“Does being a good mom and wife make us mediocre at everything else?”
My friend sent me this text message a few days ago. Her words stirred something inside me that I think about often—and then immediately stop thinking about because it depresses me. The answer? I feel like it should be an emphatic, Stuart Smalley-esque “Of course not!” But, really? Maybe. Maybe it does. I don’t know. My friend was experiencing one of those patches where we feel like we are pouring so much into our families that our own talents, passions, and maybe even careers, have been neglected. We’ve all been there. Or maybe you’re just the opposite: maybe your career has totally taken off and you feel like you’re mediocre at motherhood. Either way, it’s painful.
I think we’ve collectively realized that “having it all” is garbage, and not something to aspire to anymore. That’s fine. I’m all for letting go of myths that make us feel frustrated and crappy about ourselves. And many of us feel like we are doing it all, but doing nothing well. Working part time for me has often meant the best of both worlds, but also its less frequently mentioned ugly stepsister, the worst of both worlds.
Even though we that “having it all” is bullshit, it makes us a little sad to realize that we really can’t. We can’t live all the lives: the one where we climbed to the top of our profession and had one super chill kid and still had fun vacations; the life where we have a whole house-full of kids and don’t work at all; the life where we went all Eat, Pray, Love and traveled the world alone. As women, we often attempt to integrate some of all of these “hypothetical lives”—each holding a little piece of ourselves—into our actual life. This is tricky, as so much of our identify is entangled with motherhood.
We have to make choices. We know this, and we also know that people get mad when modern moms complain about things like not having enough time to pursue their dreams. Because (and we know this, and are grateful for it of course) our basic needs are met. We have a home, food, our families are (knocking on wood here) healthy. So we should probably shut up about not being able to fit in allthethings, and stop lamenting the fact that we aren’t rocking all our personal goals and dreams, right?
But this is the world we live in, and even if it’s a relatively comfy life in the suburbs with good schools and lots of minivans, it’s also a world of stress and pressure where we marinate in comparisons and competitiveness. We see our mom friends kicking ass and feel inadequate. I’m not proud of it, but when I see friends and colleagues with booming new businesses, creating viral memes and amazing blog posts, and adding hundreds of email subscribers and thousands of social media followers per week, even though I am happy for them, I also feel jealous and wonder what I’m doing wrong.
When other moms are killing it with their careers or talents, does that mean they’re not being good moms and wives? And what exactly does it mean to be a good mom and wife?
Am I a “good mom” because I remember which nights are bath night and pack my kids reasonably healthy lunches the night before and read with them and I tell them I love them over and over?
Or maybe I’m not so great, since I routinely yell stuff like, “IF I HEAR YOU GUYS SAY THE WORD LABIA ONE MORE TIME YOU’RE LOSING TV TOMORROW!” and also I got the giggles after my five-year-old ruined her big sister’s homemade “play” by being “funny when it wasn’t supposed to be a funny play” and I tried to be all serious and practice reflective listening and validate her feelings by saying, “It sounds like the play didn’t meet your expectations” but then I started cracking up and laughed until I cried. Probably not such a good mom move. Also I sometimes swear in front of them. Maybe good moms don’t do that either.
Yep, that happened.
And this whole “good wife” thing; what’s that about? Probably not like the TV show The Good Wife, unless we’re aiming to re-launch our careers, pretend to like our spouse in public, and then have an affair.
But seriously, being a goodwifeandmom (let’s lump them together so we don’t have to dwell on unfortunate gender role labels, no?) takes effort, and it probably means something different to each of us. But whatever it means to you, it’s a commitment: Making healthy food that people will actually eat, scheduling date nights (or at the very least, sex), balancing the family budget, juggling the kids’ appointments, listening to everyone, being fun and funny and fully present and not distracted by other stuff, and dutifully watching plays and magic shows (and display the proper reactions to said performances). Let’s not forget also speaking your spouse’s Love Language. Maybe that really doesn’t leave much room for anything else besides mediocrity.
Did you see that “Pick Three” thing that Randi Zuckerberg explained about a year ago? She ascribes the phenomenon to the dilemma of an entrepreneur, but I think many non-entrepreneurs can probably relate, too. The basic idea is this: of work, family, fitness, friends, and sleep, you pick three things. Three. That’s what you get. Sucky, huh?
If you have to work at an actual job, work is a no-brainer, right? And if you have a family, duh. And that leaves . . . what? Sleep? Being fit? Having a social life? The idea that you can’t have all of those things is pretty dismal. It doesn’t have to be that way for you, does it? Does it??!!!?
So, say I’ve chosen work and family. I can’t NOT choose sleep. Sleep always wins for me. I’m one of those people. I accept it; there’s no way I am sacrificing sleep for anything (besides my family during extremely dire circumstances involving vomit or bad dreams, and when their needs interfere with my sleep I am very, very unhappy about it).
Does that mean I cut out fitness? Thanks to my “hyper-mobile pelvis” (which sounds like fun, but in reality, not so much), if I don’t stay fit I exacerbate my lower back issues and end up in crazy pain. So I have to find some way to keep the gym and yoga on the table. And then there are my friends. I LOVE my friends.
So, people, what do we cut out? And is it really true that if we prioritize our families, we end up sucking at everything else? What if the answer is yes?
When I dialed down my writing ambitions and projects last year, I realized something sobering: I was a better mom and wife. And that made me feel uncomfortable and deeply guilty on a feminist level (very anti-Lean In, amiright?). Here’s what happened:
In the past year or so, I haven’t been writing very much. In 2014-15, I was publishing my writing on all kinds of sites. I was proud of myself; it was exhilarating. And then at the end of last August, the HerStories Project, of which I am co-editor and co-founder, published So Glad They Told Me: Women Get Real About Motherhood, our 4th book in three years, which is kind of insane. In 2016, I had focused most of my “work energy” on producing the Listen To Your Mother Boulder show and getting the book published. Other writing projects just weren’t happening.
My book! (You can buy it here!)
If you are a writer or an artist of any kind, you know that when we go for a long period of time without creating something, or without consistently producing work, we tend to freaking panic. As in, “ohmygod I am all dried up, I have nothing left, it’s officially happened I have nothing new and original to say and I will never be a successful writer ever, I’m a joke.” Or you know, insert whatever your thing is here. The idea of backing off of our work, taking a sabbatical, or slowing down at all, can be terrifying. It can feel like we aren’t being true to ourselves.
But when I gave myself a break after publishing So Glad, it wasn’t just that I was a better wife and mom. I felt better, too. I started exercising regularly again and saw my friends more often. I felt balanced again. During my most productive years, I often sacrificed time with my husband and kids, my own health and fitness, or yes, even my beloved sleep to fit everything in. And while I didn’t love the sacrifices, I did love the work I was doing. As a feminist mom, I want to believe I can be a good (enough) parent and be true to my ambition. But in real life? It’s kind of an exhausting, frenetic mess. I’ve heard an alternative to the “having it all” adage:
“You can have it all, you just can’t have it all at the same time.”
And maybe that’s the answer. Perhaps the “Pick Three” philosophy is more fluid. Our priorities are constantly shifting, day to day, week to week, year to year. We may not be able to “have all five” every day of every week, during every stage of our lives. We can take what we need when we need it, even if it means being mediocre at something else or just scrapping it all together.
When we try to kick ass at everything, we can easily burn out and completely ditch our self care efforts. Maybe sometimes we can allow ourselves simply to be “good enough” moms (shout out to D.W. Winnicott—read this if you need some validation for ditching motherhood perfection), and take that open space to shine a light on our passion, on our friendships, or on ourselves.
We can accept mediocrity sometimes; it’s part of life. We can be mediocre moms and wives occasionally (or more) and nobody’s going to die. We can acknowledge that our passions and careers and talents have seasons, that they ebb and flow, and that if we happen to be mediocre this year it doesn’t mean we won’t be fucking awesome two years from now. Maybe our bodies are mediocre today; maybe we aren’t as strong and our tummies are squishy and we’ve lost our yoga flexibility from when we were twenty-eight. That’s OK. We can get it back (or not).
Respecting our boundaries as well as the fluidity of our lives does NOT make us mediocre. It makes us human. It means that we are wise. It makes us stronger, in the long run. Right now we can’t see the big picture. But someday, we’ll be able to. And I bet we won’t remember the mediocrity as much as we’ll remember the moments when we were really shining.
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I’m an architect. I manage a studio of 65 that is part of a global design group of 2300. I’m also a mother of two, and hoping for three someday. I don’t believe in “balance” but I do believe in prioritizing. You don’t have to pick 3 of (work, family, sleep, fitness, friends…) but you have to turn up the heat on a few at a time and let the others simmer. Right now my family and work are on high, fitness and sleep are equal and friends are on simmer. This will adjust as my life adjusts.
YES. That is so wise. Good luck to you, mama!
I feel like I’m mediocre at everything. I work full time and am the primary caretaker of the kids and home. And without getting into detail, my kids dominate every free moment. I gave up on perfection years ago, but the lack of solitary time is taking a toll. I am always doing yet nothing is ever done. It feels crappy. But I have to think its temporary. And I have to force myself to do social things even when I don’t want to just to get away and to show my kids that I am a person separate from them even though I don’t always feel that way.
YES. I totally get this, and I don’t think you’re alone at all. Working moms often feel like we are doing everything, but doing it all badly. I think it is definitely temporary; it has to be right?? And it sounds like you’re doing a great job with it–it is so hard to make space for ourselves but we have to keep trying. xoxo
We have to just keep moving forward. What’s the other choice? I always appreciate hearing that I’m not alone–it’s so important. Thanks!
Thank you for writing this. I’ve been “studying” to take my licensure tests for 4 years since my daughter was born. Having a 4 and 2 year old doesn’t seem to allow for time to do this.
The Masters took 5 years and two pregnancies to get. Been feeling totally unable to complete my career goals and be a good mom (much less being good at all the other stuff).
Ah, Stephanie, you hit the nail on the head again!
Thank you for your time and insights.
You help so many moms figure all this messy stuff out.
I connect with the pick 3 philosophy. I hate it sometimes but I realize it is what it is.
Accepting mediocrity (is that a word? My spell check added it so I’m rolling with it) is the new challenge. I do find that I feel more peaceful when I feel ok with just doing my best most of the time on most days.
Thank you so much, Tavia!
“Respecting our boundaries as well as the fluidity of our lives does NOT make us mediocre. It makes us human. It means that we are wise.” YES!!!! Stephanie, reading this post takes me back several years when I felt exactly the way you are feeling. And now that I have launched two kids to college and my two at home are more and more self-sufficient, I can tell you that while being in the trenches with your kids and work and marriage with little or no time to spare is beyond exhausting on SO many levels, it is part of the motherhood process. And I don’t think there is a way around it. And I don’t think any of us get through it with ease. I just returned from visiting my oldest son in college and I found myself thinking back to all those years I spent in the trenches, feeling barely mediocre. They were really, really hard. But if I could go back and do anything differently, I would be easier on myself. I would do less beating myself up for all the things I was doing “wrong” less focussing on areas where I was falling short as a writer, a mom, and a wife (not to mention a cook and housekeeper 😉 ) and tell myself every day that I am doing the best I can. AND that my best, even though it may feel mediocre, is actually pretty amazing :). You have accomplished so much already and there will be so much more for you! Enjoy your children! Love them up! As hard as it is to be so needed by them, it is also hard when they pull away and need you less and less. I love this post, Stephanie! I think so many moms feel the same way. Be nice to yourself and remember that when your kids are gone and you look back at all that you accomplished in addition to raising good humans, you will be blown away! Sending big hugs and encouragement to tell yourself that you are a frick’n rock star!!! 🙂 xo
Just reading this now (all comments went to spam, gah!) but wanted you to know how much I appreciate it, and you! xo
Stephanie, this is an awesome post (you should put it on HuffPo Women!). I’ve been doodling on similar themes, trying to figure it all out. I’ve recently recommitted to exercise, too. I had to, and it’s huge! But, yes, it sure does shift priorities ?.
Thank you SO much, my friend!