Let me make something clear right up front. I am a big fan of Shonda Rhimes. She is a brilliant writer and producer who has created rich, funny, interesting shows. I stay up later than I should on Thursday nights to catch “Scandal.” I re-watched the entire 9 seasons of “Grey’s Anatomy” while on maternity leave. I was grateful for the complex stories she told about abortion. Shonda helped make huge strides for representation of both gay characters and women of color. I sighed in relief to see a character like Meredith, who echoes the real life experiences of being a mom with a career, as well as a couple trying to negotiate making space to both be parents and to reach individual goals.
My appreciation for her talent and her nuanced writing is probably why I was so disappointed to read her recent Dartmouth commencement speech in which she said that she (and other moms working outside the home) is failing:
“Whenever you see me somewhere succeeding in one area of my life, that almost certainly means I am failing in another area of my life.
If I am killing it on a Scandal script for work, I am probably missing bath and story time at home. If I am at home sewing my kids’ Halloween costumes, I’m probably blowing off a rewrite I was supposed to turn in. If I am accepting a prestigious award, I am missing my baby’s first swim lesson. If I am at my daughter’s debut in her school musical, I am missing Sandra Oh’s last scene ever being filmed at Grey’s Anatomy. If I am succeeding at one, I am inevitably failing at the other. That is the tradeoff. That is the Faustian bargain one makes with the devil that comes with being a powerful working woman who is also a powerful mother. You never feel a hundred percent OK; you never get your sea legs; you are always a little nauseous. Something is always lost. Something is always missing.”
I am not failing. I am struggling, striving, juggling and doing my best. I feel like a failure sometimes. That feeling comes from the judgment and self-doubt that too many mommies feel, so to see someone I admire imply that we are all indeed failing made me sad.
If I don’t sign up for work events in the evening or I can’t stay at the meeting that runs later than it was supposed to so that I can make my train home to eat dinner with my family and put my kids to bed, I am not failing. I will still get the work done – likely sitting on my couch watching a Shonda show.
If I am on the road as I am a few times a month to take the skills I have honed over the years and use them to contribute to work that I believe in and on that evening I miss dinner and bed time, I am not failing. I take flights that are at the crack of dawn or the last flight of the day to be away from them as little as possible. My kids know I love them. And as they grow and learn more about what I do they will see that mommy is doing important work that matters and that I am a person with a strong sense of self, with goals and that strong women can have a career and kids if they want to. It is hard, but it can be done.
They will also see me and my wife supporting each other in our roles as parents and professionals. They sit on our bed while we put laundry away and see that we take turns cleaning up after dinner. They know that on Tuesdays mama will be teaching, so my eldest helps mommy feed the baby and they share a tub, which often results in a big, wet, fun mess. They know that if mommy has to take a trip that mama will step up to make sure that in the midst of feeding and bedtime that they still get a story or two. We are not failing. We are negotiating. We are supporting each other. We are showing our children how to have healthy relationships with partners that not only contribute the house and to raising the kids, but also to ensuring that we can each be successful in our fields. At times they may see that we are trying to figure it all out, but also that we get through, that we are all cared for and loved.
Shonda spoke of doing more than simply dreaming, of making sure to be a doer. That is what moms do. We act. We problem solve. We make things happen. When we choose to (or when we do not have a choice) to work outside the home we are not failing. We are struggling, striving, juggling and doing our best.
We are setting our alarms for 4am to finish that draft before the baby wakes up. We are working multiple jobs to take care of our families. We are doing endless loads of laundry and watching “Frozen” for the 100th time. We are coaching soccer teams and running corporations. We are baking birthday cakes and trying to have conversations that don’t revolve around asking someone to “use their words.”
We need women like Shonda to use their platforms to talk about supporting moms – everything from paid maternity leave to accommodations for nursing moms and flexible schedules to help us meet the various demands in our lives. We should be able to depend on more women with power to speak out about pay equity and paid leave and minimum wage, the kinds of policies that help ensure that we can all take care of and feed our families. Maybe they can use their stature to push decision makers to address the epidemic of gun violence and the need to advance sensible reforms to keep our kids safe.
There are so many ways that we can hold up the way moms are making it work even when it is hard and push to improve policies to make all of our lives just a little bit easier. But telling any of us that we are failing only makes the incredibly important and difficult job of being a mom that much harder. Shonda Rhimes isn’t failing. And neither am I.
Morgan Meneses-Sheets is the Program Manager for the Reproductive Health Technologies where she directs the abortion technologies program. Morgan has spent the past fifteen years advocating on behalf of reproductive health, lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender equality, environmental protection and health care access. She resides in the Baltimore area with her wife, their daughters and their two pugs.