The Frosting on the Cake

I read an article recently in Time magazine subtitled  “When having it all means not having children,” and have been reflecting on the oxymoron for a few days now.  When you think about it, it’s a like saying “when having your cake means not having frosting.”  What does the “all” in “having it all” imply?  Clearly, it refers to the polemic post 1950’s concept that woman can balance a man, a career and a family, and balance them well. Apparently, now it means having a man, a career, and a walk in closet, thank you very much Carrie Bradshaw. Consider that adverb “well.”  It is so laden with expectation.

You can have a man, but is he the “right” man? Is he intelligent, funny, attractive-in the right way, of course.  Tall dark and athletic.  Oh, no? How about tall, blond and lean? Not my cup of tea, but maybe yours.  In addition of course to kind, clean and patient.  Oh, and don’t forget, does he earn a lot of money? Are his world views the same as yours? Is he ethical? Is he empathetic? Can he read your moods without being told what they mean?  Can he see past five extra pounds and bad hair into your beautiful inner self? Does he think all your annoying “isms” are adorable? No? Probably not “the one” right?  Does he love your mother? Impress your father? Drive safely? Have hobbies? Will he support your right to work? Will he support your desire to drop work and stay home with the wee ones? Does he want wee ones? Will he change their diapers? Is he progressive and modern enough to baby wear? Wash the dishes? Do the laundry? Walk the dog? Does he like dogs? And don’t forget, does he SMELL right?  After all, we are olfactory creatures.  Be sure you don’t pick him when you’re on birth control, because as soon as you go off, game over.  Messes with “the” chemistry.  And yes, there is actually chemistry, of the scientific kind.  Not just the lame romance book kind.  Don’t believe me?

For instance, Wedekind et al. (1995) found that females preferred the smell of T-shirts worn by men who were different in MHC alleles than themselves. Mate selection that favors different/complementary MHC is valuable because allele combinations in offspring would maximize disease protection and minimize recessive mutations. It has also recently been shown that women prefer the scent of physically symmetrical men, especially during ovulation, which supports the suggested relationship between ‘‘good’’ genes and body odor in women’s mate-selection strategies (Gangestad & Thornhill, 1998; Thornhill & Gangestad, 1999).

Herz, Rachel, Michael Inzlich. “Sex differences in response to physical and social factors involved in human mate selection. The importance of smell for women.” Evolution and Human Bevavior. 23 (2002): 359-364.  Web. 15 Feb. 2002. <>

So, let it be said that I was the first to warn you: better add “physically symmetrical” if you want that relationship to last, and watch out for those “alleles”.  Or is it “alleli?”

And, please add a sub section to that list of don’ts: does he play video games? Own remote control anything? Have a collection of action figures? Sport facial hair? Wear the same cologne as your pervy uncle? Dress badly? Smoke? Shower bi-weekly? Misuse adverbs? Spray it, not say it? Snore? Own a collection of beer themed hats or t-shirts? Is he a tiger or a pussy cat?  I can’t say which is better, just don’t marry a tiger and expect him to be a pussy cat, or vice versa.

I read a lot, and I don’t remember a lot of what I read.  However, about 10 years ago, I read a book I’m pretty sure was titled “Things your Mother Never Told You.” Unfortunately, the author’s mother never told her how to title her book, because there’s about 10 books with the same title, so I cannot direct you to it.  However, the book was an exploration of how modern values frequently lead to surprising complications for modern women.  It resonated so loudly with me, I still think of it when considering situations I see my contemporaries facing.  At the time I read it, I was well on my way to being a 30 year old virgin, a fact that was very intentional, but made me feel like an alien.  I remember the author of the book making a point that at the time seemed extremely relevant to me.  When women everywhere are normed to “put out” casually, it means that those women who would like a longer courtship, and the absence of pressure around sex, become non-entities in the dating world.  If you won’t, someone else will, so why should a fellow bother?

One premise the author had, (that I would love to build a campaign on) is that if women would band together and mutually agree that we require  commitment before making the leap into intimacy, men would be forced to make that effort.  But, because the cultural norm has gone so far the other way, try finding a woman with the courage to stick to her guns when Mr. “right” or “good enough” shows up, after years of waiting.  I can say from experience that it feels genuinely silly trying to even broach the conversation that “the sex” isn’t going to happen. Not that that I didn’t do it, but it’s like signing to the hearing.  Because “the sex” is what “grown up” people do in relationships, married or not, right? And only a very provincial idealist who’s read too much Jane Austen or the bible (heaven forbid both!) would think otherwise.

Another way I see women losing ground to what I guess would now be post-modernism is the issue of marriage.  If no-one is waiting around for the sex, there is certainly no urgency to get married.  And really, when you think about it, why bother?  It pains me to see women I know well who would love to be married to their “significant others”, but who find themselves in a similar quandary.  We have reached an age of cynicism, where women feel pushy “expecting” marriage.  And so, in honor of liberation, they settle for co-habitation.  Women, natural peace makers, have compromised themselves out of the future they dreamed about as children.  Cinderella did not move in with Prince Charming and build her life out of exotic vacations and a successful blog.  We can agree that Cinderella was a push over, but at least she expected a ring and public commitment.

What does this have to do with the theme of “having it all?”  I really believe that many women of our generation would like more than we get, but settle for less, because we are being normed out of the “right” to expect it.  Some women would like to be mothers, but their partners don’t, and because it is becoming so culturally acceptable to “choose” not to have children, there are women who put away their baby boxes and dreams of children for what they see as “as good as it gets,” or perhaps because they believe all the press that intelligent, gifted women should follow their dreams right up a corporate ladder, and leave the drudgery of baby rearing to the morons.  Or, perhaps they go the middle road and hire a nanny to do the dirty work, because the care and raising of the future teachers, politicians, civil servants, coaches, artists, writers, etc. should be managed by a paid laborer.  Right? Or even better, a low skilled uneducated immigrant nanny, who had to leave her own child to take care of the progeny of the middle class (which is of course still paid labor, but Wal-Mart style.)

I think there are two dangerous ideas that have left our generation dissatisfied and disappointed.  One is the idea that we could, and in fact should, have it “all.”  I am reading a very interesting article written as a follow up to a decade old article, called “The Opt-Out Generation Wants Back In.” Of course, the “Opt Out Generation” refers to the generation of well-educated, ambitious working moms who at one time looked down while climbing their respective ladders and had the epiphany that the grass might be greener in the yard of stay at home moms.  And so, they “opted out.” Of what, you ask?  Of high profits, high stress, and a shot at the next few rungs.   At the time, many believed they’d be able to get back “in” where they once got out.  However, a decade later, many have found out that taking a break from the full time working world has its own drawbacks.  After the economy fell apart, the loss of income became a major issue for the women interviewed.  One woman explained it this way:

“I lose sleep and have great anxiety over the thought that we have three kids who are three years apart in age and we’ll be paying for 12 years of college,” she said over bagels and cream cheese in the Mattox’s sunny wood-paneled dining room. “Every time my daughter says, ‘I’ll be out of here in two years,’ is every time I go to bed at night and say: ‘Oh, my God. Can we sustain what we need for her and for the other one and for the other one and us and everything else?’ ”

The children needed braces, sports equipment, summer camps. The car needed work, and the house — a solid four-square fixer-upper in various stages of fixed-uppedness — needed repairs.

Inherent in this comment is one dangerous idea.  And that, I believe, is the concept of “need”.  Do kids need sports equipment, summer camp, or even braces?  Do they need college?  Or more specifically, do they need their parents to pay for college?  This list smacks of the middle class, developing world.  It also requires a great amount of money.  All of it.  The expectation of the American dream, that seems to have grown from home ownership to home ownership + (2 cars, new clothes, new toys, private classes, organic food, a college fund for each child in the family, family vacations, date nights, remodeling, just to say a few…) adds up to one giant hill that would be parents have to climb before they can even contemplate the enormous step of bringing a child into the mix.  Because children are so expensive, according to all their needs.  Because being  middle class is so expensive.  Especially when the economy sucks.  Here’s an idea.  Ask kids what they need.

According to Maslow’s hierachy of needs, the needs of humans are, in importance of most crucial to least importance: Physiological, Safety, Belongingness and Love, Esteem, & Self-Actualization.  Maslov considers the first four to be necessary.  On the blog Lifehack, Erin Kurt reports a lovely list of things children have told her collectively and consistently over many years that make them feel loved and happy (notice that they all meet the needs of the first four levels).

Here it is:

  1. Come into my bedroom at night, tuck me in and sing me a song. Also tell me stories about when you were little.
  2. Give me hugs and kisses and sit and talk with me privately.
  3. Spend quality time just with me, not with my brothers and sisters around.
  4. Give me nutritious food so I can grow up healthy.
  5. At dinner talk about what we could do together on the weekend.
  6. At night talk to me about about anything; love, school, family etc.
  7. Let me play outside a lot.
  8. Cuddle under a blanket and watch our favorite TV show together.
  9. Discipline me. It makes me feel like you care.
  10. Leave special messages in my desk or lunch bag.

Notice that nowhere does it say own an SUV and drive me to lessons for anything; buy me gear or braces, send me to college, or send me to summer camp. It also doesn’t say plan elaborate Pinterest inspired crafts and parties, and dress me like a baby Gap model.  These are manufactured needs.  Concepts so prevalent in our culture that we feel like crap parents if we can’t deliver.  What this list does tell us is that we need to be present for our children.  And if the compulsion to work frantically and a lot to provide our children stuff from the manufactured list of needs is so strong that we can’t be available to make them feel happy and loved, something is wrong.

Here is the second dangerous idea:  Equality.  Work fulfills our needs for esteem and self-actualization in a way motherhood cannot.  Maslov’s last 2 levels.  Now, while I would like to outright dismiss the need to fulfill these “needs” as narcissistic crap excuses for avoiding our obligations to other human beings, the way he defines them explains a lot about why many woman feel torn when trying to meet both their children’s needs, and their own.  In the words of one of the mother’s who “opted out,”

…when traditional gender arrangements were put into place, there was a subtle slide into inequality. ‘The dynamic changes,’ said Hope Adler, a former manager at the professional-services firm KPMG who spent 10 years at home full time with her four children before starting work again and choosing to take a much-lower-paying job at a smaller consulting firm that allowed her to work some of the time from home. ‘When I worked at KPMG we did 50/50,’ she said. ‘We were making equal money. Then once I started staying home, I was doing laundry, dinner. . . .’ But once she started working again, the expectations remained the same. ‘There just doesn’t seem to be a way to go back,’ she said.


Mothering can easily be a full time and a half, 24 hour a day job, especially when the job description comes with an unspoken expectation that includes housekeeping duties and an on-call button, on top of whatever outside tasks a woman may take on.  Before I ever had a child, I used to think I would want to be a stay at home mom.  I was raised by Mary Poppins/Maria Von Trap.  My mother never lost her cool, made home cooked meals, did all the laundry and dishes, made my lunch, and made sure to bring it to school if I forgot it.  She came to all my games, drove me everywhere, planned elaborate birthday parties, led our family in sing-a-longs on the piano, and cried on the couch with me the many times my heart was broken in middle school.  On the side, she planned empires, and ran small businesses.  But I never thought of her as a working mom.  She was THERE for me.  Always. Dragging me out of bed in the morning, preheating my room before I even kicked back the covers; picking me up from everything, dinner on the table like clockwork.  I didn’t know what a mom machine she was.  Until I became a mom.  And I realized it’s the hardest job in the world because you get no scheduled vacations, and worse, no RESPECT.  Moms don’t get quarterly reports showing their productively and levels of success.  No one pats them on the back and says good job.  Go to a party and try telling someone you’re a stay at home mom, and see the light of interest flicker in their little pupils.  You won’t.  No one cares about your own kids’ bowel movements like you do.  ESTEEM.  It hit me like a thunderbolt a little after the fact.  THIS is why women work.  For respect.  Not just out of the home, but in the home.

Which brings me back to that book I read, the generically titled one.  “Things My Mother Never Told Me.”  Another premise of this book is that, for all our desire for equality as women, you never know how much you won’t want to leave that little person once you bring him or her home.  You may partner up with someone, as many women of our generation do, with an expectation of “equality.”  Equal work, equal division of labor.  Heck, why even get married?  Just stay in it as long as it’s good, and you are “in love,” and then follow your bliss another direction if it doesn’t work out.  Try each other on.  Equally, of course. But how do you slice that pie if suddenly, you realize you want kids?  Where do kids fit into such an egalitarian arrangement?  Or, what if you get hitched (or not) and have that baby, and discover you don’t want to go back to work?  You want to stay home, to follow the path all your instincts or ethics are leading you down every time your baby cries, or your toddler says ‘don’t go mommy.’  It is a breach of the holy covenant of equality and mutually explored self-actualization.  At least, the covenant that implies equality means you both bring home the bacon and equally follow your bliss.  Some men that dig equality may not dig becoming the single breadwinner so that their other (very equal) half can stay home and follow her baby bliss.  Or they may dig it a lot, but forget to treat said bliss follower as an overworked, exhausted valuable equal, also in need of a house keeper, and time alone.

I can relate to Hope Adler.  My husband is a rare breed of tiger/laundry doer/dish washer, but even so, I have realized that bringing home a little bacon makes me feel entitled to respect, more fierce about demanding it, then I would if I was not contributing to our finances.  I dream about having four more kids and staying home with them, while Mr. Right makes enough money to buy sports equipment and send all (imaginary) five kids to summer camp.  But I married a man who was raised with a lot of respect for the honorable profession of mothering.  He was, in fact, raised in a different culture.  A culture of machismo that I am learning, in it’s own upside down world way, actually makes me feel more “equal” as a woman.  I don’t feel like I need to prove my value as an equal to my husband, even in periods when we have depended soley on his income.

And so, in terms of esteem, my husband has played an enormous role in making me feel “esteem” by loving and valuing me simply because I am his wife.  And I think this is where the business of equality can be tricky. We have been through our share of role reversals; I have been the primary breadwinner in some seasons, and he in others.  But I have pretty much never been in charge of laundry (I’m not allowed-I don’t “fold it right”), and I’m not much good for dishes either.  But if if anyone is in charge of food, it will probably be me.  We don’t keep score.  Equality does, by definition.  It requires equal ratios of something for each.  Respect is a much better concept, and we could all use more, for whatever contribution we make, as men or women.  And love, of course.  And respect and love don’t demand walk-in closets, or self-actualization.  Love, in fact, throws itself at the other with no self preservation whatever.  Which is why marriage is so beautiful.  It tells the other-you are worth forever.  You are worth slogging through the unknown.  No trying each other on, no going back.

I read an article this week about having it all, and I would like to re-frame the “all.”  I would like to see women taking back their right to expect commitment, expect marriage, expect babies and the family structure to make it happen. I would like to see women expecting the right to be intelligent, available mothers, with all the respect that the job title deserves.  As a post script, the title on the piece got it wrong.  As a conclusion to the “Opt Out Generation Wants Back In”, the author writes “And not a single woman I spoke with said she wished that she could return to her old, pre-opting-out job — no matter what price she paid for her decision to stop working. What I heard instead were some regrets for what, in an ideal world, might have been.”

Sadly, in the comment box that follows, a young woman misconstrues the article as an opposition to opting out, and says that “this is why I will only have one child. So my fiancee and I can continue working full time.”  And I can’t help but think of the age old wisdom to “work to live; not live to work.”  I’m not saying mother’s shouldn’t work.  We need to give up the idea that there is one “right” way to be the parents our children need.  As long as we remember what they told us themselves.  They need us.  Not a McMansion, not a private education.  We would do well to give up concepts of self worth measured by accomplishments and salaries, and do well to start expecting that woman are worth commitment, and our children are worth our time.  We need to recognize that EVERY mom is a working mom, some just put in their hours at home.   We need to assign value to the most important job anyone will ever do.

Men and women should be able to make decisions around a quality of life that is not measured by dollar signs. Some sacrifices are worth it.  Children are worth it. They are the frosting on the cake!


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