Big, wet eyes and a head full of dark brown hair. Time froze the moment I first laid eyes on my son. All the pain of labor and the cacophony of a packed delivery room fell away into silence and a profound joy that I did not know I was capable of feeling. I am a happy person. Happiness is my baseline, and I am very proud of it. So I thought I knew what true happiness was, no questions. That is, until I laid eyes on the most handsome face I had ever seen and one tiny millisecond changed my entire life. I became Mom. And from that moment forward, “mom” would be the hat that I wore with the most pride and the most passion. From that moment onwards, happiness would be redefined. Being a mother would be the motivating factor behind every move I would make for the rest of my life, no matter how big or small. Which flavor of ice cream should I buy? His favorite. Should I wear these shoes? Yes, if you can run after him in them. Should I take this promotion? Yes, if you still have time for him when he needs you.
I knew I wanted to be a mother for as long as I can remember. Obsessed with dolls when I was younger, I wanted a baby even when I was a baby. I would care for those dolls with the utmost care and nurture. I would bathe them, feed them and clutch them with fierce protection while I looked on in horror as other little girls let their dolls drag behind them as they ran about. No, my baby doll was my priority. No carefree running around for me, thank you very much. But even with the lineup of dolls and my parents’ endless compliments of how gentle and wonderful of a caretaker I was, there was still a profound pressure to excel in the world outside of my home. I am a first generation American Indian, the first to graduate from high school, college and get a doctorate. Education was a non-negotiable priority in our home. My parents were unable to get their degrees, but their life goal was for me to get mine. They would reiterate over and over again, “An education is the best chance you have to finding success.” It turns out that they were right. Education was the way that I got acquainted with the world and, thereby, with myself. Education was the key that unlocked countless doors to countless opportunities. I found myself in rooms with people who took my breath away, and I spent countless evenings talking about ideas and concepts which electrified my brain. I found a tribe of people who loved learning in a way that aspired me to aim for greatness. I was enlightened and engaged. I wanted to give back to this world that had given me so very much. But I still wanted to be a mom. I wanted it all.
Having it all is the ultimate urban holy grail. We tell our children they can have it all. We inspire our sons and daughters to learn and to grow and be citizens of the world. In the educated circles of our great nation, there is an undeniable movement to ensure every child knows they are equal to one another despite race or gender. We strive to create ample opportunity for every child, no matter who they are or where they come from. But having it all looks very different for our little girls and our little boys. Traditionally, boys grow up to be men who inherit the role of “bread winning.” A good dad goes out and brings home the bacon, according to the norms of traditional society. Thankfully there has been some evolution and now a good dad is also a dad who stays home, or some combination in between. Gender roles are evolving, slowly but surely. The role of a “good mom” has also evolved now. But in small pockets of society, the traditional landscape of Indian American immigrants included, I argue that the roles have not evolved enough.
In many immigrant and culturally diverse communities, a “good mom” still does the majority of the cooking, cleaning and raising of the kids all while maintaining a full-time job. This places a strong burden on working mothers in those communities. Having it all looks very different for these women. No matter what your society’s definitions are or how gender roles are defined in your home, both men and women have an uphill battle to fight when it comes to having it all. Society tells you, no matter who you are, that you CAN do it all. You can have the amazing home, the quality time with family, the cars, the money, the fame, the fortune, the 2.5 kids and the white picket fence. You have the same hours in the day as Angelina Jolie, don’t you? Well, with a healthy dose of time management and planning, you too can be a millionaire mommy ruling an empire all while baking delicious cupcakes for the school bake sale. #shinysmile.
But that is wrong. Now before everyone starts finding nice, sharp stones to cast my way, hear me out. The idea of “having it all” is not flawed in its aspirations; it is flawed in its definitions. This concept is destined to set countless women, countless people, up for failure. This applies to men and women alike. The idea that you can have it all implies a world without compromise, without decisions and without priorities.
The world has a window into my life and when they peer in, I hear that I “have it all’ consistently. But, what you do not see from that window is every time I trade a failure in for a success. The amazing times I fly across the country and take the incredible and humbling opportunity to inspire dental students, I am missing vital moments in my kids’ lives. When I am constructing elaborate fire trucks and scuba tanks for an epic Halloween for my boys, I ignoring an ever-growing To-Do list which sends me into anxiety-ridden episodes when I return to it. And in the midst of all of this, I am ignoring myself. I am ignoring time I need to recover from illnesses or be mentally and physically fit because I am too busy running after two children and growing a business and meeting deadlines. Sometimes blogs go unwritten and business decisions get pushed for storytime and cuddles and trips to the zoo. And sometimes tears go unwiped and recitals and games missed for professional growth and success. And all the time, society is screaming from social media, from the internet, from my TV, telling me that I “can have it all.” Every time someone tells me that I do have it all, I feel like I SHOULD have it all. I feel like the fact that I do not have it all, the fact that I battle with these small daily tradeoffs, is a dirty, dirty secret. And then enters my old nemesis, Mommy Guilt. Mommy Guilt is hideous, mean and snide. Mommy Guilt pulls no punches. And from the auditorium of my brain, Mommy Guilt gives epic, eloquent monologues on my failures. And I cower.
But if society just started a campaign to redefine having it all, then perhaps this would solve half the battle. Having it all implies not having some of it leaves you incomplete. Herein lies the problem. It implies that mothers who choose to spend their time caring for their children full time are missing a portion of their total selves. It implies mothers who choose to build empires and hire nannies to help them man the fort at home are missing a part of themselves. It implies that moms who try to do everything, fail on a daily basis because they will miss something daily, at home or at work.
Instead of having it all, we should be striving to “have happiness.” We should strive on a daily basis to make decisions and prioritize goals to maximize our happiness. And we should celebrate the tradeoffs. When a mom misses a recital or a cornerstone moment in her child’s life because she was at work, we should emphasize that her decision is creating a vision even larger than that moment. She is a role model to her children and their peers, showing that women can wield just as much power and impact just as much change as a man. She is demonstrating that we are equals in the truest sense. When a mother foregoes a promotion or misses an opportunity to acquire more growth professionally to be a more present mother, we should celebrate the memories she is creating instead of focusing on those missed opportunities. We should change policies and procedures to make a more balanced life a norm, not something we have to fight for. Time off for family or maternity leave should be a right, a standard, not a hope or a dream.
I am tired of feeling like I battle every day to do the best for myself, my family and my community, only to feel like I am still falling short. I am done with feeling like my two worlds will never amount to the sum of my potential. If you compare me to a full time entrepreneur, I will never match up, nor will I if you compare me to a full time stay at home mom. I am done with comparisons. I am done with Mommy Wars and Mommy Guilt. I am demanding Mommy Pride and Mommy Support. I am hoping for happiness, for myself and all other parents out there. I am hoping for self-speech that builds us up instead of tears us down. I am hoping for change in both the way the world sees us and the way in which we see ourselves.