On pie charts, motherhood, and my uneasy relationship with feminism

By Jenny Raj

Pie charts don’t lie, I joked, lowering my voice in mock horror. You can’t hide from the pie charts!

We were a group of twelve women, sitting in a small conference room. Some of us were new moms, others a bit more seasoned. Aware of our general malaise, my (supportive and progressive) employer had brought in a career coach, and today we were discussing motherhood and work.

The pie charts in question were an exercise meant to help us understand our priorities. All my life I’d been told, in no uncertain terms, that I should be an independent woman—make your own money, don’t depend on anyone, focus on your grades rather than on boys. The message? Liberated women are career women. Corollary: your career is the measure of your success.

This sensible and well-defined path led me to ace my tests, obtain an Ivy League degree, and land jobs at name-brand companies. I had worked hard and done well, but there was still a long road ahead. More steps up the ladder, with increasing salaries, titles, and prestige to follow. This is the story told by the pie chart in front of me.

But on the next page, there was a second pie chart: What makes you happy?

Such a simple question, but one that I had rarely considered. Certainly not one my parents ever asked me. And to be honest, if I had been asked that question growing up, my response would be the opposite of what I value now. Words I associated with “family life” as a child? Bitterness. Anger. Disappointment. My parents’ divorce had not come soon enough for everyone involved, if only to put an end to our tumultuous family life.

And yet here I was, coloring in wedges on the second pie chart that belied this upbringing. The disparity between the two charts was undeniable: what made me happy—my family—was not at all what I had been prioritizing. 

Maybe it was the two toddlers waiting at home for me, whose first steps I had missed, whose nap schedule determined when I could phone into conference calls on my “work from home” days, whose chubby cheeks floated in my dreams in distant hotel rooms once I began traveling for work again. Maybe it was how their timelines seemed to move at double–no, triple–speed, so that in the span of a two-day workshop in Minneapolis I had seemingly missed whole phases of their development. Maybe it was the privilege of being able to make this choice.

Whatever it was, my decision twelve years ago to stop working in order to spend more time with my children felt retrograde, a betrayal of my gender. Generations of feminists had fought for my right to work, but I was throwing it all away to become just another stay-at-home mom.

Yet as a woman—rather than a defeat, it also felt like the greatest challenge I could take on.

Living in the Bay Area, I am surrounded by Ivy League graduates with prestigious careers—lawyers, investment bankers, start-up millionaires. And yet I can count on one hand the number of friends who grew up in stable families, and who truly still enjoyed spending time with their parents. Turns out my story of a broken family is not so uncommon. Was creating a loving, supportive family even more rare than making it into the 1%?

So, in my enlightened and yet still Type-A way, I made the decision not only to choose happiness, but also to take on this choice as a new challenge. I made my own curriculum, researching childhood nutrition, developmental phases, and parenting techniques and trends. I listened to education podcasts and joined webinars on the teenage mental health crisis. I consciously made time to connect with my children, and remind myself to be grateful for the privilege of seeing them grow up, even when (my now teenage) kids roll their eyes at me, even when I feel like another day has passed by when I am not utilizing my full set of skills.

Have I been successful? Has this choice been worth it? I don’t know. I don’t think I will know until the end of my life, which I hope is a long way from now. I may never know, really, because even if my own parents were to ask me about my childhood and their parenting, I’m not sure I would tell them the hard truth about how I felt growing up.

But what I do know is that those pie charts gave me a chance to redirect my focus on what I truly valued. For all the trade-offs, the self-doubt, the awkward silences after I tell people I am a “stay-at-home parent,” I now understand how lucky I’ve been. The sheer joy I’ve been able to experience having this time with my children. How unexpectedly worthwhile it has been, even—especially—in the journey.

If I was a different person, if it had been a different career, maybe I would have made a different choice. I’m not saying every woman can or should make the choice that I did. And I’m not saying no to a career forever—too soon, my time with the children at home is coming down to the final stretch as I prepare them to leave the nest for college and a life beyond my sphere, and I have begun to explore my own next steps. Who knows, maybe it is time for those pie charts again.

But twelve years after first staring down at the hard truth that those charts revealed, I understand how much wonder is to be found in the meandering route, that plans and goals can be set but should also be flexible to reflect changing priorities, and that my path is mine, and no one else’s.

Jenny Fan Raj is a writer and a mother of two. She currently serves on the board of Youth Speaks, which seeks to amplify the voices of youth as agents of change, as well as Challenge Success, whose mission is to transform the student experience by centering on student well-being. Current obsessions include cats, Chex Mix, and The New York Times Spelling Bee.

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