On having it all, or not having it all

Dear sisters,

There has been a lot written recently on women “having it all“–that is, being able to have a fulfilling career and being a present, involved mother with a strong home/family life. It’s a hard balance to strike. I never considered myself much of a career person. I pictured my mothering days as ones in which I would stay home, or maybe work part-time. The circumstances of my life have led me a different way, and after some struggle and adjustment, I think it’s a good one. My job is in general rewarding and fulfilling, and I’m thankful for it, and that I can always support my family through my work.  Still, I have moments when I don’t want to work full time, when I start to resent how much time it takes, and that I could be doing so many other things at home with that time. I have been thinking a lot recently about how much I have to juggle on a daily basis to keep everything in my life going as it should be. Most of the time, it’s manageable, but there are times when it feels like it’s not. In this crazy full life I have, I am learning to be gracious with myself and my loved ones, and to stop worrying so much about all the little things, and focus more on the big things.

So, what are the big things? Well, making sure my daughter feels secure and well-loved. Taking time to read to her, to give her extra hugs and kisses, to let her sit on my lap even though my lap’s getting small and she’s getting big. Taking time to answer her questions and not to be impatient with her, and to soften my words to her, instead of always hurrying her along and speaking sharply when I’m feeling stressed. I don’t get to spend a lot of time with her, since she’s in full time daycare. A friend told me recently–it’s not the quantity of time you spend with your kids, it’s the quality, and it was a good reminder.  Also, making sure that my relationship with my husband is strong. Taking time to relax with him in the evenings after the kid is in bed. Remembering to thank him for cooking a delicious dinner for us, every day. Appreciating him for who he is. Letting him work on building his boat rather than asking him to do more household chores. Laughing with him, and loving him in the way he wants to be loved.  Letting him be alone, which he needs so much more than I do.

I also have to take care of myself, and this is maybe the hardest one for me. Sisters, do you constantly have a long to-do list in your head, and put taking care of yourself at the end of that list? I do a great job eating well because food is so important to me. Eating is a necessary thing, though. I hardly ever do something unnecessary just for me–like a craft project, or calling a friend or family member just to talk, or taking a walk, or sitting down to read a good book. I tend to make everything else a priority, and never take time for just me. I’m not sure how to do it, with a full time job and a family, and a house that just will not clean itself. I sometimes try to relax, but then I end up sweeping the floor or cleaning the bathrooms, or sitting down to pay some bills. On the weekends I take a long hot shower and shave my legs, and that feels like a luxury, and the only “me” time I ever really get.

So, if I have my priorities straight, I feel a good strong connection with my family, and I take care of myself, and I am a productive, happy person at work. In reality, all the little things in my life tend to take over. So, what are those? Oh, you know, all the complexities of modern life. Filling out forms for kindergarten. Making it to work on time. Flossing my daughter’s teeth. Making her do some chores around the house, which she fights terribly. Doing the dishes. Making doctor and dentist appointments. Getting regular oil changes for my car. Giving my daughter her flouride pill every morning. Filing all the important papers and dealing with the stacks of mail. Doing the laundry. Organizing the closets. Getting rid of my daughter’s old, broken toys. Dropping off the dry cleaning. Picking up the dry cleaning. Packing my daughter’s lunch for school every day. Packing my own work lunch every day. Drinking enough water. Eating enough fruits and vegetables. Remembering everyone’s birthdays. Trying to stop biting my nails. Looking for a house. Saving money to buy a house. Despairing that we will never find the right house, or be able to afford the house we want. Sticking with a budget. Mopping the floors. I can drive myself crazy with never-ending to-do lists. I will never be caught up. Thankfully my husband has a wonderful Zen-like philosophy which he attempts to teach me. He moves through life at an unhurried pace, and without the relentless internal clock that I have. He takes time to do things he really loves doing and wants to do. He encourages me to do the same, even though I’m stubborn and I don’t listen to him very well.

On any given day, I can tell you the successes and failures from the day’s events. Today I forgot to give my daughter her flouride pill. I made a phone call to her school about transportation for kindergarten, but only after failing to fill out a form by the deadline given. Also, I made that phone call while at work, because otherwise I would never have time for such things. Yesterday I remembered to take the library books back before the due date. Today I had to throw out a rotten bunch of kale in the fridge, because I never got around to making that raw kale salad I wanted to try. You see how it goes? I tally up the good and the bad and hope that it all works out, and that things in general flow along smoothly. I try not to take it personally when the neighbor kids come over and say that we have a really messy house. I try not to let the mess make me stressed out, though sometimes it does. I love a clean house, I really do. I just know that if I spend all my free time cleaning, I will be miserable and resentful. I have Mennonite guilt that I do not make my own jam and pickles. All that canning and preserving we grew up doing with Mom all summer–I just can’t do any of it, and sometimes that feels like a huge loss.

What about you all, dear sisters? How do you take care of yourselves, and how do you stop the endless to-do list from taking over your lives? Can women really have it all? Is working full time and being a present, involved mother an impossibility? (So far, this question only applies to Martha, but I know many of you will be dealing with it eventually!) If both parents work full time, do the kids get neglected? I think it’s taken me a few years to adjust to this working mother thing, and slowly, I feel like I’m getting to a better place. Just in time to add another kid to the mix–oh boy. Get ready for another huge change, Rachel! You think you’re overwhelmed now, with one kid? Just you wait…




10 thoughts on “On having it all, or not having it all

  1. I’m still hoping that others will comment on this! I don’t think your house isn’t messy, so much as old, cute houses just don’t have sufficient out-of-sight storage space… I think my main way to take time for myself is the internet (Facebook and blogs.) We’re hoping that by moving in together and both taking care of the same house & yard, that we’ll both have a little more free time. I often have more of an interior to-do list than Tom, partially because it’s a woman thing, probably, but partially because he’s better about working hard and continuously during the day so that he doesn’t have so many things to do at night. Also, it’s a distinct possibility that Krestia’s zen philosophy actually exacerbates your internal clock, because he’s not keeping track of time so you have to– or at least it seems to be that way with Andrea and the rest of us– but there is probably something to be learned there too. Once in awhile I feel like we get so good at delaying gratification while getting our careers going that I don’t even remember what gratification is anymore!

  2. Oh Rach, I love and relate to this post. I actually just got back inside from weeding the garden, but more than weeding, it was my time to step outside from the noise and business and my dearests, and to be by myself. I think I might have Krestia’s leanings where I so crave alone time, but it is often rare. This post definitely hits home these days as I just picked up some Alaska work that I am doing remotely. I was so grateful and flattered to have the work and we can certainly use the money as we start to dig ourselves out of adoption expenses, but it is back to figuring out a new rhythm of balancing home and work and marriage and self-care and all around happiness. And well, I’m not sure how it works, but I do think that every family has a slightly different balance so it’s difficult to create a universal roadmap for such things. I read something not that long ago that tried to address the issue of “mama-time” being too tied to “alone-time”. Basically, the woman suggested that by focusing your time with your babes/family in a way that is also doing things gratifying to you (i.e. walking, craft projects) and by consciously putting yourself in the right frame of mind, then what you would have gained by alone time can also be achieved during your time with your family. Now, I will be the first to say that no matter how wonderful of a day it was with my family, I still always crave a solo run or even just a few minutes by myself in the garden, but I like where she is going with these sentiments. That rather than compartmentalize our lives in to alone and family time, try to find a more fluid space by integrating the two.
    I can only imagine how much this topic is in your thoughts, especially as your due date grows near. I look forward to hearing more of your thoughts, and others on this. What a wonderful discussion!
    Time to go finish dinner!
    xoxo, Jill

  3. I’m not sure I’m the best to participate in this conversation. I obviously don’t have it all–haven’t figured out falling in love or having kids and am going to school to hopefully have a career I find fulfilling. I do keep really busy though, especially during the school year. Some friends and I were talking recently about why time goes so much more quickly as we age. My philosophy is still that it is because any given period of time is less of a percentage of our life up to this point than it was when we were younger. However, Tammy suggested that it at least partly has to do with how much more we have to do, and I’ve been thinking about that since. When we had a birthday party when we were younger, it was a singular event. Now, there is more time wrapped into it, because of planning, and clean-up, and that sort of thing, and we’re rarely as focused on individual things as we were when we’re younger. We talked about how, at any given time, no matter what we’re doing, there is a big list of things that we aren’t doing. I think that, at times, I might be better at ignoring that list than some of my other family members (or worse at getting things accomplished, depending how you look at it…), as the dishes in the sink and the cat hair on the carpet will attest to. I just made out my basic schedule for the semester and am psyching myself up for very little free time until December. I’m still learning how to multi-task. I don’t feel like I’m good at working on many things little by little. I tend to clean, work in the garden, work on the upcoming show, etc. in large chunks instead of half an hour every day that might make maintenance easier.
    Jill, I’ve been thinking about something similar to what you said. Aunt Debbie said something to me once about how part of the secret of happiness in farming was finding joy in the work. Along that theme, I had some friends over a month or two ago and during the weekend they were here they asked if there were any projects I’d like help on. I told them that I always have projects, but was happy to spend time with them since we only get to see each other maybe a couple times a year. They said something about the goodness of working together, too, and participating in each other’s lives that way. I liked that idea, and probably need to work on that more as life just keeps getting busier.

  4. Hello, five sisters…I’m an acquaintance of Jewel’s from school (Houghton) and I also know your parents a little bit through Sojourners Mennonite Fellowship. I wandered over here when I saw Jewel’s post about moving.

    I cringe a little bit when I hear the phrase “having it all.” I hear it a lot from several women I admire, women who urge me to dream bigger for my life, to set audacious goals, to believe in my abilities and God’s provision. I believe in these things and am working to do them. But I still cringe when I hear we can “have it all.” It seems like a…selfish phrase to me. Should we even WANT “it all”? What does “it all” mean, anyway? These two words conjure up an image of standing at the ice cream bar and topping a sundae with whipped cream, nuts, chocolate chips, Oreo bits, a peanut butter cup and three kinds of syrup. Who’s to say we oughtn’t to have stopped after the whipped cream and chocolate syrup? (Certainly the diet pamphlets I have stashed away from my post-college slimdown would have a thing or two to say.)

    I am a 20-something beginning a career in sales and marketing after dabbling in several fields. I have dreams of family that will remain dreams unless I find the right person. Like Janna, I don’t know if I’m the right person to participate in this conversation because I’m not juggling family and career as such. But I am wondering how much I’m supposed to want, wish for, work for or let go…and how it all figures into a life of contemplative, active gratefulness for today.

    1. Thanks for adding your thoughts Laura! I’m glad you wandered over :-). I’ve been seeing your great pics from your travels and successes. Facebook is a fun thing for that kind of stuff.

      I like your idea of having it all almost being too much. In college I fantasized about achieving “it all.” Being married, singing professionally, having kids. And while I do think many singers/professional women balance all of those things, I think the idea of having it all really is just a fantasy. We imagine it, but wouldn’t feel that satisfied if the dream became a reality, because when we dream we never include the mundane problematic tasks that we always have. My college dream of singing professionally and being uber mom/wife didn’t take into account a lot of real aspects of my life, namely that I am a homebody who doesn’t like to audition very much and values family/friend time over pursuing all of my musical goals. I love and am learning to search out all of the musical moments I need that fulfill me, but I am fulfilled by a myriad of experiences, not just some conglomeration of career and family (or friends).

      Great to hear from everybody! I love hearing your thoughts.

  5. I am another acquaintance of Jewel’s from Houghton, and I clicked through to this post from Facebook because I too have been mulling over this idea of “having it all,” or “leaning in,” or whatever it is. Like Rachel, growing up I never saw myself having a career. I thought I’d be a piano teacher and accompanist out of my home, with all the flexibility and self-direction that would supposedly allow. But instead, somehow I ended up in a PhD program that I love and want to complete so that I can be a professor of Music Theory. When I started that program, having my own family still seemed pretty far away, so I asked the questions about what would it look like to have a family and a career, but I didn’t need specific answers. But now I’m married and pregnant – my due date is October 4, so we’re getting close to really experiencing what life as a trio looks like. And I still have a dissertation to write, which I want to write, “but,” I think to myself, “but, Baby!” Will there be enough time? What sacrifices will be required of me, beyond the ones already asked of my body and mind and soul in pregnancy? The plan is to finish the degree, but I’m trying not to fear what that will look like.

    My husband and I (mostly I) have decided I will work as an adjunct professor after I finish my degree so that I can maintain a mostly at home schedule. Once we have all our kids and they are in or close to school age, then I’ll consider whether or not I want to pursue a tenure track job. But I’m not sure I’ll be willing to move to where the job is unless it happens to appear in Buffalo or maybe commuting distance from there. So I guess I’m choosing to emphasize my career less than I could. The beauty of it is, however, that my favorite part of my career is teaching, and I will still be able to do that. And the beauty of it is also that I’ve often worried about the toll it would be to take on the stress of jumping into a tenure-track position immediately after my PhD. Now, since we don’t need me to work full time, I can wait and decide if I really want to take on that stress.

    These are just the reflections and decisions that have been my recent navigation through the questions raised in the blog post. In a sense, I think that rather than trying to have it all (perhaps the entirely wrong goal anyway, as Laura suggests), we should pursue contentment in all that we have and recognize each part of it as a gift from God (this seems to me what Rachel is essentially getting at). This baby was a bit of a shock to us when we first found out about it, and it took me some time to put my plans for myself on the shelf and acknowledge that God has different plans. But I think he is teaching me contentment and reliance on him, both of which are so much more important than doing everything I think I need to do. My hope is that once I have to focus on caring for and spending time with my child, as well as continuing to strengthen my relationship with my husband and juggling my dissertation work in there somewhere, that I will continue to be content, even when the house isn’t clean and orderly and the food is not as perfectly gourmet or healthy as I prefer it to be, when my exercise time and my “free” time are seriously impinged upon. I imagine it will be a continued learning experience to achieve that contentment, but God is good, his grace is sufficient, and his plans are better than mine.

    1. Lovely thoughts Emma, and thanks for sharing them. I related to a lot of them, teaching is something I love and I know I’ll always teach in some capacity. I remember fondly seeing female professors at Houghton bring their babies to work and have them in the lounge while they worked. That seems like a nice balance :-). Congrats on having a baby! What an amazing time in your life. Good luck with all of the big changes ahead!

  6. Life is full of choices. I don’t think you can have it all. You cannot work a 40 hour week and also spend your days baking bread and caring for your children. We are finite creatures, so we have to choose. Setting priorities is important. I remember a male conductor/teacher from college who told me they were not having children because of his career, and I thought… wow, and he is the man, not the woman. It never entered my head not to have children…. 🙂 I also remember a friend who because she worked all day as a teacher said she would not do anything during the evenings even at church so she could be with her children who were in grade school.

  7. Rachel- I completely identify. Change the names and it could be my story. Will I ever arrive? I don’t know. I totally understand your Mennonite guilt. I don’t cook, can or freeze. And I don’t sew. Everything I learned as a kid are skills which are under utilized now.
    I have learned that I need to ask for help. I have a house cleaner. I am so grateful for my neighbor who has taken up the hobbie of canning and sewing. The kids and I get volunteered for her projects. And we eat her jams. I think the key is figuring out how to simplify your life. The more stuff, the more to manage and suck up valuable time. I believe in using the local rental shop rather than buying the (insert gadget here). It’s been crazy here for a while, but with Zai going onto first grade, he is starting to really be a big help. By the end of kindergarten, Zai learned to be responsible for his own school day. In the morning, He gets dressed and brushes teeth an packs his back pack with what he needs at school (swim suit, camp shirt, library book, etc. ). As the oldest of three, he had to learn it out of necessity. I just couldn’t do it all. After I let him fail at school (forgetting his backpack), he got with the program really fast. You will get crazier before it gets better. I’m slowly seeing it get better. Try to make enough time to get a good night’s sleep.

  8. Wow, thanks for all the thoughtful comments, everyone! 8 comments, that’s pretty cool for our little blog. 🙂 Greta, thanks so much for your words of wisdom. I sometimes feel surrounded by mothers who have chosen a more traditional stay-at-home path, and I find myself wanting more conversations with women who work outside the home full time, just to share experiences and learn from each other. Can I say–you make it look easy, and your kids seem so well-balanced and joyful. You have a lovely family!

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