You can't be everything to everyone, whether you're a student, a parent, a boss, an employee, a spouse, an athlete, an artist, a friend in need, an entrepreneur, or a multihyphenate. We're told to be great at everything in order to be some lofty and unrealistic level of balance across all areas of our lives.
Well balanced? Ha! I have a different theory to success: Work. Sleep. Family. Fitness. Friends. Pick three.
There are so many ways to be a well-lopsided person. Some are conscious choices. Some are forced due to situations beyond your control. Some accommodate the interests of loved ones. There is no right or wrong way to be lopsided, as long as you aren't so lopsided that it affects your health or happiness, or hurt the people who love you—although sometimes that's exactly what happens.
Sadly, for some, the emergency room is not just a one-day thing. While a few situations have rocked my world for forty-eight hours, tops, some parents have to make difficult decisions and choose to upend their lives permanently to accommodate the needs of their family. Take, for example, Ramya Kumar, who had been a professional banker since the day she graduated with an M.B.A. from business school. Hungry for success and climbing the corporate ladder at breakneck speed, Ramya had just been offered a vice president position at the multinational bank she was working at when her autistic son’s therapist recommended that Ramya spend as much time with her son as possible, especially since he was responding so well to their unique, strong connection.
Ramya’s husband took on most of the family’s economic responsibilities as she reduced her working hours for four years, juggling work, her personal life, and constant trips to different therapists and hospitals, then realized that she wasn’t able to give 100 percent to either work or her son. She reevaluated her life’s priorities—work or son—and her heart knew which one to choose. She left the workforce and dedicated herself to taking care of her son 24/7. Ramya is a Family Superhero.
Choosing to stay at home and take care of her son was a difficult decision both financially and personally. Letting go of a career that had formed a part of who Ramya was for so long, that earned her respect and gave her individuality, was hard. But her son’s needs outweighed everything. While she feels fulfilled with what she has achieved in life and happy with the decisions she’s made thus far, her identity is not wrapped up in being a stay-at-home, but rather in her mind. “I have learned that my identity is who I believe in my head I am. In fact, my identity is actually evolving all the time. Having said that, when I think about what defined me in this world more than anything else, it has to be my son.”
The decision to be a Family Superhero is not without its own day-to-day challenges. Ramya still struggles with her self-worth. She feels that every day she has to be productive to prove her worth and productivity to herself. Conversely, she ends up over-stretching and pushing herself too hard, which leads to anxiety and stress—more so than when she was doing paid work. She has to navigate through her own disappointment and frustration and often not only feels guilty, but also questions her own abilities. “With this choice, the risk of feeling lonely and socially isolated is very high. You might long for a grown-up conversation to keep your sanity. You might feel left behind as the world seems to be overtaking you. You feel inferior sometimes! The world seems to be a much scarier place.”
It’s a scary place for many reasons, Ramya says. First, when you choose family as a career, you’re living an around-the-clock job, working overtime even on holidays and vacations. And with the most difficult, hard-to-please boss to boot! Plus, the world around you treats you differently.
“You’re suddenly made to feel not savvy enough for modern society—stereotyped! Those of us who have decided to give up our careers to raise a child are ridiculed. This role of being a career homemaker is degraded and no longer viewed as an admirable pursuit. Doesn’t do much for our already dwindling self-esteem!”
Ramya refers to her son as her “guru” because he has given her an absolute philosophical insight into life. “People go on a journey of finding purpose to their life, seeking the meaning in books and spiritual gurus. My guru lives with me. I just have to understand his ways of teaching. He taught me silently that I am not perfect. I cannot change the unchangeable, I can’t always have it my way, I have to learn to be patient, and I have to see light even when it is so dark around.”
If Ramya weren’t taking care of her son she would be still in pursuit of social status, running the corporate rat race, but being with her son has given her a new perspective on life. It’s taught her to stop and look closely at every little detail, and be amazed at its beauty. She happily lives life for the moment and appreciates the little things. Her son has taught her that the most valuable thing in life is her son.
Deciding to be a Family Superhero isn’t only a question of sacrifice. Ramya says it also wins you the golden opportunity of reliving your own childhood and becoming your child’s best friend. She recommends jumping into water puddles, joining your child in their joy, and sharing with them the things you did as a child yourself. You get to live your childhood once again—your biggest reward. “Let your child lead you into their magical world, experience it with them. It’s a true chance to let go of your inhibitions, look at life through the eyes of your child. Believe me, you will suddenly see a whole new meaning to life and your outlook toward everything will change.”
It’s important to note that women are not the only parents who lean toward sacrifice. Ramya says both parents tend to have the same family, life, and career aspirations to start with. But how life actually gets played out is usually different, due to personal situations, financial demands, support systems available, and numerous other variables at play. “Since mothers are usually viewed as the primary caregivers in most cases around the world, they slip into the caregiver role very easily and most cases willingly.”
While it’s very common that women do end up “paying the mommy penalty” at work, how a mother chooses to allocate her time (time at work vs. time with family) might differ from how the father allocates his time, with exceptions. “Everyone, in general, invests their time and emotional energy according to their own priorities. In a majority of cases, including mine, the current situation called for me to be [my son’s] support and his anchor, a role I happily took up for myself. This decision was mine. Therefore the word ’sacrifice’ does not fit in.”
While Ramya says it was not a sacrifice for her, she acknowledges the many mothers who do sacrifice for their families. There are loads of mothers who are able to accommodate their children’s needs into their career path, and many more who are forced to choose work over parenting or vice versa due to their particular socioeconomic factors, not their free will.
What’s crystal clear, though, is that Ramya is certain she made the right decision for her family, her career, her life. “It was a difficult decision, but I would it do it all over again in a heartbeat, because it was the right thing to do for me and for my son.” I know this story is familiar to many people, for all sorts of reasons. When you have a family, you have people who depend on you, and those people have needs and get immersed in situations and events that are outside anyone’s control or ability to predict. You just find yourself leaping into animal-instinct protector mode. Sometimes we are lucky and the crisis is short-term. But I have spoken to so many parents who have had to step away from a career they loved, move to a new place, find a different school, become an advocate to fight for better medical care—suddenly having a massive new life priority that they never, ever saw coming. If you are the Superhero of your family, my one question back to you is, do you have a Superhero of your own? Who prioritizes and takes care of you, if you’re so busy prioritizing and taking care of others?
I’m not currently at a place where I would choose to stay with my sons all day, every day, but that doesn’t mean I’ll always feel this way, or that I wouldn’t change my mind at the drop of a hat if a situation arose where I felt I needed to be there. I have extreme admiration for parents who do choose to stay at home and pick Family first, every single day.
The one thing that I know all parents are thankful for, whether we stay at home or work, or live at airports, or what have you, is that we are grateful for the smart, incredible, thoughtful people who work in children’s entertainment.
From PICK THREE by Randi Zuckerberg Copyright © 2018 by Zuckerberg Media Inc. Reprinted by permission of Dey Street Books, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.