Mama Madison: You can't have it all, but that's okay

Parenting is bound to be a balancing act

I know I'm a bit late to the game when it comes to adding my two cents to the discussion generated by Anne-Marie Slaughter's recent Atlantic magazine cover article "Why Women Still Can't Have It All". I concluded that with over 2,000 comments, more than 175,000 likes on Facebook and nearly 7,000 Tweets, there really wasn't that much more to be said.

But when I read the letter signed "Ready to Have It All" in the Tell All column in last week's Isthmus, I figured maybe it was time to weigh in. To "Ready," Slaughter's article appeared to be a dire warning that "no matter how helpful (her) future husband is," and regardless of her MBA credentials and potential for a fulfilling career at a local corporation, she is "doomed to feel overburdened when (she has) children."

And as much as I hate to say it -- she probably will. She will feel that way whether she works full-time or part-time. She will feel that way even if the "man of her dreams" does all the grocery shopping, dishwasher loading and diaper changing. She will feel that way because parenting is not just physically demanding (sleepless nights, anyone?), but emotionally demanding as well. And when you add any kind of job, never mind a career as intense as Slaughter's at the State Department (no, regime change overseas cannot be scheduled around your child's strep throat), you will always end up feeling pulled in a thousand different directions.

When I was around "Ready"'s age, I began what I thought would be a career in advertising. I couldn't wait to buy a briefcase, slip on pantyhose and ride the elevator to a good corporate job in a Michigan Avenue high-rise. And it was everything I hoped it would be. I traveled to foreign countries on the company's dime. I wrote presentations and back-panel copy for cereal boxes. I met my now husband, also beginning his career in the same business, albeit at a competitive agency down the street.

We lived the ultimate late '80s/early '90s yuppie life, even getting the chance to work internationally for a few years. Then we married, bought a house, and had a baby -- it couldn't have worked out more textbook, just like "Ready to Have It All's" dream.

But when our son was seven months old, both of us were ready for a change, perhaps not so much of lifestyle -- I was enjoying my post-maternity leave promotion to a management position -- but of scenery. And we decided to move to Madison. My husband landed his job first, and I had every intention of continuing a full-time career once we got settled in.

Before we even filled out change-of-address forms, though, I was offered a part-time job as a lecturer at the UW Journalism School. And while I'd never considered part-time work before, I accepted it, thinking it would be a nice placeholder as I got to know the Madison job market a little better.

And now, 14 years of consistent, challenging, interesting -- but part-time -- work later, I totally understand the essence of Slaughter's argument. Significant job flexibility -- in our case, my job flexibility -- is how my husband and I have managed to strike a harmonious work/life chord. And I wouldn't have it any other way. No, I don't have it all. And neither does my husband.

We have three kids. One will be sick at least every other month, requiring a day off of school, both for them and for one of their parents, usually me. They are involved in a fair share of extracurricular activities, most of which require afternoon carpooling that I (usually) happily do. Inevitably someone will get lice this year, requiring hours of daily nit picking. Hours I don't have. Until I need to have them. Which means something else -- like making a decent dinner (or dinner at all) or finishing an outline for a work document -- will have to wait.

And my husband has made sacrifices, as well. He has missed school plays when traveling on business. He has found out about both achievements and bad days over the phone. He'd love to volunteer more in their classrooms, but his schedule doesn't easily permit it.

And you know what? It's okay. It's actually more than okay. As reigning queen of lowered expectations, I guess I never expected to have it all. And I am very happy.

My advice to "Ready to Have It All" is to be prepared not just to find your balance, but, with the help of a supportive partner, to actively pick your balance. And you'll end up finding you "have" an awful lot.

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