Tuesday, September 24, 2013

A Conflict Of The Soul

I read a fantastic article yesterday in First Things, a magazine I love for its serious thought mixed with compassion. The piece is called "No Happy Harmony: Career and Motherhood Will Always Tragically Conflict," and it struck me as the first essay I've read on this "Having It All" debate that was truly wise, appropriately thoughtful, and fully honest.

You see, in this piece, Elizabeth Corey kept the heart at its center.

The article is long and complex, full of interesting things and very much worth reading, but I want to focus on one main point she makes. And this is it: the conflict that modern women face, the conflict between work and children, is not an external conflict. It's not a conflict that can be fixed by our society, a conflict whose solution rests in electing our first female president or making sure 50% of our nation's CEOs are women. Hope for fixing the problem doesn't reside in more flexible offices or in more understanding bosses or in new social policies.

The work and motherhood balance cannot be solved externally because it is an internal conflict. As Corey puts it, it is a "conflict in the soul." She writes, "We cannot come to terms with the difficulties women face in the present day until we consider the way in which we feel the competing inclinations in our own souls."

In all of the pieces and opinions I've read on this same topic, the struggle has never been framed in this way. "There is a solution for everything, they imply; we just haven't found it yet." This is how Sheryl Sandberg writes about work and motherhood, how Anne-Marie Slaughter writes about it, how we mostly read about it. I admire these women for their optimism in believing there is a real cure, a total fix, a tidy answer for women who want both families and careers (even if we haven't found it yet).

But perhaps Corey's realistic but heartfelt approach is the better one. What if we really believed, as Corey does, that "this conflict in the soul does not go away," that society can't fix it for us, and what if we adopted this honest perspective in an effort to make the best decisions we can possibly make in a world that, admittedly, isn't fair?

"Modern women are right to think that both the pursuit of excellence and the desire to care for others are part of a fully flourishing life. Excellence in a particular field requires persistence, self-confidence, drive, courage, and initiative. These are eminently admirable qualities. On the other hand, serving or loving another requires the even more admirable qualities of attention, focus, care, patience, and self-sacrifice. The accent we place on them, and the way we put them into practice, is a matter for all of us to figure out for ourselves."

Facing our hearts to find our answers is the most brave thing we can do. It's so much easier and simpler to decide that our struggle over work and family is a result of the mixed-up society we live in and leave it at that. It's much harder, and takes more strength, to see this struggle as something that exists within us, that it is tied up in the very fabric of our beings, and that only a glimpse into our own souls will guide us to the path that is most right.


  1. Thanks for sharing this article, Kate - it's lovely and challenging. I totally agree with her, and no matter how much freedom we're given by external forces to make our own choices we're still going to have the struggle in our souls, I think. Women are always going to have to make choices (and they're going to be hard ones) no matter how many avenues are truly open to us. I do think it's important that the external solutions be progressed because until then all the different options won't be fully open to us, but that's only half the issue. The other half is internal - not so easy to point the finger at that and say "fix it!"

  2. A friend of mine works for a high-powered consulting firm, and they have really incredible flexibilities for mothers who would like to continue working. They go so far as to allow mothers to completely work from home and keep the same job they had before. I agree with you that policies like this are great. I do think that the mothers who choose this option still have a fair amount of conflict in their hearts, because while they're home, they can't be fully present for their children. So yes, as women we'll always have balances to strike. I for one have always been beyond thankful that my passions (music, teaching, writing) can be done from home and on my own schedule, such as when my husband is home to take care of our children or during naptimes, etc. I'm always thinking about this sort of thing and preparing for the future!

  3. First of all, feel better!

    I think you've made great points. As the cost of living goes up, I do think that more and more families rely on two incomes. And you're right, she didn't really address the issue of women not having a choice about whether or not they can work (but I think she intentionally left that out, because this was more an article about women who WANT work and motherhood both, and are conflicted about it, finances aside).

    Honestly though, I can't help but wonder if our modern culture has contributed to the problem you describe. I think young married couples today spend way more money than normal young married couples 50 or so years ago. I'm reading a book right now about Ernest Hemingway and his first wife, and they lived on practically nothing when they had their first child, but they just made do. It's crazy to think, now, of living in a barely heated apartment over a sawmill with a little baby! But there's a nobleness to that. I've always looked up to my parents because they had me and my brother 18 months apart, right after getting married, my mom stayed home and my dad was a freelance writer and fixed up rowhouses on Capitol Hill and sold them to make a little extra money. It wasn't easy for them and I'm not sure they'd recommend it, per se, but they did it. I think today we think we need a lot more than we actually need, or that everything has to be figured out before becoming parents. I know I've been guilty of this exact thing and I'm slowly trying to change my attitude. I used to think I'd like (or even need!) to be a homeowner before having our first baby, but my priorities have slowly been shifting as a result of prayer and reflection and now, I think I'd be more than happy to bring our first child home to an apartment. We would just have to make do with less space.

    I'd love to hear what you think. Does this make sense, or am I totally wrong? Obviously every couple is different, and every couple has a different idea of what it means to feel stable and secure. I guess it's just a theory I have and it's also something I'm trying to work on in myself, which is why I thought of it...

  4. I loved The Paris Wife! Good book. I listened to the audiobook in July. You are right about how we "need" more nowadays and that definitely has something to do with the debt you see all over the place in our country. And, at the end of the day, everyone finds a way to make it work- just like you bring up from the book!

    I also think that our generation IS more greedy in the idea of having attitudes that say "no, we have to have it THIS way, not that way" and I know I am even guilty of it- I would love to move before we start a family and it may or may not happen. I know that deep down it is because I have a dream life for my kids and I want to find a way to give it to them, but as you say.... we have to make do with less.

    That being said, when I think about the incredible student loan debt I see everyone taking on, the incredible housing prices in many areas of the country... even the price of gas and groceries.... if we compared apples to apples, I still think we'd find more families being forced to have dual incomes today. And I fear it is going to get worse as more generations can't afford to save for their children's college and save to help their children get on their feet. That just worries me- the idea that the days of building family trusts are coming to an end, you know?

  5. I'm impressed you knew what book I was referring to!

    You wrote that you want to give your kids a dream life (me too, of course) but something that has helped me, is to remember that the best, most lasting and important thing we can give our children is our love. I think we as parents-to-be care much more about logistics and houses and location etc. than they ever will. They just want to be loved. That's helped me to keep things in perspective and remember that there's no perfect time to have children. (It took some time for me to realize that!) Loved hearing all of your thoughtful thoughts on this, Tina :)


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