In high school, I lied about skipping work to go play tennis. Not shocked? I was playing tennis with BOYS. Grab your pearls, this story is about to get saucy.
When my mom found out, she lectured me on lying, on sneaking around and hanging out with boys. I refused to apologize. Not even for the lying. “I told you I wanted to go play tennis,” I reasoned. “You told me ‘no.’ So, I made it happen.”
My parents deemed me an “unrepentant sinner” and sent me away to a camp. This camp bills itself as a kind of intellectual boot-camp for Christians to help train them for the “ungodly worldviews” that are forced on the young minds of Christians in college.
I was not impressed. I spent the week fighting with the teachers. When they mocked animal rights, I insisted that wasn’t protecting animal rights Godly because didn’t God want Adam to take care of the animals? Isn’t that our charge? When another teacher dismissed Emily Bronte as a “secular humanist” (a charge akin to saying she was a puppy-eating, serial killer who made lamp shades out of the fingers of infants), I railed against his inability to see transcendence in literature just because the author didn’t sign onto the Nicene Creed. “So, does this mean you can’t quote St. Augustine because he was Catholic?” The teacher, who had just finished quoting St. Augustine, took me aside.
“You clearly have a sharp mind, but the way you are using it isn’t becoming. You need to hone your learning and submissive spirit. Think of yourself as a wild horse, who needs to be bridled. That’s power. Power restrained.”
At 18, I was unequipped to properly respond to that statement. Mostly, because I had been raised not to punch my elders in the face. But it wasn’t the first time I’d heard something like that. That same year I was encouraged to read a book called Domestic Tranquility, where the author blames feminists for ruining families. And male leaders in my church were fond of repeating the words of Pastor John Piper, “A woman on her knees sways more in this nation than a thousand three-piece suited Wall Street folks.”
Raised a home schooled Evangelical, I listened to these lessons, then turned around and went to a college stuffed full of secular humanists and did things like watch the Vagina Monologues and participate in Take Back the Night. I wrote communist slogans on my pants. My feet in both worlds, I was determined to become everything other than what I had been told to be. So, I barreled forward. I wrote. I got jobs. I wrote some more. I did what I loved. And then one day, I looked around and realized I was pregnant and living in Iowa.
Somewhere, Gloria Steinem was shaking her head in shame.
Last year, I reached out to a woman I admire. She writes books. Good ones. She mentored me in graduate school and I asked her how she did this. How she worked as a statistician, wrote books and raised her daughter. I felt like I was drowning. I felt like I was failing–that the part of me that wanted to be all the things I had in me felt like I was loosing to the me of responsibility and duty. One word at a time, she told me. One hour stolen away. Five minutes in a closet. You do what you can when you can to steal those moments for yourself to preserve yourself.
She named all the other women who had done it with more children and less help then me. “Keep working,” she told me. “So, I did.” And I do. And some days I am victorious. I have an essay that will be in Redbook! I’m speaking at BlogHer! Another client! And other days I lose. Another agent rejection. An essay rejection. I have to work while Ellis climbs onto my lap. “Up, up?”
“Mommy’s working,” I say and point her towards her motherless doll.
Thanks to Anne-Marie Slaughter’s article in the Atlantic, everyone is talking about women “having it all.” She says it’s not possible, and when I hear that, the 18-year-old version of me cringes. It makes me feel like the man who told me to bridle myself just won.
I’m not a power player. I’m not a highly-trained intellectual. (I have a master’s but, it’s in creative writing, so I think I just proved my point.) I’m not even precisely the person I want to be just yet. I don’t want to work at the state department or run Princeton. I just want to write. It seems so small. And then, when Anne-Marie Slaughter, who does do all those things, says, “It’s hard!” I feel silly.
I mean, I’m basically just one boob job away from being a trophy wife at this point. What is my problem?
Also, we are thinking about having another child. And while the idea is delightful, it’s also terrifying. I remember my awful 17-year-old self yelling at my mom, “If you wanted to do things and go places then you shouldn’t have had all of us kids!”
I don’t have any answers. Anne-Marie Slaughter doesn’t either. And she’s much smarter than me. But I do know that one of the most important reasons I want to be all the things I can be to the fullest reaches of my talent, is because of that little girl, sitting next to me on her Fisher Price laptop, pounding the buttons and yelling, “Beep! Beep!”
So, head down. Keep working. One hour. Five minutes. One word at a time.