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.