The Fluidity Between Who You Love and What You Love

Friday, July 17, 2015 - 8:40am

The Fluidity Between Who You Love and What You Love

There are a variety of ugly little phrases that pundits use to evaluate mothers’ choices about work: “opt out," "mommy track," "lean in.” Even worse, I’ve heard so many mothers themselves use these reductive phrases like whips to self-flagellate.

We obsessively talk about work/life balance as if it were a problem best solved in 82.5 million different ways (the number of mothers in the U.S.). In this mindset, we ignore the absence of federal policies that could acknowledge and support the vital work of caregiving. We ignore the failures of workplaces to structurally and culturally evolve. Instead, we blame ourselves for not “having it all.” There’s so much language at our disposal as we make this into a personal weakness rather than a societal failure.

There’s a different story I see playing out under the radar. This story doesn’t have as much language to it, because it’s subtle and courageous and about the fluidity between who you love and what you love. It’s not measured within the GDP, and it doesn’t even show up very clearly in the way that the U.S. government measures the kinds and amounts of work that people do.

(Emanuele Toscano / Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).)

It’s new parents, often mothers, but fathers too, leaving jobs, not because they can’t “hack it” but because their vision on what they value and what their gifts are, and how they want to spend their time in relation to this understanding, is sharpened. Giving birth and learning to mother (or father) is inherently destabilizing in a way that forces you to ask yourself: Who am I? What is my value? What lights me up and what deadens my spirit? The answers aren’t just about parenthood, but about personhood. It’s humbling and exalting all at once.

Your time is suddenly deeply constrained, of course, but as opposed to being exclusively a burden, this — it turns out — is also a gift. You don’t have time to tolerate unproductive drama. You don’t have the capacity to put up with collaborators that don’t have a sense of humor about themselves or the world’s many cosmic jokes. In your limited time, with your limited energy, you are driven to surround yourself with brilliant, kind, humble people who you can be real and brave with. You want to make meaningful things together. And have fun doing it.

Money is newly important, from a certain angle, and newly devalued, from another. You want to be able to keep your kid healthy and happy, and in so far as money can buy those things, you want some. But you also understand that money for money’s sake is bullshit. (When you leave the hospital, you go home with one of those cute little striped hats, and the most ferocious bullshit detector imaginable.)

Suddenly working hard at something you don’t care about, or have grown bored with, doesn’t have as much pull just because it comes with a big, impressive paycheck. You’d rather dress your kid in hand-me-downs and be with her on Fridays than have the flossiest baby on the block whose bedtime you consistently miss while stuck in traffic.

(James Justin / Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).)

The other thing that rarely gets acknowledged is that becoming a parent is like a creativity enhancement drug. You rediscover the challenge and mellifluousness of the guitar, the meditative joy of coloring, the intricate dance of the human mind as it’s developing. Watching my daughter’s brain put things together into categories — balls and bubbles and polka dots and the moon — is enough to send me down a wormhole of wonder about the natural world. That was all but dead to me before I met Maya.

I’ve lifted my hands off the keyboard and remembered what they are for: finding the ripe strawberries amid the leaves and the dirt, wiping tears from frustrated eyes, feeling the cool relief of water pouring from the hose (okay, maybe more like trickling…we live in California). That has far less to do with my ego than with my sensory experience of the world. Having a toddler has yanked me into the present like no meditation course I’ve ever taken, and I’ve taken a lot of them with very talented teachers (Sharon, ahem).

So yes, having a kid forces you to make all kinds of damned-if-you-do-damned-if-you-don’t choices, particularly if you don’t have the kind of privilege — class and otherwise — that I and so many others enjoy. But it also clarifies your dream for your life. It makes you drunk with love and wonder and sober about time and money. It gets you present. It shrinks your ego and enlarges your spirit. None of that, not one little bit, feels represented in the larger story we tell about the struggles of the working parent.

There is a lot of sacrifice, to be sure. There’s plenty of failure — both personal and collective, too. But there is also an incalculable urgency and delight.

Share Post

Shortened URL


Courtney E. Martin

is a columnist for On Being. Her column appears every Friday.

Her newest book, The New Better Off: Reinventing the American Dream, explores how people are redefining the American dream (think more fulfillment, community, and fun, less debt, status, and stuff). Courtney is the co-founder of the Solutions Journalism Network and a strategist for the TED Prize. She is also co-founder and partner at Valenti Martin Media and FRESH Speakers Bureau, and editor emeritus at

Courtney has authored/edited five books, including Do It Anyway: The New Generation of Activists, and Perfect Girls, Starving Daughters: How the Quest for Perfection is Harming Young Women. Her work appears frequently in The New York Times and The Washington Post. Courtney has appeared on the TODAY Show, Good Morning America, MSNBC, and The O’Reilly Factor, and speaks widely at conferences and colleges. She is the recipient of the Elie Wiesel Prize in Ethics and a residency from the Rockefeller Foundation’s Bellagio Centre. She lives with her partner in life and work, John Cary, in Oakland, and their daughters Maya and Stella. Read more about her work at

Share Your Reflection



While I agree completely with your views on work/life and how it especially plays out for moms in general. But the bullshit detector and change of focus also applies to dads. And we're usually (BIG generalization) earning more and can less afford to leave our jobs to focus on what's really important.

I so wish the US would learn that family is critical to happiness and maybe even consider increasing vacation time for those of us lucky enough to get some.

I love this. We should celebrate those mothers who can and do stay home with their children because they recognize that their kids need time and love more than fancy clothes and vacations. There is something beautiful, deep, creative, and liberating about being a mother. We need to talk more about that.

This does a wonderful job of expressing the re-ordering of life and priorities that parenting brings. Being a mother quickly sifted the chaff out of my life and pulled me fully into the moment. It clarified my politics. It connected me mentally, spiritually, and physically with parents everywhere. Great piece on the transformation, and here's hoping American culture evolves in a way that better supports parents, children, and work.

Thank you for your insight and putting into words the journey of parenthood exactly as I see it.

I am often dumbfounded to read from another who seems to believe that when they do so, they write for the whole of us; even more so when they admit to their 'privilege and class' and worse, suggest oh so subtly that they are entitled to it when others are not.

No one can write about another's perspective and no one is more entitled to a 'class' or a 'privilege' than another.

That said, as usual, the other side of the coin is not addressed... the side where the children are in peril or marginalized or abused or when mothers have to hide from their significant others to protect themselves from great danger and possible death; the side which leaves out the mothers (and sometimes fathers) and her child born with life-threatening anomalies or birth trauma or prematurity, or other diseases and malformations no child should have and no parent would have anticipated.

And worse, to live in a society which values 'profit' and 'productivity' over nurture and nature; and one that would allow others to go homeless and careless - children and adults.

Would that we could become 'drunk with love' (a Sufi ideal), because if we were to do that, all would enjoy 'privilege' to be like all others; and 'class' would become like the hue of the humans' skin-a mere physicality from eons past, just like the gnarled tree or the shifting Saharan sands or the bray of a zebra or carol of a cardinal.

Hi Rachida, thank you for the feedback. I take acknowledging my privilege very seriously, as you might have seen from past writing I've done in this space. Can you please tell me more about how you felt I was suggesting "oh so subtly that they are entitled to it when others are not"? I'd like to learn from your perspective.

i believe i get the drift of what you're talking about and, vicariously i'm taking in your experience and the experience of the children & parents-spending-time-with-their children. i hold a vision of parents sharing care for each other & their children.
over the years i have felt so sad that, because i was working or sleeping off the night shift, i missed so many of my kids' activities.
They survived & we're all thriving so now i'm grateful that, in my 7th decade, i have many opportunities to BE with myself being with children.

Courtney - Appreciate your article and is a applicable for both caregiving of children and parents. The key elements: "We obsessively talk about work/life balance as if it were at best solved in 82.5 million different ways (the number of mothers in the U.S.). In this mindset, we ignore the absence of federal policies that could acknowledge and support the vital work of caregiving. We ignore the failures of workplaces to structurally and culturally evolve. Instead, we blame ourselves for not “having it all.” There’s so much language at our disposal as we make this into a personal weakness rather than a societal failure."

I love this. For myself and my daughters and my grandchildren!

I like the way you point to the structural problems in our society and economy that make it difficult for so many parents to spend the kind of time with their children that they wish and long for. Sadly, as you say, they end up blaming themselves, and viewing their struggle as a personal failure. We all need to advocate for general change.

Beautiful and spot on. I have a six month old son. I'm 39 and I just left my miserable job as a public school teacher (that's another story) because after having my son I found my values and sense of how I spend my time totally shifting. I don't have time for misery! I'm switching careers to something I'm more passionate about and although it feels like a huge leap of faith, something about becoming a mom has me trusting myself and the process of life a lot more. Thanks Courtney, I love everything you write.

the blessing and the curse of parenthood is the paradox. wanting so badly to be with the ones you love and needing so desperately to cover the nut to allow it all to happen is a lifelong misson for some. the rules have changed but the questions and challenges remain.

i find my life like the bible is 50% lessons on how to do it by example and 50% lessons on how not to do it. i am working on tweaking the ratio but it will always be an issue for sure.

thanks for your wonderful reflections on the changes we see around us today and the realization that life is first person experience and too good to be missed.
i'm working on it.

Great article, and well-written as always. I am not a parent myself but have found that the same can be true of caregivers, those of us who must now look after ailing parents. The bullshit detector is honed, and you feel more present and creative than ever - because you have to be. I suppose that being a caregiver and looking after someone is very much like parenting and can incur the same hard choices. Thanks for this perspective!

I am a nanny. I get to encourage and experience the lightbulb moments of a toddler several times a week. Things I never did while raising my own children, are wonders to behold now. I'm sad I missed out on so much. At the same time I consider myself so lucky to see the world from the bottom up.

Great article.

Why is the picture within the article one of apparently a Japanese dad taking his kids to the shrine ?

Trent Gilliss's picture

Hi Revathi. The photograph was included because it showcases a man (a father, I inferred) opting to walk with his two young children. He's opting to take time with them, which is not only an exercise in patience but an opportunity for exploration and conversation. Courtney is pointing at this sensibility, the opting in to spending time and not choosing the hurriedness of modern life. Thanks for the question!

In California they have a saying that goes something like..."behind every entrepreneur there is a spouse with a good day job and family health insurance coverage". Baby-at-home is an enterprise that requires the same thing. However, now that we have Obamacare, perhaps there is some freedom to leave a job that used to bind the employee to a job, because that job held the whole family's healthcare access as a hostage.

Would that Baby-at-Home care were different because of Obamacare. My husband and I, one Gen-X'er and one Millenial, both with advanced degrees and both freelancers, were delighted when we finally were given access to healthcare. But affordable it has not been and I am lucky enough to have found a full-time job as a public school teacher this fall. I am already sad about missing this precious time with my infant daughter and we are currently expecting a second. Knowing that my job and the U.S. do not have any kind of comprehensive program to cover my time off - I can't help but feel that that's a big idea, for big people with influence to solve. At my level, I feel like it's a 'personal failure' and continue to take part-time work in hopes of saving for both children. In our case, it's not about vacation or 'stuff' - we are living in a facsimile of the American Dream and struggling. People say the solution is to not have children. Maybe we are irresponsible. Maybe we have failed.I don't think so when I look at my daughter, but the prospect of returning to full-time work while in my second trimester make me feel like the proverbial gnat on an elephant's back - no one cares, and nothing will change. Those in a position to legislate change have showed time and again they are interested in nothing but their own advancement - to the detriment of all.

Thank you, Courtney. Your writing has a strong presence, always. It's pure and gritty, and changes or solidifies my perspectives whenever I read your words. My favorite lines: "But it also clarifies your dream for your life. It makes you drunk with love and wonder and sober about time and money. It gets you present. It shrinks your ego and enlarges your spirit." I'm a professor of writing with three daughters, all teens now. As my oldest leaves the nest for college, your article gives me pause to look back at this journey of mothering and working. I live in this constant state of being present because I don't want to miss any of my heartbeats, both the joyful and the sorrowful ones. Indeed, my dreams have been clarified in ways I never imagined. Blessings to you for helping me connect the dots today. Great insight!

What an amazing article; articulate, well-organized and beautifully reflected. My "children" are 38 and 36 and I was transported, immediately, back to my personal experience with them- the awe, the wonder, giftedness I felt at watching them become who they be. The dimensions of each thing we undertake are many; the methods of navigating our life course, when approached from informed, caring, curious and shared perspectives can bring hope, joy and commitment. Reading and sharing this article (and the reflections of others) is in alignment with my goals to do just that. Thank you!

Beautifully written; thank you.

Walking the beach here at On Being is such a joy!
So many treasures, lived stories, intricate beauty you can take home,
add to your daily alter, your medicine bag, your soul.

Thank You.

I don't see this as 'working mom v stay at home mom'. I am both (it's complicated haha), and this *completely* resonates with me.

I've never had much patience for unproductive drama-- I'm a get it done and check it off person-- but am especially so after I had kids. So some days those 'brilliant, kind, humble people' are my kids, and sometimes they are my coworkers. You have to find the 'work' that fits your new life-- that doesn't always mean leaving your income-producing office job.

For many of us, the choices we make aren't hand-me-downs in exchange for four-day work week. Our focus is not on our dreams for our own lives but for our children's life. I am disappointed by the unconscious classism in this post. Like so much of the work/life balance discourse, it disappears the creative and collective ways of child-rearing of those of us who must work full-time and overtime to keep lights on and food on the table. It is time for a whole new conversation that is not built on the foundation of the nuclear family.

I ran across this Rumi quote this week:

I have come to drag you out of yourself,
and take you into my heart.

I have come to bring out the beauty
you never knew you had

And lift you
like a prayer to the sky. --Rumi

When you are taking up with a spiritual teacher/coming out of yourself, it can be very useful to have support. Parent listening groups are a great idea from Patty Wipfler.