Author: Shireen Chaya-Mahdi
It was three am and I was awake for the umpteenth time that night, nursing my newborn daughter while my toddler slept soundly in the next room. Having had less than six hours of sleep in two days, I hungrily read a book that promised women that if they just leaned in, if they were just a little more assertive, then they would be able to “have it all”. I raced to the final chapter as though the last pages would put to rest the question that I, and millions of women like me, have asked themselves: “Can we have it all?”
The pursuit of this “all” is etched into a woman’s world view from the moment she is asked in first grade how she planned to be a president, astronaut, princess and mommy at the same time. As she strolls down the toy aisle losing herself in an ocean of pink house appliances and full-busted “career” Barbies dressed in short, tight, and absurd interpretations of various uniforms, she is told of her options: you may work but only if you look “cute” while doing so.
And when she is too old to play, real life sets in and she finds herself choosing university majors, careers, where to live, how and with whom, leaving plenty of room for a future partner and a couple of children with an imaginary time line that warns of impending doom the closer she is to her thirties, building up to full-scale terror as she approaches her late thirties husbandless, childless, or both. But this is an alternate story. Even if she sails on a cloud of lace and taffeta soon to be followed by the adoration surrounding her growing belly, she is still unable to rest for she is then asked whether she finds fulfilment in being a “stay at home” or a “working” mother, with menacing eyes waiting to condemn her whatever the answer may be. And from there we arrive at the original question: “can she have it all?”
At the time, I certainly did not feel like I could have anything let alone “all”. At 27, with two children under the age of three, I had spent the better part of the last four years producing and feeding little humans with hands deeply buried in daipers – the contents of which seemed to mirror my life; everything stank.
During those long nights, when I exhausted every possible rendition of “hush little baby” (in three languages), my mind would take me to a time when I was in university. At the top of my class and the proud protégé of several mentors who predicted I would rise up the ranks of academia with a red carpet waiting everywhere I went. The mentor closest to my heart looked at my wedding invitation, took off his glasses, and after a long silence said: “Don’t do it. If you have children before you start your career, you will never recover. You are too talented to be wasted like this”. And during those nights, when I reeked of sour milk and yesterday’s lunch, I wondered if he was right.
With every magazine I read, TV interview I watched, inspirational talk I heard, and each real woman I met, I was able to deduce what this “all” referred to: the magical ability to have a fulfilling career, joyful home with perfectly groomed and impeccably behaved children, a doting husband, and when possible a single-digit body size. I still felt the dichotomy between two distinct lives sharpening its grip. I felt myself ready to lean in, out, and sideways if that’s what it took to finally get my moment of awakening. But soon enough, I became painfully aware that I remained without answers. Before I could come to terms with my disappointment, I opened my eyes to my husband’s voice and that’s when I realized that the answer was right next to me all along. In fact, I was married to it. There was my husband – clean-shaven, brimming with the energy that comes from eight hours of sleep, and ready to go off to a full day’s work [perhaps with a bit of socializing before he came home to a wife and children excited to see him]. And for that, he is a good husband and father. Is this not what “having it all” looks like?
And then it dawned on me. The question “can women have it all” is inherently flawed. People ask my husband how he is doing at work, while they ask me how it is being a wife and mother. This is the fundamental difference – between doing and being. A history too long and convoluted has brought us to a world where a state of being, a fundamental identity, has become synonymous with a chosen state of “doing”. I am a mother. I am also a daughter, and a sister, and a granddaughter. It is who I am. My husband and I both became parents and yet his role as a father is given but mine is a choice of “work” available only to me to the exclusion of my husband. Yet we both entered the state of “parenthood” together.
Ah, parenthood! The essential difference between doing and being. Parenting is the endless love and dedication that is poured into the minds and hearts of children so that they would grow into fulfilled adults capable of positively contributing to the world. Being a parent comes from a sacred place at our very core, far from the confines of social conceptions of gender and certainly too noble to be anywhere near our definition of “work”.
So if this is parenting then what is it that is exclusively a “woman’s work”? The night feeding, the diaper changes, laundry, cooking, cleaning, driving back and forth to school and extra curricular activities and endless to-do lists that take up every bit of time and energy. I am yet to find out how my special woman/mom powers will make these any less difficult, more fulfilling, and utterly beyond my husband’s capabilities. And if I am not mistaken, these “tasks” are part of everyone’s less glamorous right of passage into adulthood.
What about the special things that only a mother knows about her children? How they like their fruit cut, how they need to be cleaned up after a day at the park, or how they like to be comforted after a nasty fall? Well, those come with time. I certainly didn’t know any of these things when I took my first steps into the uncharted territory of motherhood. You’d be surprised to know how well fathers quickly pick up on these things when given the chance. How they, too, figure out a special way to keep the kids safe, clean, and loved beyond words. It is time we give fatherhood a chance. It is time we stop telling them they lost the biological lottery that would allow them to do all those things and more. It is time we stop limiting ‘the ability to commit to unconditionally loving human beings’ to a chromosome. Let us not tell fathers that having the wrong chromosome means providing the material things of life are all they are capable of. Let us not ask women “Can you have it all?” and instead ask both men and women “How would you like to define the terms of your lives?”. Let us collectively ask how we can create a world in which people are empowered to “be” in as many ways as they can while also “doing” that which fulfils the yearning in their souls. Is there a better lesson that we could teach our children?