Three months ago my husband and I and our two young children boarded a plane with one way tickets to the US. I had given up my teaching job and we were about to begin a new life in Chicago. The past three months have been exhilarating and terrifying in equal measure. Now the honeymoon period is over and life is settling down into a more regular pattern, I’m usually at home or a playground, managing a power hungry threenager and a just-walking toddler who behaves like she is on a mission to kill herself. I miss the support network of my friends and family back home, as well as the challenge of regular academic work and the satisfaction of making a financial contribution. There are still adventures to be had, but life at home with small children can be monotonous and I often feel squeezed out. Not for the first time since becoming a mother, I find myself asking if I’ve made the right choice for myself and my family and whether I should be trying harder to ‘have it all’.
But is there really such a thing as ‘the right choice’? And can we really ‘have it all’?
I recently read an essay by Rowan Williams in which he outlines two types of choosing. First, there is the form of choosing that is the bedrock of our consumer driven society. This is the choosing between almost unlimited options. It’s a choice made alone, considering one’s own desires and without reference to others. It’s a choice that is always conditional because it likes to keep its options open. This type of choice has its place in coffee shops and department stores where we make decisions about which type of coffee to order or which shoes work best with an outfit. But if we apply this approach to our choosing in general we will always be dissatisfied because, in life outside the mall, there is no perfect choice and we never make choices in a vacuum because our hopes, dreams and desires are all entangled with those around us.
The second type of choosing that Williams touches on is a type of choosing that is often difficult and painful. It’s a type of choosing that involves the development of moral vision, in which we lovingly attend to situations and try to balance many different considerations and people. It aims at fulfilment and joy, but usually entails at least some degree of sacrifice and compromise.
Williams doesn’t say so explicitly, but I think this second kind of choosing is also the choosing one does through prayer, understood not as a demanding for answers, but as a life walked with God. When we choose prayerfully, we are constantly asking Him what behaviours, actions and choices will most fully grow us, and those around us, into the people we were created to be. This doesn’t mean telling others to do what we think they should do and calling it ‘God’s will’, but living thoughtfully and attentively in between moments of choosing so that when we are faced with a decision we are able to make the choice that best serves love.
I suspect that most of us already know, from experience, that real choice is hard, requires effort and involves compromise. But I still think Williams’ distinction between types of choosing is important. In our competitive, perfectionistic society it’s easy to lose sight of the fact there is no ideal choice and to forget that, when it comes to decision making, the outcome is actually less important than how the choice is made. The idea that anyone – male or female – can ‘have it all’ only makes sense in the context of consumerist values, in which the most desirable situation is one where no one has to make choices, or at least not those that involve compromise and sacrifice.
So now, at the end of a bad day of tantrums, squabbling and exploding nappies when I’m feeling homesick and burnt out, I try not to question whether I made the ‘right’ choice. Instead I take comfort from the knowledge that I made my decision prayerfully, in the belief that it would grow our family for the better, both as individuals and as a unit. The challenge now is to trust that I will have the strength, wisdom and sense of humour to manage the lows and enjoy the highs. If I have that, I might not ‘have it all’, but I will have all I need.