Who Really Has It All?

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.”

She writes:

“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.

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Categories:Culture

16 thoughts on “Who Really Has It All?

  1. Deanna says:

    I started tearing up after reading this. I really appreciate your words. I am a young stay-at-home mother of two under two! My life is filled with tantrums and spilled milk and bodily fluids on my shirt. ;-) My husband works extremely hard and is a loving, attentive father and husband. We definitely don’t put much into saving and that is a struggle. I absolutely love my “job” but sometimes the lack of finances and other childless women my age (26) make me feel less than important or special. My generation is very into the “feminist movement” which is hardly feminist at all. Anyway, I struggle often with this issue. To work or stay at home. I love staying at home. I mean I LOVE IT! I play with my kids, they are ridiculously attached to me, we make memories, I am 100% in control of what they are taught and influenced by and I get the pleasure of watching them grow every day. But I wonder if I am out of touch with the world by not working. I also worry about providing for college and other things my husband and I think are important. In the end I always come back to staying at home for various reasons but this article helped me feel better about our choices. Thank you. :-) Every mother wants the best for their children, we just don’t always know what that is.

  2. Drew says:

    Dear Emily,

    I love reading you. You’re honest and just put it ‘out there.’ No hiding what you think.

    I agree, this issue is so important. One we’ve got to get right. There’s lots of women out there thoroughly baffled by the mixed messaged their getting from society and from their bodies.

    Your assessment of the dilemma seems to come across as minimizing three huge things pertaining, though not exclusively, to the ‘feminine genius’: 1) virginity or celibacy for the sake of the kingdom of God; 2) the vocation of the laity to sanctify the temporal order by means of professional work; 3) spiritual maternity/paternity. Lacking these leaves your final endorsement/congratulation of motherhood ringing a little hollow.

    Interestingly, early on, you tout that your ‘not having a horse in the race’ allows you to stand above the fray and discern with objectivity. But by the end you seem to hem and haw. You seem to get bogged down ‘in the weeds’ and finally toss it up to ‘decide for yourself.’

    Why not sing the great praises of motherhood (a la Pius XI in Casti Connubi 15, etc) and the even greater praises of virginity or celibacy (a la JP2 in FC 16) and the universal call of the laity to sanctify the material world (a la Lumen Gentium 35)? It casts so many of these most important aspects of life that women deal with—even the great sacrifices—in a positive light.

    Respectfully submitted,

    Drew

    1. Thanks for the comments, Drew. Mostly I don’t talk about those things because I didn’t want to. :-) Seriously, that’s a different article. I wanted to just focus on women who are called to be mothers and the value they assign to that work and work outside the home. Spiritual motherhood, virginity, etc., of course, relates to that, but you can’t do everything in one piece. One thing at a time.

  3. TLC says:

    I’m with Catie (after all, I’m Katie:): Emily, you make some excellent points, and I do see where you are coming from. But coming from my own situation of stay-at-home mom… You are being used uniquely in the shaping of souls too, and what you have inspired and taught will live on in word, taught to the third and forth generation. My great great grandkid may have my genes, but we are both likely to have been personally forgotten at that point. It can be just as difficult in the world of spills and smells that comprises the daily task of motherhood to remember that I am shaping souls as it is for a single professional to realize the impact that they have, as well.

    Also, many, many people have not been properly “mothered” by their biological parent. Emily, in your work, you _do_ mother, using your intelligent, female perspective and nurturing spirit.

    We are both working together in mothering the world, you and I, single ladies and biological mothers. There is much for all of us to do on that score.

    While I mourn the use of my own brain and talents (often feels like the very loss of self), as you mourn your current lack of kids to raise… both of our roles are vital in the Lord’s work in the world. We are, indeed, His hands and feet. Thank you for doing fulfilling your important role so very well.

  4. ML says:

    It’s not really about passing the color of our eyes to our grandchildren that matters, but rather, passing on the knowledge of Christ and the Faith. More important is whether we share a oneness with Christ–are our grandchildren Baptized, can they receive Our Lord in Holy Communion, and if not, what went wrong? You shouldn’t take your work as a single woman too lightly. You, too, have the ability of passing this opportunity for oneness with Christ on to so many others. That’s what really matters.

  5. Margaret says:

    God bless you Emily! I love reading your thoughts here :)
    And thanks for your book on the Catholic girl’s guide to the single years — that’s been a real comfort for me :)

  6. Catie says:

    Thanks so much for your writing, Emily. Such great stuff. I also really appreciated your open letter to priests. It struck me though while reading this, that you didn’t really touch on all the souls that you nurture through your spiritual motherhood of them. Your writing/speaking/etc is a spiritual motherhood even if you aren’t aware of who your children may be! Or your spiritual grandchildren!! God bless you! :-)

    1. Thanks, Catie, that’s lovely to hear, though sometimes very hard to see. I suppose mothers feel that way too though from time to time. :-)

      1. Catie says:

        As a single person myself, I guess I was telling myself too! One thing that consoles me sometimes is something Mother Teresa either said or possibly even heard from Our Lady in one of her visions, I’m not sure. “Trust Him blindly because He is Jesus.” When all else fails, this piece of advice keeps me going! I guess it is that surrendering of “seeing” the fruits of our daily lives! Not easy, but sometimes I find it consoling and helpful. :-)

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