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“Success” and Having It All: A Response

I'll probably never have it all; does that make me a failure? 

June 28, 2012

By now you’ve probably all read The Atlantic article outlining the various ways women are still fighting for equality from both within and without. It resonated a lot with me, and repeated (in a more eloquent and legitimate way) much of what I said last summer with my Bad Female Academic series. There has been, obviously, a bit of backlash, in particular the way the article was framed (the paratextual matters!) and also the privileged perspective it represented.

But I think, for me, the other issue is that it doesn’t challenge the modern idea of what it means to be a successful feminist/female; having it all still means a high-powered career and a family. It still casts those who aren’t interested in one or the other as failures to the feminist movement, nay society at large. If you don’t aspire to the corridors of power, influence, and wealth, then you clearly aren’t doing your job as a feminist. Ditto if you don’t also aspire to pass on your superior genetics and influence to the next generation.

I hope you’ll indulge me if I spend a couple of hundred words talking about my mother and our fraught and complex relationship. I’m not sure if she would call herself a feminist. Pragmatic (which she got from her mother before her) and realistic, she believed that I could be anything I wanted to be, as long as it was something sensible, stable, and would make me a comfortable amount of money. It was a given that I was going to do well in school and go on to college. My parents divorced when I was 13, and we struggled financially forever after. She had only completed one year of college, but worked her way up to respectable, professional positions in smaller companies, never making, however, enough money to support us. She had a reputation for working hard, being organized, as well as being personable.

Without going into a lot of detail, I knew (at least I liked to think I knew) that it didn’t have to be that way. I knew that if she had made different choices, we could have taken off to Australia, lived on a boat, and had a completely different (read, more exciting) life. Looking back, I craved adventure, the unknown, rather than the frustrating reality we seemed to be stuck in. Financially, clearly, we wouldn’t be better off, but I dreamed of a place where we didn’t have to pretend and hide the fact that we were broke all the time. Success, at that stage, wasn’t professional achievement, it was courage; courage to have adventures, find real happiness, not the kind that you put on the morning to keep up appearances. I didn’t care that my mom wasn’t a power broker making millions; I cared that we all seemed fundamentally unhappy.

Of course, I now recognize that my mom gave up on adventures in part (but only in part) because she wanted to provide a stable and predictable home for my brother and me. But I also learned to be afraid of wanting too much, of being too ambitious, learning instead to be as practical as possible. As I’ve written previously, I rebelled by going to a solid professional program at a good university. As a woman, failure was not an option when it came to my future career, so best choose one that almost guarantees modest success.

Fast-forward a few years. I was dating a guy from a much wealthier family than my own. He told the story of his father, the son of poor immigrants, who worked his way through medical school and was now doctor to the stars. He was, justifiably, proud of his dad. I told the story of my mom, who worked hard in order to keep the house that my brother and I grew up in, even after the divorce, despite financial hardship, a lack of education, and a crappy economy (the 1990s in Montreal were brutal). He looked at me with such derision: how dare I compare my mother’s story with his father’s story? His father had succeeded according to a very specific script; my mother had…not so much failed as floundered, at least in his estimation. We broke up soon afterwards.

I am still wrestling, myself, with what success means to me, in particular because of the message it sends to my kids. Am I a failure because I gave up a tenure-track job? Am I a bad mother and role-model because I stay in a “safe” position as an instructor, accepting deteriorating work conditions? My mom, for me, wanted (and still wants) nothing more than for me to “come home,” move in down the street, and make a life for our family there by any means necessary. I want nothing more for my children than for them to move away, have adventures, have big dreams, and find their own definition of success. But what can I tell them? That mommy aspired to more than being an instructor, but decided that this sacrifice was necessary? What message does that send to my daughter (it will be a choice: career or family) and my son (your spouse is the one who needs to sacrifice).

It won’t always be like this. At least, I hope it won’t be. I need to decide and then make peace with what I think success means, without it meaning settling. If I don’t, then my kids won’t know it when they see it, either. 


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