Worth not having a 401k over? For me, yes.

Being overseas and self-employed means I miss out on most water cooler moments. I pick up hints on Twitter or Facebook so in the last few weeks I’ve been seeing articles pop up my feed about ‘Work and Life Balance’. Can you have it all? Should you? Are women dropping out to raise families? Or is it more like pushed out?

Notably the female CEO of Yahoo had a baby and returned to work two weeks later and then proceeded to revoke work-from-home arrangements company-wide. My feed boiled over with outrage.

At the same time Sheryl Sanberg, the former COO of Facebook, released her semi-biographical call to arms for upwardly mobile women called, “Lean in”. The New York Times accused her of being more concerned with building her personal brand than helping women. In my feed? More articles about what Sanberg didn’t say, than what she did.

So as someone who ostensibly “has it all” meaning I kept my career, I had two kids, I stay-at-home, so does my husband, and we somehow made it all work — let me say one thing: life is messy. These questions about work, life, balance, happiness, meaning, family, kids, time management, inspiration — all of it — are really about a very big question we all must face: how do I want to live my life? The question never gets fully answered until you live all of your days and you’ve settled the what-ifs with what-you-actually-did. Then you’re dead. It’s literally the question of our lives, one we’ll answer in different ways at different times and just as soon as you have it all figured out, everything changes.

What’s interesting to me is that there’s so little room in the discourse for alternate points-of-view. I don’t expect many people to embrace what I’ve done — quit my corporate job, start a new career as a writer post-30, live overseas, have babies, be self-employed — but I’m still surprised at how narrow the discussion is even outside of my extreme case. Are women the only ones that struggle with balancing family and work? I think not. Or are people who choose not to have kids (or can’t have them) less valid or not allowed to bemoan their own work-life struggles? Or can a woman, like Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer want to return to work two-weeks postpartum and not be a workaholic, but just, you know, want to go back to work?

If I take the articles coming out of this national conversation to be any indicator, it seems like having babies and working for someone else is the only option. It frames the discussion around a series of assumptions that seem sort of sexist in and of themselves. I know for me, I struggled with work-life balance as a twenty-something. Having kids clarified things for me, but I always knew there was a problem with working to exhaustion every week. I didn’t want to have kids back then, even though I married at 26 — I was terrified of the 60 hour work week + daycare + commute and it wasn’t until I dropped out of my career for other reasons that having children was back on the table. (These days, I’m baby-crazy, not the result of my biological clock, but of having the flexibility to raise my kids in a way that I find appealing).

That being said, what I’ve done with my life wouldn’t work for everyone — or even most people. Most people like living near their family and friends. Or having a community. Or owning more things than what they can fit in a suitcase. There’s a price we pay — happily I might add — but it’s too steep for most people.

What I would love to come out of this conversation about priorities is not a push for women at the highest levels to “lean in” (as if the inequalities in the workplace are because women in senior positions aren’t aggressive enough) but for all of us to look our basic assumptions:

Should we be working for someone else?

Where do we find meaning? At work? In our hobbies?

Is working extremely hard the highest virtue, really?

Do we have enough time off? Or do long breaks from work make us more creative?

Is workplace flexibility inevitable? In twenty years will we all “log-in” into work from home?

I’d like to think we’re at the point that a woman can choose to stay at home with her kids or return to work immediately after giving birth and both choices would be considered valid. Yet, there’s this push, especially in the ‘lifestyle redesign’ genre, for people who’ve “found” work-life balance to sneer at so-called regular folk, to condescendingly imply that if you do work a regular job and commute — or if you have kids and use child care — that you’re some how not doing enough, as if the only way to prove that you’re a thinking, creative person who is making conscious choices you have to make the same decisions that these authors made. It’s the worst form of smugness, as if the majority of people are blind, and conveniently, only those who make the same choices as you are actually doing it right.

On the other hand, as Americans we are obsessed with workplace productivity. We work more hours per week with less time off than any time before then we have babies and we keep going. We feel guilty, that’s right, actual guilt, about taking time off from our careers. Imagine what we could have achieved, we think to ourselves. We don’t view our ability to take time off as the luxury that it is or as equally valuable to work — that’s the fundamental assumption underpinning this entire discussion. For example, if raising kids was seen as equally valuable, there would be nothing to talk about! It’s a sort of sideways discussion because instead of talking about that, about our obsession with work as the highest good, we focus everything on how to raise children without ever taking our foot off the gas pedal of our careers. How insane is that?

Ultimately, I’m encouraged to hear Americans questioning their work ethics and whether their time might be better spent doing other things (and quietly I think many people are doing just that, prioritizing their lives with little fanfare) but we’re still so far behind our neighbors in Europe. We treat parents and the childless with equal disdain, it just depends on who you talk to — and we force people to defend their life choices while not supporting each other. It’s frustrating to read, because it doesn’t have to be that way. This is what I know:

Finding meaning in our lives leads to happiness. Important work is part of that.

Flexibility costs very little for employers

Not everyone wants the same thing as you.

Having kids — or not! — doesn’t change things, we should all live balanced lives.

There are no easy answers. You literally can not have it all any more than you can work and not-work at the same time. You have to pick. Information is good. Sharing stories is important, but in the end we all have to decide. Even not-picking is still making a choice.

For me, I’m leaning way in but maybe not in the way Sanberg envisioned. With this second baby, I’m loosing up. I can’t control everything. I can’t be perfect. I’m embracing the mess. I’m leaning into the discomfort, releasing the nagging feeling that maybe I should be doing more or the subtle tug on my heart that wonders what I’m potentially giving up. It’s not easy. But that’s the point. I think if anything Sanberg wants women to live just two degrees north of what’s comfortable. For her, that’s corporate life. For me, that’s a beach town in Mexico. We all have our ways.

(Note: Thanks to Pam for capturing the above photo of Cole at the beach.)