Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead book cover

Dear Maya,

Well, there is a lot I could use some advice on but right now my thoughts have been centered around one thing that scares the crap out of me—becoming a mother. I know, I know, women have been doing this for years…but I haven’t.

How did you know you were ready? Did you know? I am very active in my community and career and don’t know how being a mom will impact these. I am so scared of giving up everything I am working towards…

I also struggle a little with my husband and not feeling a little resentful that he doesn’t wrestle with these questions as we head down the road to becoming parents. He is very laid back and seems to think I am worrying too much. I am afraid he might be right (even though I won’t admit it to him). 😉

The Baby Worrier

Dear Baby Worrier,
Fear not.  He’s wrong; you’re right.  Motherhood’s nothing new but your message describes something that goes far beyond a mere desire to give birth (and trust me that isn’t easy either).  You’re talking about giving birth, raising a child, advancing your career, having an impact in the community and maintaining a good relationship with a “laid back” husband who downplays your concerns.  That’s a lot.

Given all of these competing goals and your own tendencies toward perfectionism (I’m reading between the lines here), worry is a perfectly natural place to start.  It demonstrates awareness of the magnitude of what you’re up against, a reasonable apprehension about anyone’s ability to do all these things well and uncertainty about the strength of your support system.  It reveals you as one smart woman, indeed.  You’re anticipating challenges, hatching a plan and seeking support before birthing a baby.

But don’t get stuck with the anxiety.  Acknowledge the worry and then transform it into wisdom.  That’s a multi-step process.

  1. Accept the fact that you can’t have it all.
  2. Identify real limits and tradeoffs.
  3. Consciously build support for your choices.

Once you’ve walked through these steps, you’ll be far better equipped to integrate motherhood into your life than I was.   But truth be told, nothing can fully prepare you for parenting’s grip, tumult and wonder.

You Can’t Have It All

On some level, all women know that attempting to “have it all” is a ridiculous pursuit that leads to exhaustion, frustration and failure.  But that doesn’t keep us from trying anyway.  Spurred on by new freedoms, media and marketing onslaughts and our own ambition, we take on too much responsibility at work, at home and in the community and then wonder why we flounder.

You’ve got to give yourself a major reality check to undermine the pull of unrealistic expectations.  I recommend “Wonder Women: Sex, Power and the Quest for Perfection” by Debora L. Spar.  A mother of three and president of Barnard College, Spar mines personal anecdotes, new research and cultural history to offer 101+ reasons why you can’t have it all.

It’s a message that ambitious women could stand to hear 1,000 times a day.  Not as a discouragement from pursuing our dreams, but as encouragement to pursue them more realistically, that is to say, selectively.

If you choose to go after five things at once anyway, then at least you can do so with eyes wide open. “If women want to combine motherhood with a full-time career—or a part-time career, or a deep commitment to anything outside the nuclear family—then they need to anticipate a truly extended period of permanent chaos,” Spar writes.  “Beautiful crazy-making, totally exhausted chaos.  And they need to stop feeling guilty for letting this madness ensue.”

Know When Enough is Enough

All too often, in work and at home, we strive for the fictional perfection depicted in magazines and on television.  But in real life, good enough is, by definition, good enough. It’s healthier to ponder your personal priorities, your actual budget and the finite number of hours you have each day. Without such reality checks, you’re setting yourself up for constant discontent and a vague sense of underachievement.

Satisficing, a combination of the words “satisfy” and “suffice,” is a decision-making strategy that favors adequate solutions over optimal ones.

In one of my favorite passages in “Wonder Women,” Spar describes the conscious tradeoffs that successful women have made between pursuing personal priorities and meeting societal expectations.  We meet Sarah who doesn’t cook at all but puts handwritten notes to her daughters in their lunchboxes every day.  We learn of Judith, a brilliant political scientist who doesn’t attend conferences or chat with her colleagues.  “If I want to know what they think, I read their books,” she said.

I love these illustrations of things—large and small—that driven women freely gave up to gain something more valuable.  They chipped away bits of a picture of perfection and so should we.  Ask yourself, what short cuts can you take, what compromises are you willing to make, what hacks can you adopt to make the time, space and energy for your higher callings?

Odds are, you’re probably already doing too much, even before adding a baby to the mix.  Practice cutting back now.  As Spar suggests, consciously, explicitly, and happily take whole chunks of activities off your to-do list and add others to your to-do-less-well list.  Truly, this brand of downsizing is the best preparation for transitioning to motherhood that I can imagine.

Build Your Support Team

Striving toward excellence in select pursuits and choosing mere adequacy in most activities is much harder for most women than it sounds.  That’s because we want to be great at everything, and our belief that we can be persists despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary.

So you’ve got some serious choices to make about what you’ll excel at and what you’ll give up in its pursuit.  But don’t worry, you can do it. Just by acknowledging fears and seeking help and role models, you’re moving in the right direction.

Finding friends, books and affirmations that reinforce the choices you make helps too.  And your husband, while oblivious now, will grow to play an integral part in this support team.  You just have to continue to lovingly educate him as you grow in your own convictions and choices.