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Do what you feel in your heart to be right – for you’ll be criticized anyway. — Eleanor Roosevelt
Once, some years ago, I was driving home with my then-mother-in-law when I opened up to her about my dreams as a writer, the books I felt I had in me.
Later, it filtered back to me that she had gone to my then-husband and expressed concern about my ability to be a mother.
“Justine is too ambitious,” she said.
What I find interesting – looking back on this now – is that, in fact, I was not at my best: I was a bit lost, a bit broken, and in need of some help (which I got). But when it came to my ability to be fully present for my five kids (twins and triplets), my mother-in-law didn’t think in terms of postpartum depression, or the wear and tear on a body that had been through a series of IVF treatments, three C-sections, and abdominal surgery to repair a massive hernia.
She didn’t question the nonstop whirlwind lifestyle, or the kind of stress my then-husband might be bringing home from his dayjob of running two companies and the impact this might have on the marriage, or the impact that a deteriorating marriage might have on me.
She didn’t wonder about the psychological overwhelm of finding yourself the mother of five children in less than five years.
Nor did she seem to think about the death of my first child – at ten weeks from SIDS when I was 29 – and how the trauma of that experience, as well as the grievous struggle to make some sense of it, might impact my relationships with the children I have now.
The problem, as she saw it, was my ambition.
I don’t write this to take aim at the woman. She was only reflecting a belief in the culture-at-large: that you can nurture your ambition, or your children, but not both.
As this blogger puts it, struggling to reconcile the side of her that loves to mother with the side of her that yearns for achievement:
“It’s not about trying to ‘have it all’. As a grown-up, I am aware that I cannot be a writer, teacher, Solid Gold dancer, actress, shop owner and the kind of mother I want to be, all at the same time.
“But I can acknowledge the two different sides of me in whatever way feels right, right now…
“I don’t have to apologize for being equally drawn to baking cookies and building my blog. I don’t have to pretend that I work to escape diaper changes and dishes, or only because ‘I have to.’ It’s perfectly OK to be fulfilled both by motherhood and by outside work.”
Notice that this blogger isn’t talking about the practical, everyday struggle of combining work and parenting. She’s talking about the struggle to combine motherhood with the fact that she wants to work….without feeling the need to apologize for it, as if she’s somehow defective as a woman.
I was reading PERFECT MADNESS: Motherhood in the Age of Anxiety when the author, Judith Warner, referenced another woman, an anthropologist named Sarah Hrdy who wrote a book called MOTHER NATURE.
Hrdy wanted to know if maternity and ambition were naturally intended to be so….separate.
Hrdy noticed that our female primate relatives manage to provide for their offspring and nurture them with hands-on care.
Our female ancestors in the Pleistocene era carried their babies as they foraged or gathered firewood.
For both groups, work and mothering seemed to come together naturally.
And what Hardy realized was this:
“High-status female primates ate. Low-status female primates were eaten. Or were chased away from food. Or saw their babies eaten by other females. And so primate mothers, in order to keep their children alive, had to be ambitious. They had to secure ‘status’ for themselves and their offspring so that they’d have access to fought-over resources like food and shelter.”
A female’s ambitious nature, Hrdy saw, helped her children survive and as a result
“was the ultimate form of mother care.”
Today, we’re still struggling for limited resources, whether it’s money or daycare or the right organic foods or the right preschools. We’re still hardwired to provide for our kids – acquiring the status and resources that will enable them to survive and thrive. Warner writes:
“Which means that ‘natural’ motherhood today should know no conflict between providing for our children (i.e. ‘working’) and nurturing them (i.e. ‘being a mom’). Both are part of our evolutionary heritage; both are equally ‘child-centered’ imperatives….
“By putting the two in conflict – by insisting on the incompatibility of work and motherhood – our culture does violence to mothers, splitting them, unnaturally, within themselves….
“’The conflict…is not between maternity and ambition,’” Hrdy writes, “’but between the needs of infants and the way a woman’s ambition plays out in modern workplaces.’”
In other words, the culture doesn’t insist on a separation of maternity and ambition because that is the natural order of things. We’re trained to believe — or feel on a visceral level — that maternity and ambition must be separate only because the culture has structured it that way. And this damages us.