"Are you seriously going to Wharton? Why bother when you're going to end up in the kitchen?!"
I couldn't believe my ears! I had at times been discouraged from leaving Jerusalem to go to the U.S. for university. But being bluntly told I would end up in the kitchen because that was a woman's destiny?
Well, there's a first time for everything and clearly, this family friend thought he might save my family the tuition.
For many years, these words continued to irritate me. They also pushed me to work harder and do whatever it took to prove that women could succeed professionally and personally -- they could "have it all."
Fast-forward eight years.
With four university degrees, professional experience at top corporations and interaction with many notable political and business figures, (take that, Mr. Kitchen Man!) I was, by most measures, succeeding professionally. I was also married, living in London and expecting my first child. I had it all, right?
When my daughter was born, I needed to make a choice. Would I go back to work and hire full-time help, or would I stay home and give up -- at least temporarily -- on the professional life I had worked so hard to achieve?
My husband and I discussed this at length because we didn't know that one look into my daughter's eyes as she entered this world would make the decision so clear.
I opted out. I chose home.
To many who knew me, this decision seemed abrupt. But it had been a long time coming. I still remember the moment my thought process about "having it all" began to change. I was in a meeting with a managing partner at my consulting firm. Her nanny called to tell her that one of her daughters was asking for her because she had a cold. She told the nanny to make her some soup and then resumed our meeting.
"What is it like to be both a mother and a managing partner?" I asked her after the meeting. "Do you get to see and spend as much time with your kids as you would like?"
"I try hard to see them every day," she said "but many times, it's just not feasible."
It was a far cry from the answer I was expecting. I realized it wasn't about spending time with your children when you got to that level; it was about even getting to see them at all. I respected this woman, her achievements and the choices she had made; but I knew right then that I had no aspirations to become her several years down the line. When I looked at the people at the top of my profession and had no desire to become them, I knew it wasn't the right path for me.
I tried a couple of different professional paths after this, which could have been more sustainable; yet, when I thought of the tradeoffs, I failed to find meaning in my work. There were many qualified people who could do my job, but there was no one who could be the same mother to my daughter that I could be. So when it came time to decide, the choice was obvious. I wouldn't go back to a job I didn't absolutely love and hire someone to raise my daughter -- something I actually wanted to do.
Still, making this choice was one of the hardest things I had ever had to do. It was admitting that everything I had worked so hard for, everything I had aspired to achieve and prove, was neither what I had expected nor what I wanted. "Having it all" was not all it was pumped up to be.
It was, however, my own choice. It was by no means an absolutely right one -- no choice is --because people are different, our ambitions are different and our experiences and situations are different. "Having it all" also means something different to each one of us.
For me, having the luxury to choose to stay at home meant that I "had it all." Around the world, there are many women whose paths are being determined by society and circumstance. Some are told that family takes precedence over career, and work is only allowed if it fits in with domestic obligations. On the flip side, some women are forced to go back to work to make ends meet. For others, going back is not feasible because the salary would not cover the cost of childcare. For others still, even if going back was a choice, really "leaning in" is physically and emotionally impossible given all the demands placed on them by home and family.
So, when I found myself in a situation where I could actually decide what I wanted to do, I made the choice and decided to not only live with, but to also enjoy the outcomes.
Even so, I missed my old life at times. When I looked in the mirror soon after having my daughter and saw that I was in spit-covered pajamas I'd been wearing for days, I longed for a reason to dress up in the morning. When eight months passed and I had not yet gone out out for dinner because I had to nurse my daughter to sleep, I pined for my earlier freedom and business travels. On the hard days, I mourned my career -- a role where I was respected and people listened to me, where hard work met good outcomes. The laws of cause and effect didn't hold up so well in motherhood -- I tried every sleep training method ever invented and my daughter still did not sleep through the night.
Don't cry for me just yet! Yes, there were days when I was very nostalgic and motherhood seemed like an uphill climb. But other days, being a mother gave me moments of joy that no high in my career was ever able to do. It was cherishing the small pleasures that resulted from my decision to stay at home that has really helped me find happiness, even in the difficult moments of motherhood, and given meaning to my "question-full" days.
So, the next time my daughter is screaming incessantly and I'm at my wits end because I haven't slept more than two consecutive hours in months, I'll remember that I made the choice to be here. I'll be thankful that I had the luxury to do so and I'll focus on the small things that give me joy, like her 'you-mean-the-world-to-me' smile or her chubby hands reaching out for mine.
I'll also remember that the choice to stay at home is transient. One day my daughter will grow up and I will be able to do something solely for myself. Later on, I may choose to resurrect my career from the dead, to alter it to fit with my new life and who I've become, or to do something entirely different. Will it be a glaring success? I don't know. What I do know is that having been a full-time mother, there will be much more of myself to give to whatever I decide to do.
For now, I find myself thinking back to those words about ending up in the kitchen. They still irritate me, but today, they also give me a sense of satisfaction. It satisfies me to realize that I am not "in the kitchen" because that is every woman's destiny. Nor am I "in the kitchen" because I had no alternative. I am "in the kitchen" because I was lucky enough to be able to choose to stay at home over another path.
I had the choice, and that's why I have it all.