To professional women who derive an important part of their identity from their work, the whole concept of “having it all” often seems ludicrous, because it is assumed to have relevance only to females. Nobody ever talks about men “having it all” just because they’ve managed to sire children and hold down a paying job. The phrase also seemed to imply that there was a formula for a successful life and that feminists had figured it out. But every woman’s interests, ambitions, and personality are different, and any solution to the challenge of combining work and family is necessarily individual.
Marna Tucker, a senior partner at the Washington law firm of Feldesman Tucker Leifer Fidell, has enjoyed a long and distinguished career, raising two children while becoming the first woman president of the District of Columbia bar and the first woman president of the National Conference of Bar Presidents. “I went back to work because I didn’t like the idea of making raisin faces in the oatmeal,” Tucker says. “I loved practicing law.”
Like most working mothers, she doesn’t claim that the juggling act was always easy. “I came home early, and I tried to be home every night, and I had the best help you could have, but I felt guilty all the time,” she says. “My daughter is 30 now, and I finally had the courage to ask her, ‘Were you upset that your mother went to work all the time?’ My daughter said, ‘Well, when I was eight or nine and I went over to Kate’s house, her mother would be there baking cookies, and I would think “Gee, I wish my mom were home baking cookies!” When we were 13 or 14, Kate’s mother was still baking cookies, and we were thinking, “God, I wish she would get away from us!”’”
Tucker laughs. “So the answer is, things change, and there is no answer. I’m not a superwoman. If I do anything, I get a B-plus. I didn’t set my goals to be the perfect mother or the perfect lawyer. I had a brain, and I wanted to use it.”
Tucker’s matter-of-fact acceptance of the idea that she’s not perfect provides a striking contrast with the attitude of the Yale sophomore featured in the New York Times story about young women planning to give up their careers in favor of their families [“Many Women at Elite Colleges Set Career Path to Motherhood,” September 20, 2005]. Cynthia Liu said she believes that she couldn’t be “the best career woman and the best mother at the same time,” and that she therefore has to choose between those goals.
Those of us who have maintained a long-term commitment to both work and family have resigned ourselves to the reality that we may not be the best, but most of the time we’re good enoughand that’s fine. “I’m good enough” isn’t the kind of slogan you want to emblazon on a billboard, however; the payoff is more like a quiet pride that usually remains unspoken.
And maybe this is the real problem. As we watch younger women rejecting the quest for a fully rounded adult life in favor of a portion of the whole, many of us wonder whether we ourselves might be partly to blame. Perhaps younger women don’t understand the appeal of combining work and family because we failed to tell them how great it can be.
Have I really communicated to my children how thrilling my professional life has been? How much of my identity and my self-esteem are derived from utilizing my talents and achieving success in my career? More likely, I downplayed the exhilaration of my independent life in order to reassure my daughter and son that they were always my first priority. And they arebut they aren’t my whole life.
I’ve been a journalist far longer than I’ve been a mother, and the larger truth is that I have always loved what I do. Because of my work, I have met kings and queens and presidents, movie stars and Olympic gold-medal athletes, murderers and con artists, Nobel Prizewinners and supermodels, pedophile priests and transsexual former nunsas well as thousands of ordinary people with amazing stories to tell. After 36 years as a journalist, I never know, when I get up in the morning, what the day will bring. At a moment’s notice, I may be asked to fly to Paris or Prague, to Napa or Nairobi.
Most of the time, however, I’m at home. When the kids return from school, I’m working in my office next to the kitchen, eager to take a break and hear about their day as I start to prepare our evening meal. I have always cooked dinner for my family, and most nights the four of us sit down to eat together.
Certainly there have been moments when I felt overwhelmed, exhausted, or simply torn between competing demands. Once, when my children were small, I went to the airport to catch a flight to London, feeling very pleased with myself because I’d organized everything so meticulously on the home front. Every breakfast, lunch, and dinner the children would eat while I was away had been planned, cooked, and labeled. (Yes, I’m compulsive.) Every appointment was carefully charted on the family calendar. Every last detail had been taken care of, so my baby-sitter and husband could manage the children’s lives without a hitch in my absence. As I stepped up to the ticket counter at the airport, I felt exceedingly smug about being such a superwoman.
“Your passport, please,” said the clerk. Experienced world traveler that I was, I stared at her blankly. My passport? I had remembered to leave my husband detailed notes on every muffin to be defrosted while I was awaybut I’d forgotten my passport.
So much for superwoman. My heart pounding, I called my baby-sitter in a panic and counted the minutes until she and my children careened into the airport in a taxi, laughing and waving my passport at me.
In retrospect, however, those moments of stress make me smile rather than shudder. Quite apart from the loss of income, my life would be impoverished in innumerable ways were I to give up my career. How could I ever regret the amazing opportunities it’s given me?
But that’s not all. Long before I ever made it to Lahore or Amman or Dubai on assignment, my career had completely transformed my personality. As a child growing up in Manhattan and then in suburban Westchester County, I was shy and self-conscious, paralyzed with stage fright whenever I had to talk to more than one person at a time. As a teenager, I remember sitting on a train, utterly frozen, while the man next to me furtively rubbed his hand along the outside of my thigh. After what seemed an eternity of shame, I finally managed to squeak out a quavering, apologetic, “Excuse me...”hardly an adequate protest, but enough to make him jump up and flee into the next car of the train.
When I became a reporter, I seemed hopelessly unsuited to the tasks at hand. At the first press conference I ever attended, I was racked with self-doubt; whenever I thought of a question to ask, I tortured myself with imagined criticisms. Few people who know me today would recognize this self-description. After more than three decades as a journalist, I am generally seen as confident and assertivenot to mention tough and aggressive at times. The demands of my work have transformed me into someone else entirelysomeone far better suited to cope with the rigors of life than the wimpy girl I used to be, I might add. >>
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©2007 The Pennsylvania Gazette
Last modified 4/28/07