I Don’t Want to Be Told That Women Can Have It All

I Don’t Want to Be Told That Women Can Have It All October 4, 2013

… and Professor Elizabeth Corey has finally laid out the tradeoff in a beautiful, thought-provoking manner I appreciate. Please stop reading me with your free time and read this, it has given me food for thought and fodder for argument for nearly a week now. I simply cannot stop thinking about the way in which Prof. Corey frames the debate of working v. stay-at-home-mothering.

Essentially, Professor Corey writes that there are two competing desires within modern women: a)the desire to pursue personal excellence and b) the desire to love and care for others. Alternately, she describes these competing poles as “self-cultivating” versus “self-giving.”  She observes that one choice happens at the expense of the other, whether we like it or not.  In the article she eschews the recent articles from successful women (Sandberg of Facebook and  A-M Slaughter of State Department/Princeton) which pose the tension of child-rearing and professional excellence as one that can be solved with policies and family-friendly employers. Instead she (correctly) asserts that the lack of harmony modern women feel is the result of an individual modern tension. Do I achieve, achieve, achieve outside my home because of the personal gifts with which God has endowed me?  or do I make the counter-cultural decision to give it all to my family in the form of radical self-sacrifice that is stay-at-home-motherhood?

My favorite excerpt is here to motivate or challenge you, as the case may be:

Modern women are right to think that both the pursuit of excellence and the desire to care for others are part of a fully flourishing life. Excellence in a particular field requires persistence, self-confidence, drive, courage, and initiative. These are eminently admirable qualities. On the other hand, serving or loving others requires even more admirable qualities of attention, focus, care, patience, and self-sacrifice. The accent we place on them, and the way we put them into practice , is a matter for all of us to figure out for ourselves.

I love this article, it inspired me, but several things still gnaw at me after reading it. Firstly, I can’t help but ask, “would this article ever have been published if Professor Corey was not ‘Professor’ at all but rather, Soccer Mom Corey?” Secondly – and more importantly – what does this mean for how we raise our daughters? Where do they go to school in order to follow their dreams while still remaining flexible enough to handle the duties encumbent upon a mother?

Princeton did not reward self-giving, it rewarded self-cultivation. I spent four years being reminded how awesome I was because I had been admitted there and being encouraged to change the world. Then I had a baby 16 months after graduation and BAM –> it needed to be all focus, care, attention and self-sacrifice from that point forward. An NFP- lifestyle gives one even less delusional flexibility to believe these mothering years are simply a blip on the screen of life.  It has taken me a decade to comb those two competing worlds (self-cultivation v. self-giving) apart, and I am still probably only about 70% of the way there. I will myself to commit entirely to the raising of our four new souls and the love and care of my man, but emotionally I haven’t totally written off the desire to be in the Senate. Pride is a massive enemy of mine, and Professor Corey speaks to my core when she writes:

“These two endeavors require different orientations of the self, and we simply cannot approach marriage and family in the spirit of achievement at all.  If we try to do so, we will find ourselves frustrated and conflicted. For well-behaved or smart children are not markers of our success; children are ends in themselves, to be loved and cared for as individuals. They need from us something other than our talents, they need us, full stop.

Finally, I am grateful for the guidance of the Saints and Scripture on this modern woman’s dilemma as I flounder. Just days after reading this article and wrestling with its implications in my life, we celebrated the Feast of St. Therese of Lisieux … the Little Flower. Amidst the thousands of saints who led armies and founded religious orders, St. Therese has been declared a Doctor of the Church because she espoused the importance of the Little Way. Of doing even insignificant things with love. Really, I think that this great saint would have a hard time seeing the difference between self-excellence and self-giving. She would see them as synonymous. I too will strive to see total self-gift as excellent. And then in yesterday’s Mass Reading from the Gospel of Luke, Jesus reminds his disciples that, “the harvest is abundant but the the laborers are few.” Our children are the harvest. They are the future of the church and of the world, but I see too many parents’ distractedly side-lining their kids in the pursuit of some phantasm of self-excellence or just general distraction. Oh, Lord, please help me be a faithful laborer with a joyful heart as I care for this domestic church with which you have entrusted me.

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  • Juris Mater

    This is a great piece, a great analysis, and, as always, a complicated question. Even if the self-giving required of mothers is a superior kind of work, it seems still very admirable and necessary for women to build up society through professional work–through all the ideas, relationships, and influence that is found there. And some women really seem wired for self-giving and leadership outside the home (not just the PTA and Junior League), even if it’s only part-time.

    I also think it’s good for children to see their parents contributing outside the home. The child-centric parenting culture of the last three decades has created a lot of problems with narcissism, entitlement, individualism and complacency.

  • Queen B

    AWOL, thanks for posting this thoughtful article. I am going to be praying over how to share these thoughts with others, especially younger women who ask probing questions about my career path/personal life choices.

  • LLpton7

    This article is great encouragement for mothers. However, I worry that the effect of the article will be to encourage young women who intend to be good mothers to throw in the towel on their education/professional lives far too early.
    I agree that excellence in the professional world and the nurturing role of a mother are very different types of activities, but that alone does not mean we cannot do both at different times. Maybe that means excellence in the morning and nurture in the evening. Maybe that means excellence in college, nurture in the child-rearing years, and excellence again after the kids are raised.
    Corey implies that women need to choose one or the other to be happy. Not true.
    And besides, when did happiness become the goal? We all make sacrifices, to follow our God-given callings.

  • MaryAlice

    I have been reflecting on this for a few days, and I have to admit that for me these tensions really don’t exist anymore. There are struggles, but they have nothing to do with career. I wish that it were easier to find reliable babysitters so that I could have more of a social life, and also that it was easier for me to do things like go to mass or to the gym during the day, but I notice that these things are difficult for my husband as well, and for many other working people. The work that I do is sometimes menial and often exhausting, but I have also noticed that high achieving, prestigious careers are not all rainbows and lollipops, either.

    I have the benefit of living with someone who is doing what I sometimes thought I might do, and all I can think is “thank God I don’t have to do that.” I don’t feel, as Jessica in the article says, that my husband has done all the things I wanted to do. On the contrary, I feel that I am lucky to have married someone who is willing to work so hard that I can do all the things I want to do.

    Here’s what I think makes the difference for me:

    I have become pretty confident that what I am doing is both important and excellent. I know that it does not always look important and that the short term results might not be excellent, in fact sometimes the most excellent days of mothering I have are the ones that look the messiest.

    My husband thinks that what I am doing is both important and excellent, he respects my work with the children and he thanks me for it. In fact, his colleagues seem to respect it as well, especially those who are of our generation.

    I have made it a point to have some personal time which is both fulfilling and challenging. I teach skiing on the weekends and this past summer I went away for a week to take an intense theology class. I try to make a yearly retreat and to attend some good classes and lectures in my community.

    I didn’t go to graduate school and I didn’t have a career before I had children. I don’t have a strong sense of calling to anything but this. Sometimes I wish that I worked so that I could have more money or just do something different, but I can’t think of what I would do except a job for a job’s sake. Right now I am teaching my children, and someday I think it might be really neat to teach in an inner city charter school, or work at a tutoring program, but I’m happy to take life as it comes for now.
    I felt all of this tension early on, when what I was doing was “just” caring for babies — that work was hard and often boring and lonely and just so, so hard that I often wished I could be doing something else. Now that my children are older, however, even though I still have some hard baby work to do, and even though I still wash a lot of dishes and do other menial tasks, I know that being around to be asked how to respond to an annoying classmate or how to prepare for a history exam is important. I know that I get asked these questions in part because I am the person who has always been around. When I’m finished answering those questions and I sit down to read wonderful literature, talk about art, or teach my baby to walk, I feel the same way.

    I respect people who make other choices. I respect the working mother with children in day care whose pay check supports her family. I respect the highly educated career woman who dropped to part time and gave up a more prestigious track in order to make room for more of the nurturing. I respect the woman who stayed on the prestige track and misses more of the childhood milestones than she would like.

    The more I think about it, though, I’m good where I am.

  • FYW

    I have found all of these articles and opinions fascinating and challenging. Having just recently moved to the non-profit world, I find that my viewpoint has changed rapidly in just the last year. I think that most of the discussion has been about achieving what men achieve–getting the highest paying job, getting the highest amount of recognition and perhaps even fame, which generally means working a job with ridiculous hours. The time commitment necessary definitely is at odds with being there for your family, raising your children, etc. And generally, yes, it is to achieve your own excellence, to cultivate your own talents rather than focusing on nurturing. With my most recent job change, I find that the part of the narrative that seems missing is that so many women take low-paying, less “high-powered” jobs that often times, many ambitious men would not take. My organization serves the community in what I obviously believe is a very worthy cause, helping the helpless. But the staff is almost entirely women with an all-male board of directors. When leaving my arguably more prestigious position, I received so many emails from male colleagues who had been working far longer than I and who were earning the big bucks, etc., that expressed a kind of longing, that they wished they would have had the guts or the ability to pursue a similar passion even if it meant lower pay, etc. Anyway, I am sure my job will be very demanding and I intend to work hard, but it is definitely considered “mommy friendly,” meaning completely flexible in terms of hours and working from office vs. home when need be, with fewer emergencies, or days that require long hours in an office away from my family.

    I found it interesting that Prof. Corey mentioned being ever present for your children instead of multi-tasking, etc. And I definitely admire those who are stay at home moms and do a fantastic job with their children. It truly takes focus, care, attention, and self-sacrifice. But I think that any self-sacrifice I were to make personally would actually be detrimental to my child(ren). I am a much happier, more patient person when I am not home all day with my daughter. And when I am with my daughter, she has my undivided attention. If I were home with her all day, I know I would be so tempted to watch tv every so often while she is playing in the next room. Or to check email, go on FB, etc. (not that SAHM can’t do any of these things, I just mean to an extent where you are distracted and not present for your child who is seeking your attention). And I know that many other moms feel tempted too but somehow plan outings and activities for each day, teach their kids, etc., but I just know myself, and I would grow weary and would be unhappy, impatient, and lazy, which would impact my kids more. In any case, I do find Prof. Corey’s thoughts interesting and yet her own life as a professional seems to contradict some of her statements that veer toward one extreme.

    I am still struggling to find a balance, that’s for sure, and obviously no one is saying there is a secret formula out there, but I find it hard to say that all women should stay at home if it is in their financial means or that all women should work hard to reach more visible positions of power. And my heart goes out to those talented women who feel their place is in these time-consuming, high-powered positions but also wish to raise their families and to be there for them. It is a rough position to be in and cutting back hours or working more from home to spend time with your kids, no matter the environment of the place of employment, changes your progression up the ranks. Or at least from what I have seen first-hand that has been the case.

  • This was a very interesting article. I think I disagree with the whole “cultivation of self” concept that she seems to think so important to professional development.

    At the heart of the Christian life is service of God and others. Gift of self is the very basic goal of our lives as Christians. Now, we are all called to serve in different ways, and our gender plays an important role in that. But the moment when we start to see “professional development” in work outside the home as a development of self, rather than development of skills for service, there is a problem. As she points out, I think it is the achievement culture that is the issue here. I think this individualistic view of work and achievement is at the heart of many modern problems. I see this in myself in my vocation as a stay-at-home mother, there is always a temptation to try to achieve, rather than to give. This tension exists even more profoundly in careers outside the home, and the work often rewards seeking the wrong ends for our work, so it is quite the challenge.

    And that is where we have to think about sanctifying our work, regardless of how glamorous it is, or whether it is inside or outside of the home. Our work is for God. We give our best and empty ourselves for God. Not for glamour or for achievement. This is universal to both home and work life. The tension modern women (and men) feel in this regard is because the world does not view work in the same way as a Christian should.

    Work is not about development of self, although developing certain skills is an essential component of good work. Work is really about serving others and God with your skills. For men this often means taking a less glamorous or interesting job to serve their families better w/r/t finances or travel or time. Or working very long hours when a father would rather be doing something else, because the end goal is serving the family. When a man starts to see his career in light of self development or self-cultivation, and not service, he has crossed a line and is not fulfilling his vocation properly. Same for women. So I think the tension is really about working hard for God, which will often require development of certain individuals skills, and working hard for yourself. And so, regardless of the nature of our work (at home or outside of it), we must constantly be conversing with God about this topic, and making sure our hearts are set on the right path and our goals are His goals, not our own.

  • MaryAlice,

    I just want to say that I really appreciate this comment and I often feel very much the same way. You have always “preached” excellence in the home, excellence not for achievement but for God. And I think that is my main problem with this article. Excellence in the home, excellence in our vocation, whatever it is, is important, and our work is good and holy, provided we offer it to God each and every day. I think the tension between “nurture” and “excellence” that she describes isn’t really the real source of tension. The tension is worldly goals vs. service of God.

    I still struggle very much with pursing excellence with the end goal of service, rather than worldly achievements. And I think I would struggle with this whether I was a high powered attorney or a stay-at-home mother. I think we can sometimes wrongly point to our career choice as the source of this tension, when really the tension is about dying to ourselves, dying to our desires for worldly praise and power, and simply serving God with our talents. The tension is not limited to women and their work choices, it is a very universal struggle of the Christian vocation.

  • buildingcathedralstexasmommy

    AWOL, this is stellar, thought provoking stuff. Great post and great comments!

  • AWOL Mommy

    K. — Very true. When I tried to discuss this article with my husband he had a similar frustration with the false tension in the article (being linked to our choice to stay at home or go out and work). He pointed out that everyone has to die to self in order to be a better parent.

  • AWOL_Mommy

    FYW, thanks for taking the time to respond here, I hope your new career is so rewarding.

  • AWOL_Mommy

    Gosh, I hope to arrive at this “happy place” soon. I am going to take away some of your advice about a religious retreat or simply more individual time, I think I let myself get quite buried, which makes a day away in an Army uniform even look tantalizing. You have inspired me to make more peace with all that is required of motherly excellence. We are sooo different, please always be my friend.

  • Little lobo

    I totally agree. I have been both stay-at-home mom and professional mom — and did both pretty well, I think. I do feel more fulfilled as “professional” mom, just because I love what I do. And my son loves to come to my office and thinks it’s “cool” to have a job. There are benefits to kids seeing mom work…

  • Lea Singh

    Very good post. I have been doing the same kind of pondering over Elizabeth Corey’s article, which has framed the debate in an entirely new way. Her unique insights have illuminated my internal tensions in a way that I can’t shake off, and I suspect her article will be required reading in the mommy-work debate for quite a while. As an Ivy-educated lawyer-turned-mom, I still digest many of these questions on a daily basis, and also sprinkle them with Catholic seasoning. Thanks for sharing your own thoughts on this – you are not alone!

  • Bev Wafford Morris

    Though I was very good at my career and never thought I’d quit to be a mom, I love and adore motherhood. Being a homeschooling mom just allows me to focus the gifts that I used outside my home on the inside of my home. It is the most fulfilling job I have every had.

    My best advice of all moms struggling with the decision would be to let go of what you want for yourself and to let God guide you. You might not think what He wants is fulfilling, especially if He wants you to do the opposite of what you want (I have friends who are forced to work, even though they’d much rather stay home and be moms and friends who are in the opposite situation), but His path will lead you to contentment.