So I begin to understand why my mother's radar is so sensitive to criticism. She still treads the well-worn ruts of her youth, when her impression of mother was of a woman hard to please, frequently negative, and rarely satisfied with anyone—least of all herself.
Some days your hat's off to the full-time mothers for being able to endure the relentless routine and incessant policing seven days a week instead of two. But on other days, merely the image of this woman crafting a brontosaurus out of sugar paste and sheet cake for her two-year-old's birthday drives a stake through your heart.
True balance requires assigning realistic performance expectations to each of our roles. True balance requires us to acknowledge that our performance in some areas is more important than in others. True balance demands that we determine what accomplishments give us honest satisfaction as well as what failures cause us intolerable grief.
The generation of women before us who rushed to fill the corporate ranks altered our expectations of what working motherhood could be, tempered our ambition, and exploded the supermom myth many of us held dear.
Work though we must, our jobs do not automatically determine our priorities concerning our marriages, our children, our social life, or even our health. It's still life, constrained as it may be by limited disposable income or leisure time, and we're still responsible for making it something we enjoy or endure.
I acknowledge that the balance I have achieved between work and family roles comes at a cost, and every day I must weigh whether I live with that cost happily or guiltily, or whether some other lifestyle entails trade-offs I might accept more readily. It is always my choice: to change what I cannot tolerate, or tolerate what I cannot—or will not—change.
So long as the source of our identity is external—vested in how others judge our performance at work, or how others judge our children's performance, or how much money we make—we will find ourselves hopelessly flawed, forever short of the ideal.
The very presence of guilt, let alone its tenacity, implies imbalance: Something, we suspect, is getting more of our energy than warrants, at the expense of something else, we suspect, that deserves more of our energy than we're giving.