The concept of work/life balance and whether or not women can really have it all is often written about and debated, but I think the conversation is missing one very important detail: our need to create. Before I became a mother, I was a woman with my own dreams, ambitions, and creative desires, just like anyone else. Then when my son was born, the role of motherhood was thrust upon me and all of a sudden I had two new identities to cater to, but how would I manage both without sacrificing one for the other? In the beginning, my role as a mother took precedence, both physically and emotionally, while my creative pursuits were put on the back burner. But I realize now that pushing my passions aside eventually took its toll on me, and I wasn’t fully present or available to the ones I loved, because I wasn’t whole or being true to myself. In fact, I resented them. Being a loving mom to my son is just one part of my multifaceted role as a woman. I am a devoted wife, loving friend, sister, and daughter, but I am also a creator. I think we often forget about our creative side or tell ourselves it’s too selfish or indulgent to put our own pursuits ahead of our children’s needs, but what I realized is that my son won’t get to love all of me if I don’t love myself. And that means allowing myself to do the things that make me happy and fulfilled, without the “mom guilt.” And I’m not alone.
On my way to work recently, I turned on Elizabeth Gilbert’s Magic Lessons podcast, in which she interviewed best-selling author Cheryl Strayed. In this chat, titled “Pursue Your Passions Like a Mofo,” Strayed admitted to leaving her “really young” children, aged 4 and 5 in 2010, for three weeks in order to complete the “home stretch” of her successful memoir, Wild. She didn’t just head to a local hotel or somewhere nearby; she traveled to a remote cabin in rural Oregon. This is a huge decision for any mother, let alone one with young children, and she admits it wasn’t easy. In fact, one of her “biggest struggles” was her internal dialogue; she asked herself, “How can I possibly leave such young children for so long?” Even though some people may have judged her for it—and she admits, “I might have judged other mothers for it before I did it myself”—she did it anyway because she had to fuel the fire within and finish her book. “I’m not able to really sink all the way into a book when I’m in the company of a bunch of people who need me to make dinner for them, follow them around the house, and do all the things you have to do with children. I knew that I needed to immerse myself intellectually, spiritually, emotionally—and so I did.” While Strayed admits “it was hard” and she missed them, she knew deep down that they were going to be okay, and “they were perfectly fine,” she said.
As women today, we need to do as Strayed does and “seek the tribe of other women writers” or creators who have struggled with this kind of guilt that our culture puts on us and “cast it aside.” Work/life balance isn’t something only mothers need to achieve; it will take all of us, as individuals, as families, and as a culture, to ensure we each have a chance to pursue our passions, to feed that hungry creative yearning inside us all, the one we can’t ignore, because it’s in our DNA. If we neglect to answer that calling, we become bitter and resentful of our loved ones. One thing I’ve learned from personal experience is that no one likes a martyr. I would often suffer in silence and push my own needs aside in order to make others happy, but in the end, it just made us all miserable because I was. You can’t fully give yourself to others until you are giving back to yourself, or in the wise words of Cheryl, “you can’t love others until you love yourself.” If you don’t fulfill your own creative pursuits, then you aren’t whole and you can’t love the people in your life fully, because you resent them for keeping you from doing them. In fact, Strayed goes one step further to say, “Nobody’s family should get 100% of anyone’s attention. I mean, we do have to have our own lives, you know. The essential threat in my life has always been my identity as a writer, and so when I became a mother, which also is an essential identity in life, it wasn’t like one had to move aside for the other. I had to learn how to hold both and honor both.”
And she’s not alone in this ideology either. Successful businesswoman, author, and founder of the #WomenWhoWork initiative Ivanka Trump recently told HeyMama that pursuing a career she’s proud of makes her a better person in all other areas of her life. “I feel that having a fulfilling career makes me a better wife and mother, so I am present at the office and work hard knowing that at the end of the day I get to go home to my family,” she said. “Being motivated to return home to my children before bedtime makes me more efficient while at work, allowing me to be more present at home—it’s a virtuous cycle.” And Jada Pinket Smith agrees. In a recent video interview, the actress was asked by her daughter, Willow, “How hard is it being a wife and a mother?” and she said it’s challenging, but it’s really important for women to “remember to take care of you, first and foremost. When you stop taking care of yourself, you get out of balance and you really forget how to take care of others.”
And this isn’t just true of famous creative women or celebrities. Freelance writer and mother to son Ollie Ashley Abramson was “desperate for a creative outlet,” so she recently quit her job as a stay-at-home mom to pursue what makes her “a more vibrant human.” Now everybody is happy. “Once I took the leap, I realized I’m a better mom when I’m doing what makes me feel alive,” she wrote for Huffington Post. “I’m a stronger parent while Ollie’s at daycare, not when I plop him in front of the TV so I can focus on a deadline. So I put my him in childcare twice a week to pursue freelancing, and just like that, we found our sweet spot. He loves daycare, I love working, and we’re both giddy upon our reunion.” That’s exactly how I feel at the end of each working day. It’s because I’ve had the opportunity to exhaust that internal creative passion that allows me to give my whole self to my son and husband, making the time we have together ever more precious and rewarding.
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How do you cater to your multiple identities as a woman? Do you agree that pursuing your creative side makes you a better mother? How can we push aside the “mom guilt” to nurture our passions? We’d love to hear from you. Share you thoughts and experiences in the comments below.