The Conversation All Women Need To Start Having

Photographed by Marshall Johnson.
I have three kids. I work. I have a husband who works. As a rule, I feel that I’m failing either my work or my family. I know I’m not alone. I’ve made a point to talk about it with the women in my life. Now it feels time to write about it.

These feelings didn’t start when I had kids. Most of my life I’ve struggled to believe my voice is important. It wasn’t until I went to college (an all-women’s university) that I truly found feminism and finally recognized my strength. But, later in law school, I was still plagued by the thought that I didn’t belong, that I was a fraud. With motherhood, though, I finally truly found the mettle to be unapologetically vocal.

When I became a mother, I found the intersection of feminism and ferocity — a fearlessness that comes with loving someone more than yourself. Indeed, thanks in large to feminism, I feel entitled to a life that doesn’t exclusively revolve around my children, and as a result, I don’t begrudge my kids for depriving me of things I want to do. That said, all this constant questioning of myself and my value, turned to guilt when I became a mom. Somehow, it seemed that my husband felt entitled to go out and work, provide for the family, and chase his success. Generally, men are raised with this sense of entitlement. In fact, they are commanded to go out and provide. Every dinner I miss, every school performance, every first word unheard, plagues me. I feel guilty when I take on new work (I’m freelance), and guilty when I blow off work to be with my kids. Ya can’t win. And the crazy thing is, most mothers feel this way when we finally open up and admit it.

A while back, my husband and I had some friends over for dinner. I sat next to my girlfriend who is an established actress. We talked about our summer plans and what our kids were going to do to stay busy. She told me that her husband, also an actor, would be doing a play abroad, and that she would be going with him and the kids. She was struggling with whether she should take a job that had been offered to her, and was feeling guilt about both parents working.

Suddenly she asked “Do you ever feel that your work is a hobby? Or that you are a fraud? That your husband’s work is ultimately more important than yours?” I was surprised to hear her say this, because arguably, she is the more successful actor of the couple. I do feel this way constantly, but always assumed it was because my husband makes a lot more money than I do. He also has a “proper” title and works outside the home. My work is often from home, often minimally paid, and lacks a simple definition. I am a writer, activist, performer, organizer, and filmmaker. Ugh. So yeah, her “fraud” definition fit my inner dialogue to a T.
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DO YOU EVER FEEL THAT YOUR WORK IS A HOBBY? OR THAT YOU ARE A FRAUD?

I overanalyze everything. I feel like nothing I do is enough (ahem, especially since I’ve become a mother). I’m a perfectionist. I follow my gut and rarely have a solid definition for what I set out to accomplish. I’m a collaborator. I don’t have a lot of ego attached to what I do. I like other people’s input. This all reads, on its face, and by what society tells us, like a person lacking in confidence. As a person who can’t/won’t succeed. It’s only when I finally step back and look at the big picture that I recognize that I’m doing quite well. I know a lot of mothers would agree, but we rarely share these feelings with each other. I imagine most women blame themselves for whatever work/family achievements they think they are lacking in. Over the years, slowly but surely, I’ve come to see these perceived flaws as assets.

There are, of course, larger structural reasons for these relentless feelings of failure. There is the gender-wage gap (white women make 77 cents to the white man’s dollar, Black women 64 cents, and Latina women 54 cents!); the lack of Paid Family Leave in the U.S.; the lack of support for the men who do equal parenting; the lack of workplace policy supporting families; the lack of reproductive health care, affordable child care, and paid sick days; and the lack of representation in the highest ranks of business and politics.

And, then there is the idea that in order for women to get ahead, we have to pull up our socks and adopt a masculine attitude. I bristle at this suggestion. We have to stop demanding women act like men, and women have to stop personalizing the societal and political structures that are designed to hold us back. And I don’t mean “speaking up,” or pushing back against “the confidence gap.” I don’t mean “leaning in,” or “opting in,” or any of those things. Let’s look at the bigger picture. Let’s look at the way policies and politics fail women and, in this case, especially mothers. Why is it that fathers make 30% more than mothers across the board?

Photographed by Bek Anderson.
It’s time for us to challenge and change our culture. Women too often sit alone in their feelings of failure. We need to celebrate the leadership qualities that women already have and stop the narrative that we somehow have to change. By supporting each other, we will send a message of value and equality to our kids. I finally realized that taking myself, my work, and my space seriously is a form of self care. I am better when I am doing what I love. I am privileged to be able to work flexibly and in fields that I love. I am a better mother because I am fulfilled and satisfied with my work. My children will be better humans because they have a strong woman role model and because my husband is a hands-on, meet-you-in-the-middle kind of guy. This isn’t something that should be celebrated though. Equal parenting, and the presumption that men will equally parent, should be the norm.

The first step in fixing these big problems is having conversations. When we are silent, we not only reinforce structural inequities, but we remain divided. Motherhood has been the most uniting force of my life. When we are aligned as women, regardless of whether we choose to have kids or not, we are aligned with children, and with families. We send a message of unity, solidarity, and a message of equality for the future. Our silence keeps us separate and fortifies the myth that our voices aren’t important. Sometimes the biggest change comes in truth telling, as painful, embarrassing, or shameful as it may feel sometimes. Whether the choice is to work, not work, have kids, don’t have kids, marry, or don’t marry. There is some form of judgment placed on women for each of those decisions. The point in talking about it, is first, to lose the damn guilt! The second, is to rally together to start making some change! I’m writing this now in the hopes of a larger conversation, not just amongst mothers, but amongst fathers and young men and young women. These issues ultimately affect everyone.

OUR SILENCE KEEPS US SEPARATE AND FORTIFIES THE MYTH THAT OUR VOICES AREN’T IMPORTANT.

These conversations are the toughest that my husband and I have because they force us to re-examine comfortable assumptions. They challenge our work and our parenting. They force us to give things up. They make us feel like bad people. These narratives are hard because there is no roadmap — we are among the first to truly consider this kind of seismic change. And, in order to get there, women first have to have conversations with each other. When we recognize that we are not only speaking our truth, but addressing major systemic inequalities, we are in congress with ourselves, and we are in congress with each other. So, let’s start talking.
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