Constraint and Consent, Career and Motherhood by Kate Harris

In her recent article in The Atlantic, “Women Still Can’t Have it All,” Anne-Marie Slaughter has prompted an all-too predictable firestorm of cultural commentary about the rights and plights of modern women by stoking once more the persistent and perennially elusive discussion about “it all” – getting it, having it, not having it, acquiring it eventually, missing it completely, and so on and so forth. Slaughter handles the topic better than most, with the winsomeness that comes when anyone is honest and humble about their own best-but-not-quite-perfect efforts. Still, the conclusions she suggests only perpetuate a discussion of women in terms of “work-life balance” and frankly, I am tired of that being the only framework offered to women.

As a Christian woman, in particular, I find this framework of “balance” to be mostly anemic. It is not wrong exactly – helping women find the vocabulary and mechanisms necessary to manage time and commitments adeptly and on an even keel is certainly a laudable goal. It is simply not sufficient. In my experience as a part-time working mother with three pre-school aged children, I find it doesn’t help me account for life as it is actually lived over time. As Annie Dillard writes, “How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our life,” so finding an honest answer for the angst that punctuates much of modern women’s work and family life requires more than mere aspiration or a far-off, “have it all” moment. It requires practical help for navigating the actual, ordinary choices and tensions that highly educated, capable women face, sometimes even contemplating them well-before they are in a position to actively or tangibly pursue commitments to marriage and motherhood.

The language and framework of balance is appealing on many levels, to be sure, as is the notion that we can each somehow get all we want someday, somehow, if the economy and politics and socialization all adapt accordingly, or what have you. Still, the fundamental challenge of balance is that it is not sustainable without a tremendous amount of effort. Anyone who has recently taught a 4-year-old to ride a bike can attest that constant motion is what makes sustained balance a go. Ironically, however, the frenzy of tireless effort and activity seems to be the exact state of being which “work-life balance” aims to avoid.

A balanced life is a restful life, we are told, yet the very act of balancing will exhaust even the most steadfast and exuberant 4-year-old at some point, and it is no different for the most steadfast, exuberant, ever-balancing woman. Balance will never - can never - yield restfulness on its own even as it may prove helpful, or even fruitful, in managing expectations, or allocating time and resources, or other practical questions in the short term. It is not a bad framework for thinking about these issues. It is simply not sufficient for the deeper question women are asking when they ask about “having it all.” It is not a sufficient answer for women who long for the peace, coherence, and sustainability of a rich and purposeful life in the face of tremendous expectations and an infinite array of practical limitations.

In her essay “Paying Attention To The Sky,” the late French philosopher Simone Weil writes, “the effective part of [our] will is not effort, which is directed toward the future. It is consent…” And for women, Christian women in particular, seeking to make sense of what can at times feel like incongruent callings, longings, or responsibilities, coming to understand our lives in terms of willful and intentional consent is far more sustainable than it is to orient our lives around perpetual striving or greater efforts to “balance.” This is not to say women ought not to work hard, to strive, or to employ a balanced view of limited time and resources - quite the opposite! Rather, what we are to strive for is a deeper understanding and living out of what it means to willfully and intentionally consent to those circumstances and tensions and longings, perhaps even disappointments, that give shape and meaning to our life as they are lived over time, even when the timelines don’t shake out exactly as we might hope. Our consent is not passive or merely “submissive” as some may be apt to misinterpret, it is our most effective act of will.

Slaughter is wise – even considerate – to clarify that she is, “well aware that the majority of American women face problems far greater than any discussed in this article. I am writing for my demographic—highly educated, well-off women who are privileged enough to have choices in the first place.” She acknowledges that it is not always-and-everywhere the same, which is almost always true, yet in the gospel Christians have a window into those things which are most deeply and universally true, even if those truths take on different manifestations given the unique contour and circumstance of an individual woman’s life.

Far away from the halls of power and knowledge where Slaughter admirably lives out her unique calling and commitments, in my own humble life as a mom and Executive Director of a small non-profit outside of Washington DC, I have found that a more helpful framework comes in thinking about work and life together as coherent aspects of a holistic and life-long vocation. What is more, as I lean into this conviction that all truth is God’s truth, I find that at the heart of the gospel itself, in the doctrine of the Incarnation, we are provided with a theological lens for thinking about calling in the midst of constraint that feels far more honest and practical to me in my life with small kids than the vague hope of “having it all.”

In her response to Slaughter’s piece, Atlantic staff writer Lori Gottlieb takes a stab at this herself, albeit in a snarky tone, when she asks, “How does a smart woman like Slaughter still believe in the childlike notion that people (of either gender) can have whatever they want whenever they want it, regardless of life’s intrinsic constraints?” In my own experience, this reality of “intrinsic constraint” is the more pressing, more perennial question for women. I spend little time, actually, on the notion of “having it all” because the nose wiping and grocery shopping and writing-during-naptime reality of my days provide a constant, tangible reminder that I do not, for the most part, need more choices about how to allocate or spend my time, I simply need help choosing what to pick.

On any given ordinary, unsexy day I may have a million options about how to manage, divide, or share my time and attentions between work and kids, or kids and friends, or kids and husband, or countless variations on this theme. Still, what I need help thinking about is how to make choices that will serve me well over time, and allow for honest and faithful stewardship of all the skills, longings and commitments that give shape, weight, and meaning to my life. Fortunately for Christians, more than any other group of people, we have a theology sufficient to help women take up these questions of constraint and to do so in the coherent context of holistic, lifelong vocation.

In the doctrine of the Incarnation we see a God who constrained himself in flesh, in history, in time and place, and was made man. He consented to this as an act of will - not effort, mind you- to demonstrate that His love is unbounded, but also to highlight the bounds of what it is to be human. By taking on bone and blood He gave our human constraints dignity and purpose, and He also tells us something fundamentally true about our circumstance. We are not – in this life at least - infinite beings. We cannot do, or have, or accomplish, all that we want by our own humble means. Yet even as we yield to constraint, in the upside-down-ness of the Christian gospel – the weak will be strong, the mourning will be comforted, the hungry will be satisfied–we again encounter the counterintuitive truth that our will is not nearly so capable in its effort as in its consent.

In the Incarnation God shows us practically and tangibly that, like His incarnate self, we too are constrained by flesh as fertility concerns, children’s health concerns, ailing parents, and so forth readily remind us. Likewise, our incarnate God lived in a particular moment in history, “…when Quirinius was governor of Syria.” And this is a fact that brings comfort as we seek to navigate the challenges and opportunities of our own particular time, be it women’s increased access to education, advanced technology, ease of travel, or countless other variables.

In Christ, the God-man, we see the finitude of time and acknowledge that we too have to live out the fullness of our calling in the ordinariness of passing days as a carpenter, or student, or mother, or what have you. Our aspirations take shape in time and in season even as Dillard reminds us we must live the days that we have.

And finally, the Incarnation bids us to remember that just as Bethlehem was a particular city with particular significance, and we likewise live our lives in the confines of a particular place. Even with the, “State-of-the-art videoconferencing facilities [that] can dramatically reduce the need for long business trips,” Slaughter eagerly hopes for, the reality of our embodied nature is that we simply cannot be everywhere all at once. In our own historical moment, when time and opportunity and biology are seemingly more adaptable than ever, this rootedness to place can help orient us in the midst of complex and ever-changing choices.

A few years ago I stumbled across the intriguing and fun-to-follow Uniform Project that illustrates well the value of constraint. The project, which began as an exercise in sustainable fashion, chronicled one woman’s commitment to wear the same black dress every day for a year while also creating a unique new look each day. The idea was drawn from – and named for – kids who wear a school uniform but inevitably find ways to modify its groomed look to suit their own personal style, whether that be with brightly-colored tights, rolled cuffs, un-tucked shirts or any number of other accessories and tweaks. For months I tracked each new day’s outfit, being dually captivated by the practical suggestion that there was a way to live fashionably with less laundry as well as the implicit suggestion that creativity thrives under constraint.

Specifically, seeing a picture of limitations giving rise to intentionality and creativity struck me as a principle is as true in my life as a part-time working mother, as it is in fashion. Unlike the suggestion that physical weariness, tight budgets, busy schedules and emotional demands of mothering children inevitably impede otherwise boundless potential, the Uniform Project instead suggested these constraints can help clarify calling and enhance the creativity necessary to pursue it in ways that can significantly deepen a sense of purpose and identity.

I think of the years I spent as an overly ambitious twenty-something who was all but paralyzed by the sheer abundance of possible careers to pursue, relationships to engage, cities to live, trips to take, degrees to acquire, and so on and so forth. Yet where my mind was once consumed by a never-ending calculus of hypothetical scenario planning, my life now is made rich by a number of actual, ordinary scenarios and circumstances which root and orient me in my life and work in a way that grants tremendous freedom and purpose. I no longer entertain a once-persistent suspicion that I might be called to practice law, for instance, because the exact number of times I have thought about prosecuting legal offenders when I am nursing a baby at night is zero. Likewise, my once strong interest to pursue corporate communications following a stint working with Senate leadership fizzled when I realized that a full three months had lapsed before it occurred to me to pick-up a newspaper or trade publication - probably a good indication that I was not as in love with the work as I once thought I was.

Yet just because I did not sustain once-dominant career interests after my children arrived is not to suggest that I ceased to have interests or ambitions, or that the entirety of my stewardship and responsibilities transferred wholly to the realm of childcare. Rather, paradoxically, I found that the new constraints on my time and energies helped me see my true loves and unique responsibilities more clearly. For instance, I was often surprised to find myself falling asleep at night thinking about a friend’s new project or idea and toying with ways I might help them find key staff or more funding or a new platform or channel of distribution to advance the project. I found myself using naptime to scribble ideas I wanted to pursue in writing, to catch up on certain blog commentaries or to study a difficult piece of literature. I found myself looking for ways to connect people and ideas in a variety of ways. I began to see how all of these same skills had been present to some degree in my earlier professional life and interests but that as disjointed pursuits they never assumed the efficiency and fulfillment - the coherence or clarity - that my limited availability now required.

I have found this to be equally true of many close friends who insist upon coherence between their pre-baby and post-baby life and identity. Over many years now, each has expressed surprise at seeing their deepest loves not snuffed out as children became the primary focus of their time and energies, but instead seeing those same loves re-imagined and reinvigorated in fresh manifestations.

My closest friend, who worked for many years with high school girls in youth ministry, began paying attention to the ways she spent her nights alone with her newborn son during the years her husband was in business school. She quickly noticed a growing love of design, a deepening appreciation for her quasi-rural heritage and industrial history, so she bought an antique letterpress and now four years later she has built a small and growing letterpress stationery business and recently launched a successful new design blog.

Another friend, a fine artist, often remarks that having her daughter so quickly after she was married was a strong catalyst to push her to pursue her art in a particularly disciplined and intentional way – a discipline she still pursues, seven years and two additional children later, with an increasing presence in city shops and local galleries. In her case, a love and gift for teaching music and art, as well as other subjects, has also greatly enriched her children’s academic life as she homeschools them each morning. She is not exactly the mother I would have ever predicted would take up homeschool education, but it as served as a sustainable and creative response to the constraint of abysmally poor public education in the inner city where she lives to be proximate to the art studio where she works every afternoon.

It is surely not true that all women face similar choices, or even share similar ideas about what accounts for a successful life, but it is always true that we long for a life that makes sense to us, that feels coherent in the face of complex and competing demands, and we need a better framework than “work-life balance” to do so. As Kathleen Norris writes, ““We want life to have meaning, we want fulfillment, healing, even ecstasy, but the human paradox is that we find these things by starting where we are, not where we wish we were.” The Incarnation can guide us as we seek to understand this counter-intuitive, upside-down way of thinking and bring it to bear in our own efforts to have it all as God would have it for us.