“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.