A book review by Jessica Powers
Torn: True Stories of Kids, Career & The Conflict of Modern Motherhood
Edited by Samantha Parent Walravens
Coffeetown Press, 2011, $18.95, 270 pp.
I had a baby boy, my first, seven and a half months ago. For years before he was born, I intentionally put myself on what might be called the “artist track” in regards to my career. As a writer, I felt like it was more important for me to aggressively pursue my writing than to pursue a job with promotions, advancements, salary raises, and titles. As a result, of course, I’ve never earned what I “deserve” to earn. Writers earn jack, let’s put it that way, for at least a very long time and, possibly, forever. We live for publication. This devil’s bargain has its problems: publication is never a sure bet, and just because a book gets published is no guarantee that it’ll sell well.
Meanwhile, my friends have started professional careers or gone on to full-time motherhood. The fact that I was in a netherworld of “neither here nor there”—a professional without the salary or title to accompany it—has never bothered me; in fact, I felt rather fortunate that long before I had children, I had negotiated extremely flexible work that I could do entirely from home without ever going into the office. I teach online college writing classes as an adjunct professor, do part-time editorial and publicity work for an independent publishing company, run a small literary press of my own, and write books and articles. Yes, I’m a workaholic. But juggling these many roles has helped pay the bills and made me feel like I was always keeping my career options open even while I jumpstarted my writing career and then tried to keep the engine going. “If something goes wrong and we need the money,” I always told myself, “I could start applying for tenure-track positions or editorial positions.”
When my husband and I decided it was time to start a family, I happily told everyone that I had the perfect setup. “I’ll still work,” I said (subtext: we need my salary), “but I won’t have to put my baby in daycare” (subtext: we can’t afford it anyway). My dean was happy to still give me classes, my writing career was on track (I signed my second book contract when I was only three months pregnant), and I had more than enough work, even if it didn’t pay very well, from clients happy to have me work at home. Everybody agreed I was lucky and nobody told me just how hard it would be, because nobody I knew had ever done what I am trying to do. The working women I know have all needed to put their children in daycare; the stay-at-home moms I know aren’t trying to earn a living.
I am going to be honest and blunt here and say that it is definitely possible to do what I’m doing (I’m doing it, after all) but it is very hard, I am very tired, and I am assailed with guilt on all sides that I am not doing the very best job I can do in any of my roles: writer, editor, teacher, mother, and wife.
In short, I feel torn.
I can’t tell you how grateful I was to pick up Torn: True Stories of Kids, Career, and the Conflict of Modern Motherhood. I devoured the essays in this collection hungrily, seeking comfort from other women who all seem to feel remarkably just as I do, whether they are full-time mommies, juggling a career (part or full time) and motherhood, or (much more rarely) trying to work from home while being a full-time mother as well. I needed to know I wasn’t alone in the guilt. I needed to know that women who choose full-time motherhood or full-time careers struggle just as much as I do, that it is never an “either/or and now we’re done with it” decision. I needed to know that other women had experienced what I have: what felt like a flexible and perfect way to pay the bills while pursuing my writing career when I was childless now feels suspiciously like I’m being mommy tracked. Those career opportunities I knew were always going to be there may not be there in five or ten years if I keep doing what I’m doing. (Though, as always the dreamer, I just assume my writing career by then will be bringing in the big bucks and I won’t need those other careers that aren’t there anyway.)
But, now that I’m home with my child, I can’t imagine putting him in daycare. Recently, for example, I turned down a job interview for a full-time tenure track position as a professor of history. I told my husband I turned it down because I did the math. Once we paid for childcare, a new car, and a professional wardrobe, I’d be making less than what I currently make at home while being a full-time mother. So why be stressed with getting a child to daycare on time to get to work on time and what about when he’s sick and who takes the hit to their career to deal with sick child etc etc etc and so on and so forth? All that is true and if it hadn’t been true, I might have felt enough internal pressure to go to the interview and then, if I’d gotten the job, to take it. But the real reason I turned down the opportunity is because I looked at my little guy and realized I couldn’t do it to him. I couldn’t put him in a daycare where, as contributor Alexandra Bradner writes, the caregiver to child ratio is 1 to 6 and children “roam blankly about these toxic-foam-matted rooms, swatting at each other, consuming ‘health’ bars and juices built out of refined sugars and modified starches, looking at garish plastic toys without knowing how to play with them, and waiting for their heavy diapers to be changed. Their energy is unchanneled, their vocabularies underdeveloped, and their cognitive potential untapped. Instead of being frustrated with all the ways in which so many new constraints are chipping away at their identities, they’re prevented from forming any true identity but that of the generic company kid. And we stand back, mystified that verbal skills and creativity are on the decline while obesity and school violence are on the rise” (114).
This is not to say I judge women who do put their children in daycare. I know that a parent’s love is the most important thing and there are some great daycares out there. I have several nieces and a nephew who have adjusted just fine and are receiving excellent care. So I could nod my head in agreement with the contributor who defensively said daycare clearly hadn’t hurt her son, he’d gone on to Princeton University after all. And I felt sympathetic pains, along with an empathetic panic, with the contributor who now regrets her choice to stay at home with her children. Divorced now and barely employable due to her many years at home, she is kept awake at night wondering how she is going to survive financially and whether “retirement” is a word she will ever be able to contemplate. And yet, I was relieved by the contributor who quoted Gloria Steinem as saying that success is not doing it all, that in fact “this idea of doing it all is actually the ‘enemy of equality, not the path to it’” (82). I can’t do it all. But I’m still trying!
What is a woman to do? There is no one answer to that question.
What I love most about this collection is that the editor does not try to reconcile the disparate and often conflicting emotions that the contributors express or decisions they make and, subsequently, defend. By making this editorial choice, Walravens seems to suggest that it doesn’t matter what a woman does—doubts will follow her no matter what. Although the quality of the essays was uneven, the collection contained many gems and insights. And most importantly, it made me feel like I wasn’t alone. Reading these essays made me feel like I was connecting with women everywhere, rejoicing in success, sadly contemplating failure, and sympathetically encountering and recounting the frustrations and joys of motherhood in the modern world. Highly recommended reading for all mothers.