I took three weeks off after my daughter was born. Indulgent, I know. I work from home most of the time, so going back to work is basically the same thing as being on maternity leave, right? I still wore yoga pants. So it must be the same. But going “back to work” three weeks after having a second baby is not at all the same as still being on maternity leave.
My infant daughter hated to sleep after 8 p.m., and since I was up anyway, I worked at night. My husband took a picture of us one evening: me in my yoga pants and glasses, baby girl propped in my lap engaging in an inappropriate amount of infant screen time, our faces aglow in the laptop light. I love that picture because it so accurately captures that period of time, and it also makes me cry a little. Not because I don’t love my job or feel resentful, but mostly because I was so tired. I am still so tired. “Having it all” is exhausting, and while there are one hundred conversations circling the internet about leaning in and leaning out, for me it seems that one part of the conversation is missing: the one about the actual, individual woman. The actual mom. The one who has leaned in and leaned out and leaned over and leaned back so much that she’s about to fall over. Most days I am that mom.
I’ve changed a blowout during a conference call. I’ve breastfed while grading papers. I’ve pumped in the car while driving between meetings. I’m not alone in this. I mean I was alone while I was pumping in the car—thank goodness. But I’m not alone in these bizarre combinations of activities where the personal and the professional are quite literally thrust upon me simultaneously and my only job is to do both, 100 percent.
This “trying to have it all” mentality is executed differently for different women. Some people may look at my life and question how I feel comfortable sharing my voice in this conversation because from the outside it may not look like I have a dog in this fight. I’ve chosen to be a work-from-home mom, which sometimes just looks like I’m a stay-at-home mom because I’m at Trader Joe’s on Monday at 11 a.m. with two wild toddlers and a big ol’ pregnant belly. But in between TJs runs and visits to the zoo and trips to the park, I work part-time/all-the-time at multiple different jobs. I write. I teach. I consult. I volunteer. I parent. I breastfeed. I cook. I do laundry most of the time. I don’t clean, but it took me about two years to come to the conclusion that was one area that I should most definitely outsource, and most days I feel like the peddler from Caps for Sale.
If you haven’t read it recently, the opening page of that book reads: “Once there was a peddler who sold caps. But he was not like an ordinary peddler carrying his wares on his back. He carried them on top of his head. First he had his own checked cap, then a bunch of gray caps, then a bunch of brown caps, then a bunch of blue caps, and on the very top a bunch of red caps” (Slobodkina).
This story hits home for me. We’ve all heard the phrase “you wear a lot of hats,” but the last time we checked this book out from the library, the visual really struck me. The man looks ridiculous. It seems like maybe he’s doing things the hard way. I’m sure it comes as no surprise to you that halfway through the book the peddler sits down under a tree and falls asleep. What an accurate depiction of modern motherhood. So many of us are weighed down by all-the-things, just like this guy.
If you’re anything like me, you might sometimes realize that the exact advice you give to your child is the advice you need to hear yourself. This happens to me all the time. The other night I found myself saying, “Look, just because you can’t have cookies right now, doesn’t mean you won’t ever have cookies. Right now it’s dinnertime, so we’re eating dinner. The cookies will still be there when you’re done. You can have cookies another time.”
With the gigantic exception of adult female personhood, when in life do we ever expect to have all the things we want all at the same time? Why do I think I need to have cookies while I eat my dinner (other than the fact that I’m tired and it would be delicious)? Why do I need to “have it all” when what that really means is “have it all at once”? I’ve created a tower of responsibilities for myself, but when I sit down to think about it, why do I need so many damn hats?
The answer: I don’t.
Within this conversation of “having it all,” we’ve somehow decided that we have to have everything we could possibly want all at once, and that’s really hard, and it’s mostly unattainable. I’m not saying that you have to stop leaning in or stop leaning out, but if you feel like you’ve been doing a lot of leaning, maybe it’s time to stand up straight, take a look around, and question what all the leaning is for.
I could end this essay with a prescription and tell you that your kids are little only once. Or I could tell you that your career is at a pivotal point only once. Blah blah blah. That’s not this conversation. I’m not you. You’re not me. I don’t know which cap you need to keep and which one you need to fling from the van window as you’re driving down the freeway.
The conclusion of this essay is about all of us: the actual, individual moms. We do a lot of things. We do a lot of good things. We wear a lot of hats. A lot of the hats we wear are life-giving, but a lot of them are not. What I’m learning these days is that we do not have to wear all the hats at once. Taking off a few hats is an acceptable choice. Perhaps it’s the best choice. Perhaps it’s the choice that will help us be better at wearing the hats we’ve chosen to keep. And chances are, those other hats will still be there when we’re done with dinner, and we can have them then.