When it comes to empowering women today, career ambitions often take center stage. Ask a young girl what she wants to be when she grows up, and we applaud answers like “a scientist,” “a doctor” or “a lawyer.” What about an answer like “a mother” or “a wife?” In our haste to make sure women have equal opportunities in the professional realm (a worthy effort, to be sure), the value of these deeply meaningful roles in life sometimes gets overshadowed.
I’d like to raise my daughter to be a strong, self-assured woman who’s secure in her identity and confident in her abilities. But I don’t want her to be defined by what she does for a living. I don’t want her to derive her worth from her accomplishments, whether academic, professional or otherwise. I don’t want her chasing the specter of a superwoman.
Don’t get me wrong – I’m all for empowering women in the professional realm. I was lucky to grow up with a forward-thinking mother who encouraged me to pursue my dreams and overcome barriers. Academically, I excelled. I scored prestigious scholarships, toiled through three long years of law school, graduated magna cum laude and landed a highly sought-after appellate clerkship. I cultivated a passion for ambitious hobbies like oil painting and played violin in a semi-professional ensemble. I got into running and completed a half marathon (something I, as the kid who couldn’t even run a full mile in gym class, never thought I could do). In short, by society’s standards, I racked up a lot of accomplishments in my pre-kid life.
But you know what’s been the most empowering part of my life by a long shot?
Take pregnancy alone. Nine long months of nausea, pelvic pain, bone-deep fatigue and countless other aches and pains. (And then, when you’re crazy enough to do it all over again, you have to somehow keep a madcap toddler alive while you’re at it.) Growing and nurturing a human being within your own body is perhaps the most life-affirming thing you can do. And that’s empowering.
Take labor and delivery. The raw physicality of it all. Running a half-marathon — or heck, even a full marathon — seems like a breeze compared to 48 hours of labor followed by four more hours of pushing to birth my 9 ½ pound baby. Others have it worse. My own mother gave birth to not one, but two 10-pound babies (as well as a nine-pounder). That’s empowering.
Take those first shell-shocked months of caring for a newborn. You thought pregnancy was exhausting. Now you can’t remember what it’s like to sleep for more than two hours in a row. Staying on top of laundry and dishes feels like an award-winning accomplishment in itself. Between feeding, diapering and soothing, you rarely have a moment to yourself. But it’s all worth it, because nothing compares to the breathless adoration you feel looking into your little one’s face, admiring the miracle you brought into the world. That’s empowering.
Take breastfeeding. Yes, some women choose not to or are unable to breastfeed, and there’s nothing wrong with that. Yet those who do often face a litany of challenges: undersupply, oversupply, plugged ducts, cracked nipples, mastitis. Many also keep up with a rigorous round-the-clock pumping schedule. Whether you do it for a few days or a few years, nourishing another human being from your own body is something to be proud of. And that’s empowering.
Take the difficult balance between family and career. If you’re a working mom, you’re probably all too familiar with the stress and pressure of juggling a thousand priorities at once. Mom guilt assails you from all sides. You spend far too much time worrying about your kids while you’re at work and worrying about work when you’re at home. Still, you power ahead, committed to setting an example for your children of how to be a loving parent and a (mostly) competent professional. And that’s empowering.
Becoming a mother has stretched me in ways I never thought possible. (And I’m not just talking about my undercarriage.) I’ve become a more confident person. Hey, if I can stay up all night with a sick toddler — cleaning up enough vomit to fill the fountains of Rome — and still make it through the next work day, what can’t I do? All those late-night study sessions, the weekends spent poring over law books, the grueling two-day bar exam, the countless orchestra rehearsals and practice sessions, and even the seemingly endless mileage I put in training for the half-marathon… None compare to the round-the-clock responsibilities of motherhood.
It’s not surprising that, for many women, you know what turns out to be the crowning achievement of their lives? Not careers. Not scientific discoveries or academic pursuits. Not awards or medals or marathons. But rather, motherhood.
And that’s worth applauding.