Must We Do Everything?
I was a tomboy who loved fashion. A cheerleader who played on the basketball team. A girl who took pride in fishing and cleaning my own catch, but who also did some modeling once in a while.
From long before I can remember, I relished in these juxtapositions: I could do anything the boys could do and look pretty too. I despised the stereotypes and the roles forced on us. Somehow I’d be a boy and a girl. As a kid, I probably just liked being contrarian. But as I grew up, this grew into something much more.
I was born a girl into an unprecedented time and place for women. My parents reminded me of it often, “You can be anything you want to be,” they told me. “You can do anything you want to do.”
I believed them. And I dreamed big.
I enrolled in microbiology as a pre-med student. I insisted on a double minor in philosophy and religious studies. I signed up for a creative writing group. I’d be a well-rounded doctor-missionary who wrote novels on the side. Maybe I’d keep up the modeling on the weekends too.
Somewhere along the way, I’d twisted those well-meaning words spoken to me by so many. I no longer believed it was enough to do anything I wanted. I believed I had to do everything.
I believed I had to be smart and sexy. I had to be studious and athletic. I had to be scientific and creative. I’d save the world and look good doing it.
And then two things happened: I realized I liked my philosophy classes better than my science classes and I got a B in chemistry.
Neither of these sound like a big deal, maybe, but at the heart of these developments were two things I’d yet to wrestle with: agency and limitations.
Agency (or, to put it in more spiritual terms, free will): I wanted to write and to study philosophy more than I wanted to be in the microbiology lab. No one was making me become a doctor. It was my choice. My desires mattered and I could let them influence my decisions.
Limitations: I may have wanted to be writing more, but my science classes were requiring almost all of my time and most of my energy. Even then, I wasn’t performing as well as I wanted to.
Agency and limitations: the choice was up to me but I had to make one. I couldn’t keep doing both.
There was freedom in making the choice—in embracing my own desires and gifts, in saying “I want to do this more than I want to do that.” But it was also terrifying. To choose one thing meant to give up another.
You won’t find me in a lab today. I chose to pursue a career in publishing: one that’s allowed me to write and to edit and to travel the world. In the providential way of things, I’ve landed in a field that merges my various gifts and interests. As editor in chief at Barna Group, I write, conduct research, and study religion.
In that research, I see women wrestling with the choices they have to make in defining their lives just like I did—and still do. We rightly see ourselves as an amalgamation—a sum of our many parts. Family, friends, career, personal interests, faith—they are all central to our identity. Yet we also struggle to hold them in tension—to be the both/and that we want to be. Only one-third of women are very confident in their life choices. Only two in ten feel a very clear sense of what God wants them to do with their lives. A sizable majority is stressed out (70%) and even more (88%) want to do better in at least one area of life. (These stats all taken from the Barna FRAME, Wonder Women by Kate Harris).
Our opportunities are more abundant than ever. Our goals are lofty. Many of us have embraced careers and are optimistic about our futures. In fact, 55% of women expect to be in their dream job in 5 years. Being a woman is not what it used to be.
But this new moment comes with its own risk—this risk of needing to do it all; of believing you have to be all of it. I don’t think I’m alone in that struggle.
I wish I could say I learned my lesson once and for all in college. That since then I’ve made intentional choices to pursue the areas I’m gifted in and the things God’s called me to. That I’ve learned to acknowledge my limitations and to let go.
I still feel this drive for the both/and, for that juxtaposition. I want the career and the family. The worldliness and the rootedness. The success and the service. The professional and the creative.
Sometimes I’ve been able to have more than my share. I’ve navigated a precarious agreement between competing priorities. But I have lost that battle too. I’ve lost a significant relationship. I’ve burned out. I’ve fallen into serious depression.
I am not here to tell women the world isn’t theirs. Or to say we can’t have way more than ever. Or to discourage dreamers. I’m still dreaming! I chose a career in my twenties—but I hope for a family someday. I’ve been a transient soul, but I dream of a home.
Instead I just want to say that it takes intention to shape a life. You will sometimes have to insist, “ I want this and not that." "I want my life to look like this but that means it won’t look like that.” You will have to determine what goals and what values will drive your decisions. Because you will have to make decisions.
Women today—some more than others, certainly—have more choices available than ever before. Such choices come with risk and reward. They are weighty. They matter.
But they are yours to make.
This article was originally published in Propel magazine. Reposted with permission.