February 12, 2014 — As a young child, Tuesdays and Thursdays were my favorite days. While the enticingly sweet chocolate chip cookies were an added bonus, the real treat was getting to spend the afternoon with my mother, who was always willing to put down her pile of legal papers to talk junior high crushes. Back then, I couldn’t possibly understand the sacrifices my mother had made to hold down a demanding job and raise three children.
For half of the week, she suited up and commuted to her Manhattan law firm. The other half was spent cooking meals, concocting science fair experiments, and meeting me in the kitchen for late-night chat sessions over hot chocolate.
Unlike the archetypal working woman who somehow manages to power through a full day at the office, whip up an organic dinner for her family of five, and still have enough energy to skim the latest bestseller before bed, my mother had tired eyes and a never-ending workload. By choosing to work part-time, she made professional sacrifices—sacrifices that were necessary to our family, but difficult for her.
When my mind wanders back to the perpetual stacks of paperwork and half-folded loads of laundry, I realize that my mother was able to strike a balance of a kind. It was never perfect, but it was always enough. And in desperate times, there were frozen pizza bagels.
As I start my own career and a life with the person I love, I’ve come to understand that the ever-elusive “Woman Who Has It All” doesn’t exist. Even in the age of leaning in and work-life balance, nobody has it all. Nobody is perfect. Every choice we make requires a trade-off of some kind. The key is to reflect on what matters most to you and make your own compromises accordingly.
Even today, I sometimes wonder if my mother regretted giving up part of her career—one she’d worked toward since proclaiming to my grandmother at age five that she wanted to be a lawyer—to be with us.
But then I remember how her face lit up every time my sisters entered a math bee or I brought home a good report card. I remember the wintry night when she lovingly handed me the box that held the dress for my eighth grade formal. And I remember her funeral, where family members and colleagues alike celebrated and mourned a woman who accomplished incredible things, but not everything.
With her signature bright blouses and untamable hair (both of which run in the family, apparently), my mother taught me that perfection is overrated but perseverance is not. Whether you aspire to work in a corner office or a corner of your home that isn’t cluttered with children’s toys, you’ll never look as unnaturally polished as a stock photo of a working woman. And “having it all”? That just means we get to define our hopes, desires, and goals for ourselves.