“Can we have it all?” is the wrong question

Many years ago, I met an enchanting woman. Mamoo was in her 80s, with white hair, a face full of wrinkles and a figure that could envelope several grandchildren at once. Her expansive home with a beautiful chapel on the Chesapeake Bay was a crossroads for her sprawling family, people on retreat, and various hangers-on (like myself) who just couldn’t get enough of Mamoo. Her laugh was infectious. And despite her years, she seemed so childlike and fun.

While Mamoo had lost all of what had been her physical charms, she had an effervescent beauty that all who knew her wanted to be around and soak up. Mamoo’s wisdom, it was clear from her life well lived, was not from agonizing over if she “had it all.”

It is difficult to find wise women like Mamoo anymore: women who can draw the best out of anyone; who anticipate the needs of others; who are gracious and warm and funny and fun, but without the slightest bit of self-absorption; women who live in deep gratitude for their many blessings.

The role models of older women held up by the world, if they are represented at all, are either a) seem to be striving for distortions of masculine virtues (Think Nancy Pelosi, Hillary Clinton), b) are grasping for eternal youth through plastic surgery (Think Nancy Pelosi, Jane Fonda, Barbara Walters), or c) are taking some odd form of female Viagra (Think “The Golden Girls). None of these embody authentic wisdom and femininity.

And while I agree with my colleague, Emily Stimpson, that having children really is the better portion (I was single until 35), there are clearly many, many women who don’t see it as having it all. Many of these women have spent years dreaming of it and expect marriage and children to be a panacea, having made an idol out of it. Others view their children as another product to acquire and don’t appreciate the strain it puts on their “regular” life. Both sets of women live with a cauldron of wants and desires that cannot be fulfilled because of their own disordered expectations. (This is to say nothing about disease, unemployment, and other difficulties that invariably creep into life.)

While infighting continues among women about having-it-all (all that leaning in and leaning out and the like), the largely missed question is “What kind of woman do I want to become?” or “What can I do to develop my character, grow in virtue, and become a woman of stunning beauty, even after 80?” The debate is so fixated on the material and immediate aspects of life that the question of long-term character doesn’t seem to make it to the table. (Evidence that this debate is ill-founded is that the nuns have yet to chime in. Imagine “You think you have it bad – we can’t even leave our cloister!!! We can’t have kids!!! And have you seen our outfits? Same thing. EVERYDAY.)

So when asking if we really have it all, we (and I’m not immune to this) are channeling our inner Veruca Salt, stamping her foot inside our souls, screaming “I WANT MORE!!!” and “I WANT IT NOW!!!”

But what good guardian of the soul gives in to such antics? It is a daily effort to keep Veruca quiet, I know. But if we are living our lives vocationally, and trying to follow God’s will and Christ’s example, the real model is a life of pouring ourselves out for others. This is the only way to acquire a character so charming it spills beyond the wrinkles on our face – creating a visage more beautiful than any cosmetic or plastic surgery ever could (Think Mother Teresa).

The premise of our complaints, whether married or single, mother or not, is usually “pouring myself out is hard.” Precisely. The hard is not mere masochism, but where we stretch our virtues, find our limits, realize our smallness, and grapple with patience. It in the midst of the daily struggles and storms that we learn our weakness and we truly learn to pray.

This self-pouring also is the only way to make sense of and give meaning to life’s difficulties. Our culture constantly insists on taking the easiest road possible, and we have countless resources to make life comfortable. But what is there in life that is worth doing that doesn’t require focus, effort, and dedication?

Following Aristotle and St. Thomas Aquinas, we can’t acquire a virtuous character until we have in mind the end we are trying to achieve. But character cannot be honed by staring at it, raptly attentive to ourselves. The self is only truly found in relationship to others, by getting outside of ourselves and meeting the needs of others. This is why motherhood can be such a school for sanctification: the pouring-out of one’s self cannot be avoided if your doing it right. And also why the single life can be so difficult. Instead of meeting the needs of others, it is easy to become too focused on our own needs, wants, and desires (and why they are not being met).

Role models are another necessity – we need women who have already trod the path to give us goal to shoot for. We need more Mamoos. Meanwhile, future generations are also counting on us to show them that there is more to growing older than botox, nips and tucks, and “me time.”

Rather than asking if we have it all, the real question should be “Are we giving it all?” Only when we can say “yes” to that question can our true happiness be found.

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