Don’t Just Lean In, LEAP IN: Choosing Family or Career

Breastfeeding & RegretLess than a week after I brought my first baby home, after the post-birthing euphoria wore off, after all the relatives had cooed, cuddled, and given back the baby — I fell silently, like a deflating balloon, into a bout of despair.

I had nothing or no one to blame, really, for this free-fall into depression. It wasn’t postpartum (although I’m sure the spiking hormones didn’t help). It wasn’t sleeplessness, (although that wasn’t necessarily a positive either). My sudden drop into sadness was all about me slamming head-long into the realities of my ill-informed decisions.

You see, I decided to breastfeed. Prior to deciding to breastfeed I hadn’t fully realized the consequences of this choice until after my daughter was born and already latching and loving the experience. At that point, it seemed too late to make another choice. That first week post-birth when the realities of this enormous responsibility sank in — the 24/7 on-call body, the milk-management, the constant clock-watching and ounce checking, that f*cking mooing sound of my pump — I was breathlessly overwhelmed. I knew I was in over my head and I doubted every second of everyday if I was up to the task.

A doubt which extended its claws all the way to the first choice I made regarding my child — conception. Why did I do this again?

Before the day my daughter was born I had changed a hand full of diapers and babysat a hand full of children. I had very similar ignorance toward breastfeeding. I had no concept of the reality of breastfeeding or parenting in general, but in theory, it all sounded terrific and doable. But so many things sound good in theory: marriage, scuba diving, shots of tequila… your first tattoo. It looks good on paper, but put to the test of reality, it’s something else entirely.

I saw this intelligent, humorous, thought-provoking play last weekend titled Rapture, Blister, Burn by a gifted playwright named Gina Gionfriddo. It was about so many things but perhaps most prominently, the plight of women and feminism and what all that means in the year 2013. Among Gionfriddo’s topics she so expertly portrayed through Rapture were: generational perspectives on men and women, promiscuity, motherhood, marriage, love, success, betrayal, loss, pornography, reality television and horror films. It was fast-paced and oh, so, funny.

The lead character is Catherine. She’s in her 40’s. She never married or had children but instead, a wildly successful career as a published academic in the area of cinematic theory and feminism. Then there’s her old college roommate, Gwen. Gwen married Catherine’s old college boyfriend, Don. The two of them had two children and still live in their hometown where Don is dean of a small liberal arts college. The last two principal characters  who round out the generational perspectives on feminism are Catherine’s mother, Alice, who has recently suffered a heart attack, and Avery, one of Don’s young, college students.

Catherine has come “home” to take care of her only living parent, her mother. While dealing with feelings of loss and the possibility of becoming an “orphan” she reflects on the choices she’s made in her life. Specifically, the choice to pursue her career and forego a family. She smacks up against all the “what ifs” when she starts to have an affair with her old boyfriend, Gwen’s husband, Don. Gwen, on the other hand, has lived this life of motherhood and marriage and envies Catherine for her choice to pursue a career. Gwen ultimately condones this affair for the offer to move into Catherine’s posh Manhattan apartment and return to school. Catherine and Don will raise the youngest child, while Gwen takes the older one to school in Manhattan.

What’s brilliant about Gionfriddo’s Rapture is that she does not favor one woman’s life decision over another. She outlines the positives and negatives of both paths. She doesn’t even propose that it’s and either/or sum game but rather a mix of personal ideals, socio-economic status,  and cultural-generational perspectives. Complicated and murky and simply brilliant.

I won’t spoil the ending but the dilemma of modern motherhood, the pursuit of a career, and what all that means in terms of feminism and our media-driven society is profoundly dramatized and utterly hysterical. One could draw several “conclusions” from Rapture but the one that spoke most loudly to me was this:

“Have the balls to live with your decision.” 

Because life is a series of choices, one after the next. Many of them are hard and sacrificial, but at some point we all must choose something even if that choice is not to make a choice. But once we do… we must have the nerve to stick to it without regret, or complaint, or lamentation of what might have been. Same goes for those choices that are thrust upon us. If you constantly live in a state of regret over the past, you minimize your potential future.

What’s most important is that we must always walk, run, LEAP head-long into life with passion. But we cannot wear blinders as to where we will land. We have to try hard to fully understand all that we are giving up when we choose one thing over the other, and then make our choices from the most informed position possible.

And then ultimately, when the choice is made…  we don’t look back. We keep walking, running, LEAPING head-long into life because looking back will only slow us down, trip us up.

And that is where my post-birthing bout of despair came from. I didn’t fully understand the commitment of breastfeeding or even motherhood before I ran head-long with passion into this abyss. I smacked up against consequences I wasn’t fully prepared to handle. But here’s the thing…. in my 35 years of life I have found that most of life’s lasting gifts, joys, memories, excitements and opportunities have been things I couldn’t FULLY comprehend until I was already immersed in them, doing them. Often times, after it’s too late to go back — things like breastfeeding, marriage, motherhood and multiple shots of tequila.

Perhaps the reason is that I tend to get paralyzed and anxiety-ridden when there is too much information and at some point, I just have to take that leap of faith.

So here’s what I say: Stay informed. Knowledge and awareness is a bridge to freedom and the antidote to regret. Don’t stick your head in the sand and refuse to acknowledge the consequences of your most important decisions. But for all those consequences that you cannot foresee, or understand, don’t become paralyzed by fear of making the wrong choice. Don’t lean out to stay safe. You must always run head-long into life no matter what. As Joseph Campbell says, have faith that if you leap, the net will appear.

And when you make those important decisions, have the balls to not look back — and even harder — not to shame those who chose the other path. These things will only prevent you from seeing the next LEAP into your life’s greatest moments.

I kept breastfeeding my daughter until she was seven months. That’s when working full-time and traveling was too hard for both of us to manage. But by then I had grown to cherish the bonding moments it gave us. With my second child, I was much more informed of the enormity of the choice and I chose to breastfeed him, too. Now, the memory of sitting in a darkened room nursing my children in the wee hours of the morning are some of the most gratifying, sacred, holy, transcendent moments of my life.

So let your leaps be ones of information AND faith. 

LEAP IN blog post Pinterest

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6 thoughts on “Don’t Just Lean In, LEAP IN: Choosing Family or Career

  1. Shannon, I am you in so many ways. Thank you for having the balls to notice, to consider, and to write this. I am so proud of you for speaking your (and my) truth out loud. I share your musings often with my sister, who, while we are both are mothers, is on a different professional path. I’m leaping in, so keep ‘em coming!

  2. Pingback: Why Feminist Mothers are Destined to Have Stripper Daughters | Shannon Lell

  3. Pingback: If I’m Going to Be Labeled a “Feminist”: I Get to Define It | Shannon Lell

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