when we go for a long period of time without creating something, or without consistently producing work, we tend to freaking panic. As in, “ohmygod I am all dried up, I have nothing left, it’s officially happened I have nothing new and original to say and I will never be a successful writer ever, I’m a joke.” Or you know, insert whatever your thing is here. The idea of backing off of our work, taking a sabbatical, or slowing down at all, can be terrifying. It can feel like we aren’t being true to ourselves.
But when I gave myself a break after publishing So Glad, it wasn’t just that I was a better wife and mom. I felt better, too. I started exercising regularly again and saw my friends more often. I felt balanced again. During my most productive years, I often sacrificed time with my husband and kids, my own health and fitness, or yes, even my beloved sleep to fit everything in. And while I didn’t love the sacrifices, I did love the work I was doing. As a feminist mom, I want to believe I can be a good (enough) parent and be true to my ambition. But in real life? It’s kind of an exhausting, frenetic mess. I’ve heard an alternative to the “having it all” adage:
“You can have it all, you just can’t have it all at the same time.”
And maybe that’s the answer. Perhaps the “Pick Three” philosophy is more fluid. Our priorities are constantly shifting, day to day, week to week, year to year. We may not be able to “have all five” every day of every week, during every stage of our lives. We can take what we need when we need it, even if it means being mediocre at something else or just scrapping it all together.
When we try to kick ass at everything, we can easily burn out and completely ditch our self care efforts. Maybe sometimes we can allow ourselves simply to be “good enough” moms (shout out to D.W. Winnicott—read this if you need some validation for ditching motherhood perfection), and take that open space to shine a light on our passion, on our friendships, or on ourselves.
We can accept mediocrity sometimes; it’s part of life. We can be mediocre moms and wives occasionally (or more) and nobody’s going to die. We can acknowledge that our passions and careers and talents have seasons, that they ebb and flow, and that if we happen to be mediocre this year it doesn’t mean we won’t be fucking awesome two years from now. Maybe our bodies are mediocre today; maybe we aren’t as strong and our tummies are squishy and we’ve lost our yoga flexibility from when we were twenty-eight. That’s OK. We can get it back (or not).
Respecting our boundaries as well as the fluidity of our lives does NOT make us mediocre. It makes us human. It means that we are wise. It makes us stronger, in the long run. Right now we can’t see the big picture. But someday, we’ll be able to. And I bet we won’t remember the mediocrity as much as we’ll remember the moments when we were really shining.
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