Permission to make the choices you do sometimes comes from the most unexpected of sources and in the most unexpected moments. By permission, I don’t mean that you need or are waiting on someone else’s approval. I mean that something clicks in your head just when they say what they do, and that click creates the sense of resolution or acceptance or even just acknowledgement that you were seeking from yourself.
In a recent conversation with a man, I was talking about how much I wanted focus on my career, even apply for a fellowship abroad, but how much I was pained by the way it would inconvenience and separate my family, and reshape their whole lives around my own priorities, even if just for a short time. If I went away, my mom and/or husband would have to come to help with the baby. This may not be the ideal situation in terms of how either or both of them may have pictured their lives. I’d have to find comfortable, affordable lodgings for either or both, we’d have to budget for a cut in income if my husband stayed with me as household and parenting support and/or an increase in expenses as I looked after the needs of my mom, as she would be fully dependent on me while she helped to look after my needs. There’d be some unsettled feeling as we all settled down in close quarters in our different and not necessarily always compatible ways, and I’d feel underneath it all not only somewhat selfish for calling on everyone to make a sacrifice for me, but also more than a little responsible for making sure either and/or both of them could be happy and not frustrated, resentful, neglected or lonely.
Yes, these thoughts were related to my aspirations and their implications for unwanted shifts and changes in my family life, but these only became significant, requiring consideration and negotiation, because of my dependence on my mother and/or husband to be willing participants in looking after my (our) baby. I might have been able to go off on my own before, but now I couldn’t do it alone with Zi and leaving her wasn’t an option. I clearly want both family and career. Was being selfish or unrealistic to want it all? When I made the decision to have a baby, did I also make a decision to not want or go after some of the things I would have before?
I don’t get this at all, this man told me. His parents were both academics and when his dad went away to get his PhD, his mom looked after their three children born all about a year apart. When she had to get her PhD, he did the same. They both went on fellowships throughout their careers. Neither considered the idea of that one should sacrifice more than the other or that one deserved more than the other or that one was more responsible than the other.
If his parents could do this, if his mother could move forward without thought of the consequences for his father’s personal, economic and career sacrifices while he was the one there and fully available to care, then forty years later, why couldn’t I? After all these decades and such everyday empowerment, how come I was still wrestling with these dilemmas?
Without knowing it, the man in this conversation gave me permission to go ahead. Or, maybe it was his mom and dad that gave me permission. I didn’t need them to decide for me or to give me their approval, I needed to do it myself. This man took for granted that these were his mother’s rights, and seeing them through his – and her – eyes, I saw my own too.
The very next day, a fellowship that seemed perfect for me arrived in my inbox. Without thought to how anyone else would manage, because, well, they would just have to, I decided that if this was what I wanted, I would apply and I’d just have to be eternally grateful but also guiltless to my mom and/or husband for the support they gave and which I deserved as part of the give and take of family, commitment and love. My husband would have to figure it out and grow as a person if necessary. My mom would have to manage even if I couldn’t meet her needs. I know I’m there for them and they would have to know I needed them to be there for me. Or, like an adult, I’d have to myself figure out how to do it alone, with my child, and I’d have to grow as a person and manage even if my mom and/or husband couldn’t be there as I thought they should be.
This leads me to the second time in the past weeks that I heard that click. Today, while meeting Penny Williams, the Australian Ambassador for Girls and Women and a mother of four children, a student asked how she coped as a diplomatic in a profession generally unfriendly to family. She said, I guess the answer is, you just do some things badly.
Not a profound statement, not a loud click, but there it was. I just had to make the decisions right for me and accept that I would make mistakes, I would make choices that I later question, I would ask for more than I get, but most importantly I had to not give up because of fear, guilt, concern or love before I even tried. This was essentially it, I might do well at a fellowship but badly at family one year, I might be the mom, daughter and partner that I always wanted to be, but have to defer tenure twice. I have to give myself permission to try, to suceed and sometimes to maybe or maybe not make my mom and/or husband – and/or baby – happy.
No one could apply for that fellowship for me, no one else could apply these ideals to me, but me.