You can’t have it all…but who cares?

“Wow, it really is amazing,” a celebrated Russian playwright once slurred to me in the middle of an after party following a movie premiere. “You, like, go out and stuff. Wearing dresses. And have wine. And you write things. And you’re sometimes on the radio. I mean, you WORK, right? At the newspaper? And you produced a movie? And wrote that play? I mean, you do things. Like a normal person.”

Drunk people have the unfortunate tendency to tell the truth, and what the playwright was telling me is that she had expected me to retire somewhere to the great blue yonder after giving birth. The fact that I remained a “normal person” was baffling to her. She didn’t even realize that I couldn’t afford to retreat – not even if I wanted to.

She wasn’t the first, nor would she be the last. Even among friends who realized that my visa to Russia depends on my media job and my son depends on my financial assistance, and who also realized that schmoozing and being seen was an important aspect of working on the arts scene and the entertainment scene, the question of whether or not I wanted to “just give it all up and move to a dacha” would regularly come up.

“But you like you work!” They would say. “We always kind of assumed that if you like your work – it probably means you can leave it! We thought you were out there, you know, having it all!” Right.

Now, even though I do enjoy what I do, I’m not one of those women who believes that “you can have it all” nor do I make “having it all” some kind of goal. First of all, I don’t even know what that means anymore – at best, it sounds like an upper or middle class cliché one would utter in order to set oneself apart from boring poor people who do what they do because they have to survive. Second of all, I don’t think it works like that.

In big ways and small, we all have to make compromises – or have others make them for us. Because I have to work, there are things that I miss out on. When my son was taking his first steps in a Moscow park, for example, I was on TV, talking about Pussy Riot. He and I have amazing, fun times together – but he can still break down and cry when nanny comes during breakfast, and not even daddy being around will necessarily cheer him up. He misses me often. And I miss him.

I am also don’t like to pretend as though childcare doesn’t come at a price – both for the employer and the employee. Professional sneerer Caitlin Flanagan was being smug as hell when she argued that working women in the United States were making achievements at the expense of underpaid childcare providers, but she had a point nonetheless.

A strong support network, or money for childcare, or some combination thereof are crucial for many families. Moscow, like many cities, is full of desperate migrants – and many of them are regularly exploited while working in childcare. We pay our nanny enough wages to where she can afford to stay on track with her mortgage and help her son through school on top of everything else, but that means not being able to afford a whole lot on our end. It means picking and choosing. It means corners cut and more sacrifices made: big ones, painful ones, life-altering ones.

When I make another one of those sacrifices and then stay awake at night thinking of the consequences – like I did when we moved to a fairly rough neighborhood to cut costs and, shortly thereafter, I became a witness to a stabbing – I console myself with the fact that I, at the very least, never felt as though I had much of a choice, and supplanted my lack of choice with an understanding that it is my destiny to do what I do.

A lot of people I know will have moments when they Gwyneth Paltrow all over the place, turning preachy and condescending when faced with how unglamorous other women can become when they become parents. “God, she has really let herself go.” “We just don’t see her anymore, do we, she never has any fun anymore now that she’s a mom.” “It’s like she doesn’t even try.” Then there are others they bestow their approval upon, not even realizing that it’s usually not any specific amount of “trying” that makes a difference here.

My son, meanwhile, didn’t just force me to do more – much more importantly, his arrival made me realize that I needed to be happier. That I needed to figure out the things that made me happy – such as writing, for example – and then pursue the hell out of them in whatever way that was available to me.

We can go on and on about what kids need and don’t need, and we can try different parenting strategies, and we can argue about them on blogs, but if we’re not happy while we’re doing it, kids will suffer either way. You can’t fool a child. You can’t pretend with them. Kids sniff out unhappiness – and as you wallow in it, they wallow with you. It doesn’t mean you have to feel guilty about being unhappy – because fuck that shit – but it also does mean that taking paths that work for *you* is of no small consequence.

Grown-up time has been an essential component of my happiness. I’m a dramatic, oversensitive, depression-prone person by nature – it’s a cliché for a writer to be that way, but whatever – and I go out in order to dissolve myself in other people a little bit. Hear about their problems, instead of thinking about my own. Take stupid pictures. Etc.

Grown-up time has meant traveling without our son – and missing him furiously, but also understanding that I in particular need to step sideways every once in a while, and end up in an unfamiliar setting I can just observe, tuning out my own story and peeking into someone else’s. Parenthood, biological and otherwise, has than physical, animalistic aspect to it – you pour your own energy into a helpless, dependent little creature to make sure it thrives, and every once in a while, that energy starts to ebb, and you need to go looking for more of it.

When I took my son Lev to visit his grandparents in Kiev over the summer, I ran into a former classmate who ended up sobbing on my shoulder and saying that she “can’t do it anymore.” She loves her son and the kids, but she can’t do it anymore, and she doesn’t remember the last time she read a book or anything of the sort, and “isn’t it nice for you, Natalia, you still know how to be selfish.” I didn’t take it as an insult. Selfishness is something we deny to mothers, it is seen as the very antithesis of motherhood, when all the while, a tiny bit of selfishness can go a long way towards restoring your strength so that you can, in turn, be there for your kid.

There is no formula on how to be a good mom and a happy mom. Society isn’t even all that designed to support parenthood, motherhood in particular – the terrifying mess that is U.S. day care being one major example here – so even having the space to worry about “getting it right” is usually a pretty damn big privilege. I mean, let’s face it, for a lot of parents, it doesn’t come down to – “Oh, but will my child later resent me for that lunch hour I spent with dear Mimi whom I know from my debutante days?”, but instead to – “Oh, will my child survive the day and be OK?”

Still, having been born in the waning days of the USSR to a pair of people who were financially screwed, I know that happiness is important either way. We lived in dreadful, late Soviet-era housing then, and I remember not having a bed – my mom used to push two old armchairs together so that I would have a little nest to sleep in. My father was working as an engineer – a job so ridiculously underpaid that jokes circulated about muggers attacking a man only to donate money to him when they realized he was in that field. My mom especially came from a privileged background, but both sets of grandparents were largely out of the picture – so she had no help as she stayed at home with me, and no serious job prospects at the time either.

Babysitters weren’t an option, so by the time I was potty-trained and generally responsive to arguments and instructions, my parents’ version of grown-up time became taking me everywhere. I would fall asleep at parties to the sound of 80s pop songs and adult conversation and glasses clinking and my father would carry me home. My mother could be belle of the ball again, ashing her cigarettes into the cupped, waiting hands of her admirers. The took me to Prague and East Germany back when East Germany was still a thing – and we slept in the car some nights and I once accidentally got drunk on blue champagne that I had mistaken for lemonade. There was beauty and horror back in those early days – I nearly died of dysentery in a filthy Crimean hospital one time (my mother eventually made a daring escape through the window with me – the conditions were prison-like), and my father was once chloroformed and robbed while moonlighting as a taxi driver to help ends meet. It was a messy and deprived existence, but what my parents taught me then is that such an existence didn’t have to be empty of meaning or purpose or, for that matter, happiness.

So what I’m telling you is this: it’s OK to challenge the dominant paradigm and enjoy yourself at the same time. Whatever path you choose, whether you have kids or you don’t, whether you stay home with them or you don’t, will lead to some form of sacrifice eventually – but that doesn’t mean that everything has to suck either. Even as we struggle against the worst that our lives have to offer, we should also find the space to take a deep breath every once in a while and look at a flower or enjoy a cocktail or whatever. Being unable to enjoy the flowers and the cocktails that life occasionally dumps in our laps means that the evil bastards win. I don’t always know who “the evil bastards” are – sometimes they are greedy corporate overlords, or inebriated rival playwrights at parties, or authors of judgemental articles in The Atlantic, or rival gangs attacking each other with guns and knives outside your window – but every life has them. And they recede somewhat when you give yourself a break.

And they recede especially for me whenever it is I blow my lid and tell someone that “having it all” is the stupidest concept since corsets and riding sidesaddle for modesty’s sake. If my husband doesn’t have to worry about “having it all” – then neither should I.

26 comments for “You can’t have it all…but who cares?

  1. EG
    September 28, 2013 at 10:05 pm

    I always find your writing beautiful, Natalia, so thank you for this post.

    I have one area of disagreement: Caitlin Flanagan only has a point if you think that well-off working men’s achievements don’t come at the expense of underpaid child-care workers, as if they have a right to work outside the home once they have kids, and childcare should just default to their wives. If you accept that both well-off men and women make their achievements at the expense of underpaid child-care workers, then all she’s saying is that the middle and upper classes exploit poor people. And how is that news?

    • September 29, 2013 at 2:55 am

      Yeah, I don’t really think it’s news per se – at best, Flanagan has always argued that men are entitled to things that women are not. Exploitation being one of them.

      She basically sets up the same argument every time she writes anything. Like with JFK last year – all those women he cheated on his wife with are disgusting sluts and whores and “we don’t need to hear from them,” but JFK himself is still a swell guy, all because he could take a pretty picture with his children.

  2. Momof4
    September 29, 2013 at 5:11 am

    I’m a big fan of Caitlin Flanagan and hate to see her disparaged in this post.

    I hate to say it, but maybe you’re just a little jealous of an accomplished woman writer who has it figured out. And has book deals. Whereas you are… Well, who are you exactly?

    If Flanagan read this, she would tell it like it is. Namely, someone needs to say it: Shame on you. Shame on you for not being there when your son was taking his first steps. It’s a precious moment you gave up on for the sake of a TV appearance.

    And can we please stop with the whining about “oh but I HAVE to have a career when my kids are small. I need the $$$!”

    Honey, some of us actually waited before we had our children. We actually saved up. So telling us about how great you are because you work and need money and are such a noble career woman can only make us laugh.

    • September 29, 2013 at 6:20 am

      Caitlin?! Is that you?!

      Seriously, how come you’re not concerned as to whether or not my husband missed the event too? (He did)

      Also, by your logic, no poor person should ever reproduce. Pat yourself on the back, Marie Antoinette.

    • September 29, 2013 at 6:37 am

      P.S. You tone sounds awfully familiar – and I’m pretty sure I already banned you on my personal blog before. For pretty much the same stupid argument – delivered with even less finesse.

    • rain
      September 29, 2013 at 10:15 am

      Honey, some of us actually waited before we had our children.

      You’ll have to yell louder, because there’s all those voices telling women to have children first, then a career, or their ovaries will be shriveled up by the time they get around to having children. So let me guess. Women are supposed to have their children before their career, but have enough saved up to afford them.

    • September 29, 2013 at 10:35 am

      Professional sneerer Caitlin Flanagan was being smug as hell when she argued that working women in the United States were making achievements at the expense of underpaid childcare providers, but she had a point nonetheless.

      Yes, and Flanagan overlooked the fact that the choice to work or not work is not one that most people can afford to make. It’s her whole schtick: celebrate the role of the traditional housewife, scold those of us who don’t and/or could never afford it, while creating a room of one’s own with the labor of a professional nanny staff. If you’re a heterosexual, sexually active person, the likelihood that you will at some point choose to parent a resulting pregnancy is quite high — shit, pregnancy is nearly inevitable for fertile het people over a sexually active lifetime — and here in the dirty, plebian trenches the smug scoldings about saving up and having children in the most mannered, morally correct circumstances are fucking hilarious.

      The need to find happiness as a caregiver is, I think, a pretty universal thing. Whether or not we have the privilege of time or money to do so does not negate the need for personal satisfaction. Some people find the sublime in the caregiving itself, which I think is pretty amazing since it’s not my milieu. I’ve had to find other ways of pursuing happiness as a single parent (sometimes thing don’t go as planned, Momof4 — hope you don’t have any devastating life surprises ever! or does your wedding band provide a force field against tragedy?) and more often than not my kids have to tag along with me. So while I like a solitary life of writing, the reality is that I can’t find the room of my own to do it in. We’ve discovered biking — the teenager on his own tricked out bike and the baby on the back of mine — where we are out in nature, interacting with the wider world, and getting touristy in our hometown. It gives us something to talk about, to tinker with, and excellent exercise. I’ve also focused my political activities on hyper-local events and laws, where I don’t feel so impotent as I did when focusing on national and international activist goals. This is all in addition to my full-time job, because I am the sole provider for my family. I say if I don’t go to bed tired, it was a bad day.

      I don’t understand this expectation that mothers should not experience happiness independent of their children. Or this belief that happiness is affordable only to the rich (I can attest it is not). Happiness is free — the means to feel it are mostly free. This need to tamp down women’s expressions of happiness is an extension of Original Sin — you made your bed, you lie in it, missy, and when your kids are grown you can pursue outside interests then.

      I’m rambling — this was great, Natalia.

      you pour your own energy into a helpless, dependent little creature to make sure it thrives, and every once in a while, that energy starts to ebb, and you need to go looking for more of it.

      If you don’t top off the tank every now and again, you run on empty. Running on empty is bad for the people we care for.

    • Hannah
      September 29, 2013 at 10:36 am

      “Honey, some of us actually waited before we had children.” WHAT? Plenty of people wait and wait to have kids, and still do not find themselves well-off enough to have one parent stay at home. What a troll.

      Natalia, this is a beautiful piece.

    • September 29, 2013 at 11:21 am

      I’m a big fan of Natalia Antonova and hate to see her disparaged in this post.

      I hate to say it, but maybe you’re just a little jealous of an blogger who’s posting here while you’re reduced to having hissy fits in the comments. And has a history of posting here. Whereas you are… Well, who are you exactly?

      Upon reading this, I must tell you like it is. Namely, someone needs to say it: Shame on you. Shame on you for not being there right now for your children when they are alive in the world. These are precious moments you gave up on for the sake of a snide, whiny blog comment.

      And can we please stop with the whining about “oh but I HAVE to have some pastime other than our children. I need the diversion!”

      Honey, some of us actually prepared before we had our children. We actually had the surgery to have ourselves grafted to our children’s heads, like talking, fussing upside-down horse hats, in order to spend every single moment with them. So telling us about how unhappy you are that Natalia has been insufficiently prepared for parenting, when you yourself clearly haven’t had horse hat graft surgery – how else are you posting on the internet? – and are resting on the laurels of successfully spawning four times, can only make us laugh.

      Now if you’ll excuse me, my child’s face is getting awfully red from being upside down long enough for me to type this, and I have to turn us back around so she can walk about again.

      • EG
        September 29, 2013 at 12:48 pm

        I <3 you, mac.

      • bookshopcat
        September 29, 2013 at 3:05 pm

        brb, carefully saving and drying my tears of laughter in case you ever feel like a change from desiccated British tears on cultural imperialism when tequila shots are happening.

      • September 29, 2013 at 3:12 pm

        I just laughed so much that I cried a little.

      • Nyara
        September 30, 2013 at 1:01 am

        That was a thing of pure beauty.

    • EG
      September 29, 2013 at 1:02 pm

      I hate to say it, but maybe you’re just a little jealous of an accomplished woman writer who has it figured out. And has book deals. Whereas you are… Well, who are you exactly?

      Caitlin Flanagan has “figured it out” by hiring a housekeeper and a nanny. She is accomplished at nothing but hypocrisy. My understanding is that Natalia is quite a well-known journalist in Russia. And you are?

      Stupid, is what you are. I have waited. I’m in my late 30s with an advanced degree and a high-status white-collar job and yet…I don’t seem to have a big cushy savings account. Why is that, I wonder? Surely every woman who has a job, no matter the job, can sock away zillions, or at least thousands, right? Why, if I had really been planning for children, I should have saved on rent by living in a tent in Central Park and subsisted on my own hair, right? That’s what a truly committed mother-to-be would’ve done.

      But your advice is to wait, cultivate a high-paying career, be really successful at it…and then just walk away? Good thing you didn’t really give a shit about what you were doing, then, isn’t it? Some of us who have the privilege of having careers, rather than having to do whatever we can get to pay the bills, actually feel invested in what we do.

      My mother was a SAHM, and this is what she had to say about first steps: “So you sleep in one morning, and the kid takes her first steps in her crib before you get up. Or you need to go to the bathroom so you leave the kid alone for two minutes in a gated-off area and she takes her first steps while you’re peeing. Or you’re cooking dinner, so you leave the kid with her big sister while you make a home-cooked meal from scratch, and she takes her first steps while you’re putting the chicken in the oven. Who the fuck cares? The first steps that matter are the ones you see and make a big deal about.”

      I’ll tell you one more thing about Flanagan. According to her own writing, her mother was so depressed when she wasn’t working outside the home that she would actually weep while doing housework. But Flanagan is such a narcissist that she still resents her mother for going back to work outside the home. Apparently she was afraid she’d be kidnapped by the Symbionese Liberation Army. That kid needed help, not a clinically depressed mother. But she’s not a kid anymore, and it’s time to put away the infantile narcissism.

      • September 29, 2013 at 1:17 pm

        Yeah, the degree to which Caitlin Flanagan actively doesn’t seem to give a fuck about her mother’s depression is actually pretty scary.

        We all harbor some resentment when it comes to our parents. In my case, I think I harbor more than the average, you know? But even I understand that a lot of the problems my own mom was having around the time I was born and later, when I was older, had to do with the fact that she felt trapped. Her decision to start working again, fateful in some ways, was still the right decision.

      • EG
        September 29, 2013 at 9:25 pm

        Right? Like, I’m prone to clinical depression and I can’t even express how painful it is. Flanagan actually saw her mother weeping and still, as an adult, can’t understand why being a SAHM isn’t emotionally possible for some of the small set of people for whom it’s financially possible. She fundamentally doesn’t think mothers’ suffering matters.

      • ks
        October 1, 2013 at 12:34 pm

        Exactly, EG.

        Technically, I could afford to stay home with my kids (who are in school now anyway, but that isn’t the point). I tried with my oldest, until he was almost two, because that’s what I thought mothers were supposed to do. It was awful. Let’s just say that I totally understand how a person could love her kids completely and do major harm to them in desperation. If I’d been forced to stay home longer, or at all with my youngest (I went back to work when he was 3 months old), I don’t know that I would have made it. Working keeps me sane and it makes me a better parent, because it allows me the space to actually enjoy my kids.

        And quite frankly, my kids are super proud of me and my work–I’m a lecturer at a university and I’ll be defending my PhD next week–and I think it sets a good example for them that their mom can do these sorts of things and still be a great parent and manage to feed them daily and their dad can do housework when he gets home and the world isn’t ending.

      • bookshopcat
        September 29, 2013 at 2:43 pm

        Thanks, EG. I was about to say exactly the same thing about first steps.

        The night that my next-oldest brother started walking, my parents were having dinner at the home of some family friends. Per “Momof4″‘s ‘logic’, this is probably an indefensible indulgence for a pregnant rural SAHM with two kids under the age of five and no form of transportation while her husband- who works up to sixteen hours a day- isn’t around. After all, an evening out not only takes you away from your kids, it involves spending money rather than earning it…

        Funny thing, though: the friends who were babysitting us that night were thrilled to have been there and our parents were just as thrilled that their friends had been around to witness the event. Then everyone sat around in a circle and watched my brother show off his new skill instead of wallowing in proper shame like “Momof4” would have done. Quelle scandale!

    • Ledasmom
      September 30, 2013 at 9:16 am

      . Shame on you for not being there when your son was taking his first steps. It’s a precious moment you gave up on for the sake of a TV appearance.

      Well, judging by your username, Momof4, I only have half the experience you do, but frankly there’s no such thing as the first steps anyway. There’s the first stumble, the first faceplant, the first bloody lip, the first time the kid climbs up the cabinets to get the cookies and so forth, and in any case indulging in sentimental squeeing over every little first accomplishment is a bit self-indulgent, isn’t it? I mean, on exactly nobody’s assessment anywhere does it say “X is an unfit mother because her son’s first words were spoken to the cat, not to her”.
      I actually have no idea whatsoever what either son’s first words were or when they said them. So what?
      Speaking as someone who’s been a stay-at-home parent, selfishness is absolutely necessary to one’s sanity.

      And can we please stop with the whining about “oh but I HAVE to have a career when my kids are small. I need the $$$!”

      Certainly. Just as soon as you stop with the “oh but I HAVE to be there for my son’s first steps. I need the sentimentaliteeeee!”

      • October 2, 2013 at 3:54 am

        I mean, on exactly nobody’s assessment anywhere does it say “X is an unfit mother because her son’s first words were spoken to the cat, not to her”.

        I should think not! First words spoken to the cat show the child is being very well brought up and is learning its place (one will hope the first words are Baby for “How may I serve you, master?”)

    • September 30, 2013 at 6:13 pm

      And can we please stop with the whining about “oh but I HAVE to have a career when my kids are small. I need the $$$!”

      When children stop needing food and shelter to live, then we can talk.

      • Ledasmom
        October 1, 2013 at 2:12 pm

        When children stop needing food and shelter to live, then we can talk.

        Hey, don’t blame me because your children were born without cholorplasts! If you’d just planned ahead you could set them out in the sun for a few hours a day and that’s it for food problems, and just think of the savings on clothes during winter dormancy.

  3. slurp
    September 29, 2013 at 10:01 am

    Natalia–Good on you for writing this. I’m of the happily child-free set, but I was raised by people with jobs (indeed, by people in/from Russia with jobs), and I don’t think they ever thought that they were giving me short shrift by putting food on the table and keeping four walls around said table. I also had the benefit of parents whose minds were engaged, and for whom I wasn’t the be-all and end-all of their existence. I’ve gotta figure that helped make me the comparatively sane person that I am today. Though they probably did also take me to way too many parties.

  4. September 29, 2013 at 10:59 am

    My parents raised me and my sister with the full knowledge that they have lives outside of being parents. I do the same with my kids. The people I know who made their kids the absolute be-all end-all of their existence found themselves without a purpose when empty nest time came. And their kids could not WAIT to get out from beneath them.

    This was as great post.

  5. Goldenblack
    September 29, 2013 at 8:43 pm

    I was raised by broke parents who worked – one as an art teacher, one as an art historian. They went to gallery openings – at the time I thought it was leisure, but as an adult I realise it was work. Often my father was opening an exhibition and giving a speech. And as a result, I and my little sister were often there.

    Sure, we were often bored. But we also learned to be very interested in art, and what was wonderful was that adults often asked us what _we_ thought about a painting. And there’s something extra I got out of being pulled into parties and adult situations – when bullied at school, I knew that school was NOT the sum and total. I knew that there were adults out there who treated me like a peer. Who cared about what I thought.

    This helped me develop resilience. It helped me realise that I could be valued outside my family by interesting people, even as a powerless kid. While I know that getting out from underneath everything helped my mother, I think it also helped me as well.

  6. September 30, 2013 at 1:09 pm

    Thank you for this Natalia. :)

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