It all started with "Lululemon girl," a nickname I gave to a neighborhood mom several months ago. She is blond, tan, long and lean, with great sunglasses, and a European stroller. She power walks every morning down the street near my house and is always in head-to-toe, perfectly coordinated, Lululemon workout outfits. She looks young, energetic, and happy in a bubbly, cheerleader sort of way.
I first spotted her on a particularly stressful morning. I was running late to work after a night of sleep interrupted several times by my 2 year-old calling for "mamma." As I got into the car, my mind was racing about the trial I was about to start, domestic to-do's, how I would solve the daily dinner crisis (Trader Joe's frozen pizza?), and whether I'd make it home in time to take my daughter to swim class. As I pulled out of the driveway I noticed I had no gas and had forgotten my lunch (again!). Ugh!
As she power-walked through the cross-walk in front of me, I found myself wishing that I could trade places with her. How easy her life looked in that moment - casually pushing an infant on an 8:15 a.m. morning walk. Clearly she didn't have a traditional 9 to 5, didn't wear a suit to work every day, wasn't up late at night preparing closing arguments or scrambling to make child-care arrangements. I also assumed (because I have a vivid imagination when I'm in self-pity mode) she went home to her gorgeous 4,000 square foot home where she would prepare a juicer-made breakfast, go to her private pilates session, run some errands, and spend a few hours at the beach with her daughter, before coming home to whip up dinner, courtesy of Ina's latest cookbook.
How wonderful would it be if the most pressing question on my daily agenda was "What shall we do today?" Beach? Maybe Pretend City? How about the Discovery Museum? By the time I got to the freeway, my feelings had evolved - from being envious of her, to feeling sorry for myself. Why did life have to be so hard? Why couldn't I be fancy-free like Lululemon girl? Maybe this whole career thing was totally overrated. Oh, poor me. Poor, poor me.
Later that week, I happened to squeeze in a late-night episode of The Conversation, in which Mrs. de Cadenet interviewed Leslie Bennetts, a contributing writer to Vanity Fair and the woman tasked with interviewing just about every A-list celebrity on VF's cover. She was talking about balancing work and career, and about how she felt it vitally important to continue to work, pursue her dreams, and retain her financial viability, even after she had children and a husband. She also mentioned she had written a book called "The Feminine Mistake," which questioned whether us moms were giving up too much by catapulting our careers in the name of family. Her book was in my Amazon cart within the hour and on my doorstep two days later.
The verdict: while Bennett is a persistent and unwavering advocate of the working-moms of the world and often makes her case by chronicling numerous stories of stay-at-home moms who, faced with divorce, death, or financial crisis, ended up in some pretty tragic situations, the book contains insightful food for thought, whether you are climbing the corporate ladder or staying home with the kids. She references numerous studies and surveys relating to women in the workplace, from Harvard MBA's (of the women from the classes of '81, '86 and '91 who had children, only 38% were working full-time), to research that determined children with working mothers are just as successful scholastically as those kids whose moms stay home. She re-tells her conversations with former attorneys, executives and businesswomen, all who gave up their careers to stay-at-home and many of whom now regret it. What I found most valuable in her message was an encouraging voice that while it will often be tough, sometimes challenging and occasionally overwhelming, there are millions of women juggling work and family, and doing it with grace, style and a determination to succeed. While I may have been feeling like the only mom in my neighborhood heading out the door at 7:30 a.m. with coffee and briefcase in hand, Bennett's book was a poignant reminder that I'm not on an island here and that I should feel fortunate to have a career I love and a husband who is supportive of my professional pursuits. 10 pages in, my "woe-is-me" moment was history.
Just as I finished Bennetts' book, the conversation about working-moms got heated last month when The Atlantic published an article by a former U.S. State Department director entitled "Why Women Still Can't Have It All." If you haven't read it, I highly recommend that you do. While I can identify with many of the challenges that come with balancing work and family, I disagree with her ultimate conclusion that we can't have it all. I think the question is: what does having it all look like?
Making the decision to have a family and a full-time career is hard and without question requires sacrifice, both professionally and personally. However, I think it is up to us to decide what "having it all" looks like, and then go after it with everything we've got. Do I love being a working mom? Not always. And as long as Lululemon girl keeps going on her walks, I will still have moments that I wish we could trade places. But there are many more good days than bad and the lingering summer sunshine means I can get home from work, take my daughter to the park, cook a great dinner, eat alfresco in the backyard, and maybe throw in a load of laundry, all before she goes to bed. And for me, at this moment, that is what "having it all" looks like.
What do you think? Was your choice to work or stay-home an easy one? What does having it all look like to you?