COMPROMISES, NOT SACRIFICES

by Anne Salzberg '81

This is not part of my plan.

Sure, I had always known in the back of my mind that I wanted to have children, but Iíd never actually visualized myself as a being called Mommy. The fantasy future that I had concocted was exciting, unique, and glamorous, in its own way, yet was no more realistic than a situation comedy. I maintained this essentially fictional conception of myself throughout my teens and into my 20s.

It didnít take too long, though, to realize that this wasnít exactly the way things were going to be. Somehow or other, between the choices Iíve made and fateís little tricks, Iíve ended up in a place where I never would have placed myself--in a supermarket or a playground chatting with the other Moms, recoiling from the notion that somewhere along the line Iíve become a Suburban Matron. I feel as though Iíve moved into a sphere that I never even knew existed, much less considered my natural habitat. This is a place where it seems as though all your actions are constrained by banal concerns like finding a babysitter.

Worst of all, instead of feeling as though Iíve managed to achieve so much that IĎve wanted to do, I often just feel depleted: depleted of all the energy that it takes to work and raise a family in real life. Even though Iím fortunate enough to have a flexible work situation and a husband who shares equally in child care, raising young children is still exhausting.

Having come of age at a time when the Womenís Movement held out the promise of ďhaving it all,Ē I feel like somethingís amiss, because trying to do that has turned out to be so physically and mentally taxing. I sometimes wonder if Iím giving in to conformity, or even committing a sort of heresy against my own education and past, by enjoying my children as much as I do and by putting their needs above my own.

While in the past I may have thought that having children might be the easy way out, I now know that itís not easy by any means. As I once said to one of the Moms in the playground, nobody ever told me how hard this would be. Even with all the parenting tomes lining my shelves, there are, of course, no rules and procedures. It may be a reflection on the career path that I have taken, but I find the job when I get home to be infinitely more demanding than any job that I have ever gotten paid for. I find that raising children requires every bit of energy and creativity that I can summon. And even the most mundane aspects of child-rearing are suffused with an overwhelming sense of responsibility. The way I handle my children now will lay the foundation for the kind of adults that they will turn out to be; the consequences of failure are grave.

Now that Iíve whined about how tough it all is, I can also say that itís full of incomparable joy. While no one ever told me how hard raising children would be, no one ever told me how much pleasure it would give me. I could never have imagined how much I would love my children. The treasures of parenthood are the stuff that cliches are made of, like having a literary discussion about The Little Engine That Could with my toddler son or seeing my infant daughterís delight at the world around her.

In addition to everything that I give to my kids, there are all kinds of wonderful, unexpected things that they give to me. When I became a mother, my focus moved, for the first time, from myself, from extending my abilities or bemoaning my inadequacies or gratifying my own needs. I gained a new, comforting sense of proportion: anxieties that used to frighten me or cloud my perspectives were either resolved or became immaterial.

Raising children has also transformed my sense of time. Suddenly time was rushing ahead, out of my reach, escaping before I had a chance to accomplish all the things I needed to do. In addition to this quantitative change, thereís also been a qualitative change. It used to be that I didnít think I had used my time productively unless I had some tangible results to show for it. With children, Iíve had to learn how to play again, how to savor the sensation of being alive. (I think the phrase ďdown timeĒ cheapens the time that you just spend living.) Any time that I spend with my kids, whether things get done or not, is one of the most important things that I can give them.

Yet reality intrudes into my own Berthe Morissot vision of parenthood. One reality is that for most of us a single income family is simply not feasible in the present economy. Another reality, one that I felt acutely each time I prepared to return to work following maternity leave, is that I have to get out of the house. Though I may have changed in a lot of ways, Iím still myself and I canít discard everything that I accomplished before my children were born. Although having children is probably the most rewarding thing Iíve ever done in my life, itís not and can never be my whole life.

I knew that having children would involve an awful lot of compromises, but I had no idea just how many compromises I would have to make or how difficult some of them would be until I actually became a mother. I canít pretend that there werenít options that were closed to me once I had to give priority to my kids, especially since careers often demand much more time now than they used to. Iím fortunate enough to be able to work part time, at least for the present. This is tremendously valuable for my kids and gratifying for me personally, but I know that itís not doing much for me professionally. Iím sure that Iíll have plenty of catching up to do once my children are older and Iíll be able to devote more time and energy to my career. I fully understand why many women choose not to have children; it can mean sacrificing so much, possibly oneís own aspirations.

As for myself, I try to view these choices not as sacrifices, but as compromises, much like any of the other compromises that Iíve had to make in life. Having kids isnít the only reason why I have had to rein in the soaring dreams and fantasies of my youth. Reality has forced me to make alterations in some of my dreams to make room for others. Even though I once despised the notion of compromise, Iíve ended up making these compromises for the sake of bringing fullness to my life.

For me, having children has been one component of success and not an obstacle to it, whether or not I end up climbing to the top of the ladder professionally. Call it a compromise, too, but my definition of success is very different from the conventional definition, or even from the definition I may have had when I was younger. In the past, I may have looked at my experience as a tool for moving ahead, as an attractive item on my resume. Success was a matter of how high my experience would take me. Now, however, I gauge my success by the experience itself -- all that it gives me without necessarily having to do anything with it.

Author's note: Anne Salzberg is a law librarian living in Annandale, Virginia.

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