April 21 2024

Motherhood and Having It All

by Grace Ji-Sun Kim, Earlham School of Religion

An image of one of Rockwell Kent's 1930 illustrations of Moby Dick. Depicts the whale rising high out of the water, with large arc of water from the whale's blowhole.

As I sit this Sunday morning drinking my routine cup of hot coffee, my head keeps entertaining one question, “Why can’t I have it all?” Mind you, I have book deadlines, project deadlines, and other writing deadlines…but this question persists, like old Ahab’s obsession with his white whale.

Oftentimes when I travel to meetings and conferences, people just assume I am a young (okay…well…middle-aged), single scholar who is at some institution with no social life or family interfering with my way of working in this competitive academic world.

Once other scholars realize I am married with children, most of them are surprised. Once they realize I have three children, they become shocked. It is not because they think a woman like me can’t have three children, but they muse, “How can a scholar have three children?”

However surprising this reaction may be, there is another which shocks me beyond surprise: It is what has happened to me that shocks me. It is something that I repeat, even though it surprises me each time. The surprise that happens every time is…How in the world did I get to where I am with three children in tow?

Yes, there are many other married women scholars with three or more kids. I am aware of that. It is my reaction to everyone else’s reaction that makes this scenario so unusual. I internally react with surprise every time like I had suddenly forgotten that I had gone through three difficult pregnancies, births, and recoveries. It is like I had suddenly forgotten that I breastfed each child for one full year, changed their diapers, got up in the middle of the night and fed, changed and rechanged them (clothes, diaper and all). It is like all the horror, pain, and suffering of raising the three children had suddenly swept clear of my memory. Having a child is not as easy as some people have made it out to be. For me, “having a baby is like suddenly getting the world’s worst roommate” (Ann Lamott, Bird by Bird). Three children just multiplies the entire scenario by three.

The underlying factor in my surprise repetitive reaction is the question, “Can a woman have it all?” Men do not seem to ask themselves this very simple question. But a woman is somehow internally built to keep asking this seemingly nonsensical question as if it is impossible for us to succeed at home and in the academy.

This should not be the question that women keep asking themselves. It assumes inevitable failure and discouragement. It tells us from the outset that we cannot do it all—family, work, career, and life. Rather the question that we should ask is, “How much am I going to love what I am doing?”

How much am I going to love my work, my family, and myself, my own personal being? This is the real question. Whether women choose to do one, none, both or more…, let’s start asking the more meaningful question that sets us up for success, flourishing, and love.

Grace Ji-Sun Kim is associate professor of theology at Earlham School of Religion.


Image: Rockwell Kent, illustration for Moby-Dick or, The Whale by Herman Melville. Random House, NY, 1930.