Mary Beth Ogulewicz: One mother’s report from work-life trenches
EASTHAMPTON — I have watched from the sidelines and lived the conflicted heart of trying to attain work/family balance. With Sheryl Sandberg advising me to “lean in” and do more, and my own heart saying some days, “I just want to stay home today, cook a decent meal and clean my house so my children return home to a loving peaceful home”, I don’t need another uber woman admonishing me about the failure of my sex to gain sufficient career advancement.
I want acceptance in my own heart for the daily compromises I have made and continue to make as I juggle the demands of life, family and fulfillment. The divisive debate among working and nonworking women, childcare versus stay-at-home mom, and between women of greater socioeconomic means and those who must work to survive has done little to assuage my guilt or help women meet competing demands in their own life.
The recent celebration of Mother’s Day gave me pause to reflect on my role as a mother, woman and career woman. Through 20 years of parenting, I have gained perspective on my roles. Real change for me would mean women are supported for whatever choice they make. And, they are supported again, as they change their minds and update their choices along with the changing needs of their family or self.
As a mother of four, former full-time lawyer and now part-time everything, I don’t need to read anymore studies to inform me that parenting while making a living or building a career is difficult, heart wrenching and filled with compromise. As a society, we are far from finding a perfect solution, never mind a governmental policy that will wave a magic wand and solve this tug of the heart.
The reason? It is what economists call the “opportunity cost” of choices in life. We have choices and with choices come looking back, longing, regret and/or guilt for the path we didn’t choose. When I have chosen work obligation, I have felt guilty for short-changing my children. And, when I have prioritized my children, I have felt the sting of not being fully prepared for my work life.
And when I have had no choice but to forge ahead with the task before me, I have had to block out the opportunity costs entirely and hope for better days ahead.
Unlike the generation of women before us, we have the choice whether and when we want to become mothers. Many of us are fortunate to have the choice to wholeheartedly pursue a career. Unlike many of our sisters around the world, we also have a choice about the kind of partner we have in our life, and thereby the level of support in partnership.
But with all those choices come the repercussions of our decisions. Bearing the repercussions is a far more complex task. Younger, I thought I could have it all. I try to remember a time I made a choice and didn’t have to forego something else in my life. It is really an unrealistic, magical way of thinking. Being a mom to four children and a full-time career woman required two people present at all times and I was one.
For me, leaning in to my potential has meant honoring the intrinsic value of being a mother as well as a working woman.
What I have learned to do is rest in magnificent snippets of both worlds. I will never be the COO of Facebook, but I was able to greet my children at the end of the day and hold space as their stories spilled forth unedited. I won’t be a judge, but I have known the sublime pleasure of the scent of my children’s heads as the four of them spooned in my bed sandwiched between their father and me telling ridiculously funny stories, laughing uncontrollably, punctuated with an occasional contest passing gas under the sheets.
At times I have chosen love over work and those memories endure. Likewise, there were times I engaged in professional pursuits with a singular purpose, daring myself to grow in ways I had never known. Those moments were exceptionally meaningful and I missed school plays and important spontaneous moments so I could experience them and use my talent.
The issue of family/life balance has been touted as a women’s issue, but it is not. Indeed, male loss of family time has been a given for eons. Men have missed out on childrearing and precious developmental moments for the sake of earning money for the family without remark. Only as women have born the opportunity cost of working has this issue gained traction.
I have experienced my fair share of missed events for my children. I was lucky that my children had a father who was equally committed to those moments and was able to be there, I want to say in place of me, but as his own person.
The rub is I can never quite absolve my guilt over not completely fulfilling the role of mother even when it has been a conscious choice, need or obligation or represented an intellectual professional pursuit that made me feel alive in a way parenting never could. So, that is my wish for mothers. Peace. Peace for myself and other moms who are fully engaged with the richness of life and the attendant compromises.
Be compassionate with your self and your heart. You are doing a great job!
Mary Beth Ogulewicz of Easthampton is a part-time professor, a part-time yoga instructor and always a mother of four children 20, 15, 13 and 11 years old.