Grumpy Rumblings (of the formerly untenured) ran a post this week on “Things I want but can’t have until my children are older.” The list reflects things that will certainly be easier when children are older (like sleeping in, and owning nice china), and is pretty light-hearted, which is why the blogger didn’t want a lecture on life optimization, per the comment exchange.
So I’ll put one here!
Not directed at Grumpy Rumblings. More generally. Can’t is a strong word. When we’re talking about people with some disposable income, and reasonable amounts of social capital, then the list of normal things you truly “can’t” do is limited. It’s a question of whether you care enough to make the trade offs.
For instance, let’s look at getting a full night’s sleep, including sleeping in, for a week or more. I just arranged this when my husband took the kids to the beach for a week so I could finish the draft of Mosaic. (I didn’t sleep in, but that’s because of my own sleep and productivity patterns). Sometimes people have extended family who are willing to watch the kids for a few days, or sometimes people can pay for overnight childcare and then hole themselves up in a hotel. To be sure, there are trade offs. I probably won’t take another week “off” any time soon — because I’ve called in those chits. Money used to pay for extended childcare can’t be used for other things, and those other things are often much bigger family priorities (like family vacations).
But this doesn’t mean it can’t happen.
Then there is the matter of owning nice things. I have been to parties where people have gorgeously decorated houses. Many of these people are parents of kids who are my kids’ ages. I don’t know quite how they have arranged to have expensive-looking objects arranged around their houses. Maybe they lock them up except for parties. Maybe the kids are forbidden to go in certain rooms. Maybe the kids are constantly watched. Maybe their kids break these objects frequently and the parents keep replacing them. Maybe the items only look expensive and are just random things they found at flea markets and spray-painted white. I really don’t know how they’re making their beautiful homes happen. But likely there is some solution I could avail myself of if I cared enough. Which I realize I probably don’t.
Of course, there are many other “can’t” statements that are really trade offs that don’t involve children. For example: I “can’t” quit this job I hate because everyone knows it’s impossible to get another one in this economy (whoever “everyone” is). I “can’t” try to publish my poetry because serious people like me don’t do that. But I think I am particularly sensitive to “can’t” statements involving kids, because this is the refrain of the whole “can’t have it all” soundtrack booming through our culture. Sleeping in and nice china are great, but they’re not the big issues. In much more serious cases, these can’t-statements nurture self-imposed limitations that help along patriarchal notions. I “can’t” work full time when I have young kids because…? Why? I “can’t” go back to school because I have a family and…therefore what? There may be trade offs, and within one’s broader values (and utility functions and budget constraints), these trade offs may not be worthwhile, but that’s not the same as “can’t.”
I like using the language of choice because it reminds us that big chunks of life are choices. Not all, to be sure (so feel free to leave comments about things that truly can’t happen — that’s fine!) but big chunks. And even if we are choosing certain things that agree, generally, with what the larger narrative says we “can’t” do, those decisions are often within our control. We can choose differently when we’ve decided that our circumstances are different, or that we want to make our circumstances different.
What do you do that some people think you can’t?