On opting out and not having it all

By Lauren Apfel

When I was six weeks pregnant with my first child, I had the oral examination for my doctoral degree. There I sat in a gilded room in Oxford, with a bound copy of my dissertation on my lap and the beginnings of a baby in my womb. I was slightly nauseous as I fielded questions about methodology and tragedy. I ducked out early from the champagne reception that followed the successful completion of the event. I might have noticed, in other words, an inchoate tension between the son that was to become my “job” and the world of academia I would leave as a result. But, in that moment, I wasn’t sure which way it would go.

I spent the early part of the pregnancy at Jesus College, as a lecturer, listening to undergraduates read meandering essays on Homer in-between my bouts of morning sickness. We had moved from Oxford to Glasgow the previous semester for my husband’s work, but I had returned to the University to take up the first proper job of my own career, a coveted fixed-term position. I didn’t know what I was going to do next from a professional point of view. The truth is that I was ambivalent about being an academic in the first place. I loved the hush of the library, the weight of the word on the page. I didn’t have the personality for the politics that attend them.

The lectureship was three months long and there was no job waiting for me back in Glasgow. There was only a due date and a vague sense that my life was about to change. I gave birth and, lo and behold, it did. How do I describe the transformation without sounding cliche or maudlin or fatalistic? I can’t. Motherhood came to me like a calling. It was the missing piece of the puzzle, or at least a missing piece. I hadn’t chosen to stay home per se: it’s more accurate to say that I was already home, where a baby then joined me. But after my son was born, I actively turned down opportunities that would have taken me in another direction.

Nor can I say that I stayed home on principle. I was the first of my friends to have a baby. I wasn’t tapped into the “aspirational mothering style” of the times, as Judith Warner puts it. I wasn’t versed in the nuances of the “Mommy Wars.” I was just a woman with a lot of education and a potentially high-powered career,who didn’t pursue it because I was pulled, by the force of biology it seemed at the time, to raise my young kids myself. It didn’t even feel like I was “opting out,” given that I had never, technically, been “in.”

Having a kid before establishing a career was part luck and part madness. It was fortunate because I fell passionately into the routines of childcare and I was able to do so with my husband’s financial support and without the guilt of sacrificing anything concrete—though I knew I was making a sacrifice of some description. It was crazy because it was short-sighted. I wasn’t thinking about where I would be ten years down the road. I was thinking only of the next baby, which kept the fear of the longer-term uncertainty at bay. Or maybe I could shift the emphasis: the focus on the next baby was so as to keep that fear at bay.

While I embraced my new identity as a mother, I also had pangs of self-consciousness. And stretches of boredom. And desires to engage on a day-to-day basis with things other than my kid’s bodily fluids. So when I was expecting my second child, I began to write my thesis into a book, which I then finished when I was expecting my third and fourth children. I did this to exercise my mind and to give myself a project that wasn’t related to my progeny. But I also did it, even if subconsciously, to keep the “pilot light” burning under my career, whatever that might turn out to be.

My book came into the world the month after my twins did and there I was again, six years later, with the same tension in my lap, a tension that had evolved but not necessarily resolved. My book is about the philosophy of pluralism, which professes exactly this: there are some tensions in life that will never wholly resolve. Pluralism tells that the human condition is characterized by endemic conflict. That the important choices we make are often accompanied by loss and/or regret. That the concept of “having it all” is not simply far-fetched, it is theoretically flawed. My own experience as a woman in 2011 told me the same thing.

I saw an old friend from graduate school shortly after, her one-year-old daughter in tow. She had a glow about her, the look I recognized well of somebody smitten with being a mom. After six months of maternity leave, she was back to work, at 80% time, in a demanding—but fulfilling—job as a consultant. The arrangement was not what she imagined. “I thought I could have it all,” she mused over dinner, “but I can’t.” It was a shock to her, still then, even as the byword for our generation’s perspective on work/life was becoming, increasingly, “compromise.”

The most profound difference these days, it seems, is not between the women who spend the early years of their children’s lives in playrooms and those who spend them in boardrooms. It is between those of us who start the journey of motherhood clinging to the idea that we can have it all and those of us who start it with the less glamorous, but more realistic, expectation that we won’t.

Lauren Apfel is co-founder and executive editor of Motherwell. She was happy to opt out when she did, but is now leaning part-way in and loving it. Connect with her on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram

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This essay is part of a Motherwell original series on Motherhood and Ambition