Any parent who is honest will tell you that you live with that ambivalence. You just have it! You look at the face of your beautiful, lovely child and you think two things at the exact same time: I love this kid so much that it’s changed my whole life. I love other people more because of how much I love her.… She’s completely given value to life that didn’t exist before, and I regret every decision that led to her birth.
Louis CK in Louis, Season 2, Episode 1 (via johndeguzman)
A true dilemma is a choice between two mutually compatible and equally desirable ends.
Professor Michael Brint, via my memory circa 1991
The more options there are, the easier it is to regret anything at all that is disappointing about the option that you chose.
In part spurred by Elisabeth Badinter’s simplistic brutality about the choices women make, I’ve been thinking a lot lately about parental ambivalence, the place of choice in parent’s lives, and the challenge of achieving a rough balance between the demands of work and home.
Maya is 19 months and, right on track, is dealing with a bout of separation anxiety. She has begun to identify and need the people around her with more specificity and direction than before, and transitions – going to bed, leaving for work – must be handled with a tedious slowness and gentle series of stages to avoid upset. Time feels both stretched out, and highly limited, both marked with utter precision in days, weeks, months, and as though its strangely slipping by me, faster than I could possibly reach to catch it with both hands.
Maya’s insistence on attention, however long it persists, also poses the question to me daily in a newly acute way about why I choose to work, and to leave her in the care of relative strangers. I question both my absence during this highly compacted developmental time, in which each week brings new skills and discoveries, and the inescapable risks associated with having someone else care for her, however caring they may be. I miss her terribly during the day, and ponder what new phrase or hilariously goofy new dance move I may be missing, too.
Yet at the end of a long weekend, I relish the idea to going to work with an almost-giddy mix of relief and excitement. I enjoy the rigor of working, and the attempt to make things happen in the world. Even small things accomplish my own pleasant transition – wearing nicer clothes, having lunch in a restaurant. I join a world in which I can complete my thoughts, or even, sentences, and in which I am listened to, at least some of the time. What freedom and luxury it seems after three days at home, running around after a defiant toddler.
So I don’t actively regret my choice to work. But it still isn’t the life of fulfillment I envisioned, either, when I was sold the bill of goods that I could “have it all.” Exactly who peddled that promise is hard to say – some mythic emissary that conveyed the idealistic excesses of growing up in the 1970s, when women were entering the workforce in badly tailored man-suits? Perhaps it was Free to Be, You and Me, when the princess Atalanta chooses to travel the world, not needing her fair-minded suitor? Or that Enjoli commercial I can still hum the tune to – you know, the one that goes, “I can bring home the bacon…”
The notion was, you can be with a partner or not, work or not, be sexy and economically powerful, or – well, about that one it was clear that working and economic independence was the more aspirational choice, at least in my own emotional history. (I never considered not working with any seriousness, until perhaps this very moment.) And the promise was that our ability, as liberated women-worker-warriors, to make these decisions for ourselves would set us free to lead a life of economic empowerment sans regrets.
Of course, it’s indisputably true that many of the financial and economic supports for families that would make these real choices have never been put into place, particularly in the U.S., as I point out here. But it’s also clearly the case that women my age – based on detailed research among my embarrassingly few current friends – feel let down, and that it’s not entirely, or even mostly, about the financial penalties for working families.
A world of choices also, as Barry Schwarz points out forcefully, means a world beset by known opportunity costs. Sure, we make our decisions, but we remain painfully aware of their downsides. And the particular costs shift over time, as our child’s needs for attention and our focus also shift, making them hard to measure, and even, some days, practically immeasurable.
In the comments to this article on the Rosen-Romney baloney, for just one example, or one this week from Dahlia Lithwick and Jan Rodak, moms (and a few dads) defend their choices as the right ones for them and their families. And I certainly believe them, both the working moms and stay-at-home dads alike. Which is more than many of the uncharitable other commenters could say.
I wonder if all the finger-pointing at the other people, over there, who made or are making a different choice, would lessen if we acknowledged that, in our relatively new experiment in trying to maintain a double-income middle class, most of the available choices are actually so painful and difficult that at times, even those with certainty about making the right ones are nonetheless agonized by them.
Having a child you love more than anything is hard enough, as Louis CK makes clear. Balancing all of this judgment on top of that enormous undertaking should be enough to give anyone pause.
And lest I be misunderstood, I am not asking for a world with fewer hard choices – read: opportunities – for women, or for anyone else. We are better for throwing off the constraints, which is perhaps why women don’t complain about this more. It seems ungrateful, somehow, given all the sacrifices that were made to achieve the gains in women’s ability to work, to be taken seriously, and to construct our lives.
But we also have a long way to go for true equality. And it strikes me that we can’t get there if we pretend that all of this is easy, and that the choices we’re making are among a wide range of peachy options. For me at least – and anyone who wants to join me – I’d like to drop the pretense that my mere decision to make the choices I have means I have to like them, all of the time. The truth is, I make them and regret them, sometimes even at the same moment.
So: less stridency, more poignancy; less moral high ground, more candor on the playground? It just seems to me the Mommy Wars are too important to fight them with each other.