Can a woman have it all? A successful career? A flourishing family? A happy marriage?
Not according to Elizabeth Corey. In her First Things contribution to the ongoing cultural debate over whether women need to lean in, opt out, or try to find a balance between the two, Corey says what almost no one else will: No amount of family-friendly work policies or flex hours will ever allow women to “have it all.”
“I know from personal experience that this conflict in the soul does not go away, no matter how pleasant and accommodating our colleagues may be, or how flexible our schedules. We are limited, embodied creatures. These limits mean that we cannot do everything to its fullest extent at once, and certain things we may not be able to do at all. The tragic aspect of this is that both excellence and nurture are real, vital goods and that the full pursuit of one often, and perhaps inevitably, forecloses fully pursuing the other.”
Why am I writing about this? After all, I don’t have a dog in this fight. I’m a single, childless, professional woman. I’m not agonizing over where I should be or what I should be doing. Life has made that choice for me.
Still, the conversation interests me. Perhaps because someday it might become relevant to my life. Perhaps because it’s already so relevant to my friends’ lives.
Regardless, I’m weighing in because standing at a distance you sometimes see things those in the midst of the dilemma can’t see.
And what do I see?
I see that being a stay-at-home mom is hard. So is being a working mom. Both come with challenges, and both require sacrifices. This isn’t Eden, so wherever you find yourself, you will also find a cross. That cross might come in the form of difficult children, tight finances, social isolation, and regrets over not being able to use your intellectual talents to the fullest. Or it might come in the form of a more chaotic home life, weakened family bonds, nagging guilt, or worse. But a cross will come, weighing heavier on some than others.
In her First Things article, Corey doesn’t tell women which cross is better. She recognizes staying at home isn’t an option for some women. She also recognizes that other women have authentic vocations to certain professional spheres. She leaves it to women to choose their own cross.
I don’t disagree with that. At the same time, I also don’t completely understand the allure that professional success has for so many women, mothers especially.
From my distant vantage point, on the sidelines of this cultural moment, I see the emptiness of so much of what the world calls success. And I see the fullness of so much of what the world calls a waste of brains and talents.
Perhaps I see it so clearly because of what I have and also what I lack.
Personally speaking, by almost any account, I’m a professionally successful woman. My second book under my own name is coming out Tuesday. I’ve written eight more under other people’s names. I’ve spent the better part of the last decade profiting as a Catholic freelance writer, something relatively few people manage to do. Yesterday I filmed my seventh EWTN show in less than a year. And next week I’ll be speaking in front of hundreds of people at the National Catholic Singles Conference.
Moreover, as far as jobs go, I’ve got a pretty darned good one. I work from home. I travel the world. And everyday, I get to write about Jesus Christ and his Church, the two greatest loves of my life.
But you know what? It’s still not enough.
I look at what my friends raising children are doing—staying up all night, refereeing temper tantrums and sibling quarrels, consoling hormonal teenagers, and doing it all while covered in every bodily fluid imaginable. Then, I look at what I’m doing—writing and speaking and traveling. And for the life of me, I can’t figure out why anyone would choose my life over theirs.
A hundred years from now, no one will remember a word I’ve written. All my ephemeral thoughts and musings will have passed on with me—long before me most likely. No one will remember my name. No stories will be told about me. My blue eyes won’t be staring out of some great-grandchild’s face. All that I’ve accomplished: the honors, the awards, the Facebook likes—they’ll amount to nothing.
But the souls of the children my friends are raising? They’ll live on. They’ll live on for an eternity. So will the souls of their children and their children after them. And my friends will have had a hand in that. They’ll have helped shape the souls of their children and (God willing) their grandchildren. They’ll have loved those souls, taught those souls, and hopefully helped point those souls in the direction of Christ, ensuring that their eternity is a happy eternity.
None of this is to say that I think my work is meaningless. I know it has its moments of fleeting importance in the lives of others. I also know it’s of great importance to the shape my own soul is taking. God has called me to this work for now, and he is using it and using it well to do a good work in me. I’m a better woman for the opportunities he’s given me, and I am grateful for them.
Nor am I trying to say that the work other women (and men) do outside the home is meaningless. I know there is important work that needs doing in the world and that good people are doing it. People are teaching little ones and helping orphans, caring for the sick, sitting with the dying, feeding the hungry, creating jobs for hardworking men and women, and being voices for the voiceless in the public square.
All that work matters. Some of it matters a great deal. But does any of it matter more than the work of raising a child? If it does, I can’t see how.
Now does that mean that I think every mother needs to be a full-time, stay-at-home mom? No. That’s not even realistic in today’s economy.
Does it mean I think every woman is called to the home? Called to be a wife and mother? Again, no. God calls some women to the convent, others to the mission field, some women to the workforce, others to the home.
He also calls women to different places at different times. Children aren’t little forever. They grow up. They go to school. They leave. There are seasons for children, and there are seasons for their mothers. A decision made for one year doesn’t have to be a decision made for 40 years.
Ultimately, like Corey, I think every woman has to decide for herself where she’s called and how she can best find the balance between her personal and professional life. I also know plenty of women who firmly believe they’re better mothers for the time they spend at their professional work. I take (most of) them at their word.
But I do think women are fooling themselves if they think the work they do outside the home matters more than the work they do inside the home. As someone (Chesterton maybe) once said, in the professional world everyone is replaceable. You may think you’re not, but you are. Somewhere out there is another person who can do your job just as well as you. But in the home, a woman is irreplaceable. No one else can be a mother to her child like she can. No one else can know and love her child like she does.
Being a mother isn’t glamorous. It’s not always fun. It doesn’t come with awards and accolades and hefty checks. But weigh the soul of one child against all the promotions, fancy titles, exotic trips, and professional commendations you can imagine, and the scale tips decidedly in only one direction.
Mothers, take it from me, whether you realize it or not, you already have it all.