I Want A Career And A Family, But I’m Constantly Being Told To Choose

Some of you might remember that movie starring Sarah Jessica Parker from a few years back: I Don’t Know How She Does It. As the title suggests, it’s the story of a high-powered executive and mom who tries to reconcile two very different roles, and more often than not, fails to do so.

By Gwen Farrell3 min read
Shutterstock/Vlad Teodor

The plot centers around the pressures of SJP juggling the demands of clients and competitive, more career-driven co-workers while simultaneously having a healthy relationship with her husband and spending time with her young kids. Not only does she face criticism from her boss and co-workers for dividing her time between work and family, but she’s also judged by the so-called “Momsters” at her daughter’s school who pointedly target her for having a demanding job which takes time away from her family.

When I was younger, I remember finding the whole concept not necessarily entertaining or relatable (granted, I wasn’t a mom with a career) but weird. Numerous other characters and portrayals in pop-culture and media run along the same vein: you can try, but you can’t have it all.

We’re told, “You can try, but you can’t have it all.”

I’ve always known that I want to have a family one day, but only recently have I been able to shape that goal within the context of also having a career. I have a job I love, one which I’m pretty good at, but it’s always been my understanding that when I choose to settle down and have kids, my professional life will vanish into thin air like a puff of smoke. Whether this is either entirely misguided or fairly accurate, I have yet to find out. But our culture has very definitive things to say about women who choose one or the other, or even — perish the thought — the women who attempt to do both.

The Domesticated Baby Maker

Let’s be clear right off the bat — as many out there know, motherhood is a full-time job. Pretending otherwise is just a glimpse into how our modern age has managed to downplay the role of moms since the origination of the “liberated career woman” as a result of the Sexual Revolution. After that, it was Mary Tyler Moore who became the woman to emulate, not Donna Reed.

Nevertheless, we’ve seen a rise in the percentage of stay-at-home moms since the ‘90s. Women are taking time off from work to raise their children either temporarily or permanently, whether from an inherent desire to do so or from the truly egregious rise in the cost of outsourced child care. 

Even so, despite our modern sensibilities and how they might differ from the mindsets of our mothers and grandmothers, there’s still the cultural perception that a mom who once had a career and now stays home to raise her children appears to have lost something. It almost feels like we mourn women who used to have careers and now commit their time and energy to raising the next generation. We’ve grown accustomed to measuring the success of individuals in general in relation to what they do for work and not as people, meaning we’re not really sure what to do with them once they break that perception.

It almost feels like we mourn women who used to have careers and now raise their children.

While the housewife trope is slowly being altered by the Millennial generation as it continues to age and have kids, the antithesis of the stay-at-home mom is just as concerning.

The Work-a-holic

Many women are fulfilled by their careers and personal pursuits, and it’s incorrect to assume that those who don’t choose motherhood, or are even unable to, are somehow worse off.

While we often write off stay-at-home moms stereotypically, we also manage to write off career women in the same way. Women who choose to direct their energy and enthusiasm towards work are seen as lacking in healthy social and personal relationships, or as having none at all. They’re also seen as less feminine, personable, and less fulfilled, and subtly shamed by their peers for not having families.

When thinking of the quintessential career woman, Sex and the City’s Carrie Bradshaw naturally comes to mind, or Candace Bushnell, the original author of the series and real-life columnist and party girl who Carrie was based on. Though Sex and the City still represents a cultural reset for millions of women who found Carrie’s way of life too glamorous and rewarding to pass up, Bushnell herself revealed recently how much she regrets not having a family when she had the opportunity to, describing herself now at age 60 as “truly alone.”

Is “Having It All” a Myth or a Reality for Most Women?

Bushnell’s transparent perspective is both insightful and heartbreaking at the same time. Perhaps because of the single career girl image she’d curated for herself, she felt she had to maintain that persona, even when starting a family was a more viable option for her. 

There’s nothing wrong with wanting to be a mom over the desire to be a doctor or a lawyer, and vice versa. What’s concerning is the thought that there are women who are too afraid to even try to have both, or to have two valuable aspects of their lives coexist. Maybe women like Bushnell thought they had to pick one over the other or else be judged and ridiculed, which, as we know now, led to her painfully deep regret. 

While we probably won’t ever regret trying to have both, we might regret delegitimizing one over the other.

Either way, we shouldn’t ever feel bad or afraid for wanting the things we want, even if they seem daunting. While we probably won’t ever regret trying to have both, we might regret delegitimizing one over the other, or letting others dictate what we should and shouldn’t want for ourselves. 

I have yet to find out if “having it all” is an impossibility or something that will one day be a norm in my own life, but regardless, telling women that they somehow give less to their children or spouse by working is just as dangerous and limiting as telling them their potential to contribute something professionally would be minimized by having a family.

Closing Thoughts

It’s always seemed easier to write off a woman as falling into one category, rather than refusing to label her and instead acknowledging the complexity (and value) having both a career and a family can bring to her life.

We shouldn’t be afraid to openly share what we want for our lives, nor should we be afraid to want everything life has to offer. If choosing a family or a career is a choice we’ll all have to make someday, it’s a choice we should be making for ourselves and not one that’s decided by the standards others have set for us. 

Otherwise, there’s no shame in trying to have it all, or at least finding the right balance between the two.