When I started to think I might be ready to have a baby I was working at a job I loved. I’d always assumed that, when I became a mom, I’d stay home. It’s what my mother had done, and I believed in the benefits of having one parent available full time. But I loved my job.
I was a 3rd and 4th-grade teacher in a small independent school where I was given lots of freedom to write curriculum and teach content in engaging and exciting ways. It wasn’t that the job was easy, it was that it was endlessly challenging and intellectually stimulating. And I wasn’t sure, now that it came to it, that I wanted to give it up.
So I did an experiment. I pretended that I had a baby. Throughout the day, I thought about my imaginary baby, wondering how he was and if he was okay. I scoped out locations where I could pump, and watched the clock to see what would be happening when I’d need to sneak away. I imagined that I would have to leave at exactly 4:00 every day to pick this pretend baby up from daycare and tried to get out the door before then. I imagined what he might be doing all day long without me.
I did this for about a week. And by the end of the week I knew. I had to quit my job. There was no question about it, it was the only decision. And, having made that decision (and then, through a variety of circumstances having to wait a few more years before I could actually have a baby), I began to like my job less, and look forward to motherhood more. Because, for me, it was one or the other. And I’d made up my mind.
I think that for many women, myself included, the modern notion that women can “have it all” is somewhat confusing. When I began my experiment, I wanted to find out if there was any way I could be both a full-time teacher and a full-time mom. Was it possible, I wondered, given how often we’ve been told that we can “have it all,” to really do both? The answer, of course, is no.
For me, motherhood was something I wanted to do full time. I just wanted to teach full time too. And I recognize, of course, that for some people (many people, even!), continuing to teach (or do some other job) while their babies go to daycare, or stay home with a nanny or other caregiver, is a perfectly acceptable option. One that works for them and for their families in ways I wouldn’t presume to judge. But that kind of scenario wasn’t for me. When I imagined myself at work while my child was somewhere else, going about his day without me, my heart broke.
I couldn’t have it all. I couldn’t devote countless hours of love, attention, energy, and creativity to my job as a teacher, and simultaneously be there for every moment of my son’s early years. I couldn’t have it all. Not really. I could have some of each. But not all of both. And so, instead of trying to somehow fit my own wants and needs into the narrative of “women can have it all” I opted out. Given my particular set of circumstances and desires, I had to choose. And I chose to stay home with my son.
I fully recognize that the choice I made is not for everyone. A mother’s own happiness is an important part of her success as a mom. Feeling miserable, lonely, and unstimulated intellectually aren’t just byproducts of motherhood, to be shoved under the rug to be reexamined in eighteen years when your kid leaves home. It’s a part of the decisions we make as responsible and loving parents of our children. My point is only that, for me (and, I assume, for many other women who live within the “women can have it all” culture), realizing that living out my desire to stay home with my son meant giving up something that I loved was freeing.
All of one, or some of each. Those are really our choices. What we choose is nobody’s business but ours. But telling us we have another option, a “have it all” option, isn’t fair. For me, realizing the fallacy in the “have it all” narrative allowed me to seek out the life I really wanted. And I haven’t looked back. Not even for a moment.