lemon all

Not often do I get the opportunity to quote my dad on matters other than Alabama football and Fox News, but lately I’ve been turning over in my head two of his favorite axioms: Life isn’t fair and Everybody just CALM DOWN!

I grew up under the constant admonition of that first phrase: the awareness that the world doesn’t always work according to the balance and order I think it should have; that even if I do the right thing it doesn’t mean everyone else will; that, ultimately, there are no guarantees. But I also grew up under the reign of feminism and the Gen X-espoused tradition of endless options. While being told that life wasn’t fair, I was also told that I could be whatever I wanted to be and that I could–say it with me–have it all! For a while, these twin messages, of both being and having it all, seemed attainable: I finished school and chose a career that would prove lucrative even on a part-time basis, thereby allowing me to both work and raise a family. I even landed my first job in part due to my gender, not in spite of it. Life seemed to be pretty fair, maybe even better than fair, maybe even stacked in my favor (my white, upper-middle-class, educationally-advantaged favor)!

Then I got married and had kids. And I realized that “being everything” and “having it all” are goals people attempt to achieve just before their nervous breakdowns.

Consider the portrayals of “having it all” provided by our friendly flat screens. While some shows, like Homeland, quietly grant top billing to a female, others heavy-handedly emphasize the gender parity they’re attempting to accomplish–and in so doing, make a mockery of any possibility of such parity. To wit, the State of Affairs ad campaign feels so misguided I almost want to call Gloria Steinem and make sure she’s awake. The marketing for this show, with the tagline “All the president’s men are nothing compared to her”, seems practically antagonistic. And it only gets worse once you watch the ads: we’ve got a lead whose drinking and bed-hopping (shades of Bad Judge, anyone?) are presented with a madcap, devil-may-care tone of mild rebellion–Girl, you so crazy! I’m reminded of one of my favorite shows of yesteryear, Sex and the City, whose strengths (snappy dialogue, authentic female relationships) were counterbalanced with a lack of consequences: out of six seasons, only a couple of episodes directly addressed STDs (Samantha’s HIV test was negative, natch). Even the sexually liberated Lena Dunham, the face of a post-SATC generation, has refused to deal with sex in such a blase manner. Contrast these examples with Carrie Mathison on Homeland, whose similar behavior is attributed to mental illness. What are we being told today–that bed-hopping and over-indulging are either sick, or part of “having it all”?

STATE-OF-AFFAIRSAnd then come the next steps of marriage and motherhood. Concerning the latter in particular, I can think of no other venture where the attempt to “be everything” is more all-consuming, or pursued with such vigor.

I’m writing this on my laptop from an oversized chair in my suburban home while my eight-week-old alternately sleeps and screams beside me and my two-year-old alternately plays happily a few feet away and approaches me for attention. The baby’s paci won’t stay in, the toddler will need a diaper change soon, there are three loads of laundry awaiting their turn for the machine, I badly want to finish this piece I am typing with one hand, and I haven’t even gone back to my not-so-prestigious career yet.

Is this what having it all looks like?

Guiltless and prodigious sex paired with a career followed by domestic bliss, a couple of kids and a spouse and a home to run…this, an oven and some baby bath are what the world tells us life will look like when we “have it all” and complete our transformation into Supermoms. Instagram and Pinterest weigh in with other suggestions regarding crafts, recipes, and sunsets. The world’s prescription should land us in a halcyon position, all balance and fulfillment. But judging from the moms I’ve talked to, we are more overworked and under-slept than we have ever been. “Screw daycare,” a friend texted me recently when her son came down with his second illness in two weeks and she rued the need for him to be there–even as she values her job and the contribution it allows her to make to their home and the marketplace. It seems we have been sold a false bill of goods–or at least have been told that “it” and “all” should look a certain way. And they just don’t.

I went online last weekend to buy stockings for our now-complete (but for a dog) family, and when it came time to personalize my stocking I struggled over whether to use my name or the title “Mom”. Which allowed me to identify with the Heather Havrilesky, whose recent article in The New York Times has been written about here already. “We can rip the S off our chests,” she writes, and I wonder how many of us have gotten that memo–and believed it. Karol Markowicz in The New York Post narrows the issue, letting culture off the hook as a cause for our quest for perfection in parenting. She blames something more insidious and personal:

Is it really the culture, though? Is it “society” that’s making us take up woodworking so we can repurpose an old bookcase into a fetching new dresser, or is it the deep human desire to keep up with the Joneses? 

Or is it possible you are always Type A, and parenthood just gives you another outlet in which to try to overachieve?

 This is an identity crisis: we are trying to give everything and be everything and have everything. All the while, grace whispers from the wings to cancel the show, because “everything” has a name and it is not ours. It is not “mom”. It isn’t even “Madam Secretary”.

Has our pursuit of being jacks (or Jills, as it were) of all trades led to a lingering ambivalence over all of them? Author Elizabeth Gilbert calls out our desire for everything, which we have misidentified as “balance”:


With no offense to the word balance, I feel that that is a word that we have to be careful of lately because I think it’s become another tool in the arsenal that women especially are using against themselves as one more thing they’re not doing right. I really do think it’s become a weapon.

Gilbert says we need to embrace the “beautiful mess” that we all are, and while I/we might quibble with some of the wording, I can’t help but see the work of grace in this recommendation. There were the years when I fomented my own rebellion and called it sexual liberation; there are the moments when I curse the laundry and the diapers and the idea of domestic bliss. Yet I’ve come to believe that the mess, rather than the perfect pictures, is where grace resides. The rebellion led to brokenness, but it was in that brokenness that I found forgiveness. And it is in my current exhaustion, in the servitude of laundry and dirty diapers and tiny baths, that I struggle–messily and imperfectly–and find redemption from a formerly self-serving existence.

It’s not in the vastness of experience that I encounter fulfillment, not in the number of titles I hold. Rarely in doing or having more is freedom found; the effort of pursuit cannot be matched by those moments of receiving. If I/we would just CALM DOWN, unstrap the S’s and babies from our chests, and get our heads out of the oven, we might see that we already have an identity. An identity that finds us not in lists but in a narrative; an identity that takes all the disparate pieces of ourselves and unites them in consummate meaning; an identity that calls us not perfect but beloved. It doesn’t look like endless sex or fulfillment at work or a pristine home and immaculate kids. It looks like falling down and being picked back up, over and over again. Maybe not conventionally Instagram-worthy, or the makings of a ratings juggernaut. More like a story being told, from the canons of the shabby but real and ever-so-loved–because we don’t have to be everything when Someone else already is.

*and other lies we believe