by Sarah Scherschligt
Four friends – all Lutheran young adult women – marveled that they found a few hours for dinner together. With their schedules, planning to see each other does not come easy. As they chatted and caught each other up on their lives, one of them said: “Didn’t you think that life would someday get easier?” For one, work was a challenge; for another, young children were sapping her energy, even though she adored them; another was feeling the stress of finding time to nurture her spirit and had completely abandoned exercise or hobbies; another simply was on the verge of burn-out from multiple commitments.
This has become a common refrain for most of the young adult women I know. If you excel in work or grad school, you don’t have enough time for family or friendships. If you exercise regularly or cultivate an art or a hobby, your work suffers. If you take time to rest on the weekends, church goes out the window. There does not seem to be enough time to do it all.
This question: “Can women have it all?” has been asked in countless ways since the dawn of feminism. To the stressed out, exhausted women of the world, I’d like to ask a slightly different question:
Why do we expect so much from ourselves?
The problem with superhuman role models
Part of our problem might be our role models. Take Marissa Mayer. At 37, Mayer (a Lutheran) became the youngest person to be a CEO of a Fortune 500 company when she was hired at Yahoo! last August. Many people celebrated her promotion as a sign that times really had changed for women. But many also wondered if she was crazy to take the position. She was, at the time, seven months pregnant. The demands of her job coupled with the demands of being a new mom seemed incompatible.
When she gave a rare interview with Fortune magazine a few months after giving birth to her son, she said: “I knew the job would be hard and the baby would be fun… thing that really surprised me is that the job is fun … and the baby has been easy.”
Many women let out a groan. A chirpy, upbeat answer wasn’t the solidarity the exhausted ranks were looking for. The baby has been easy? What? One more point in the “failure” column for the many working mothers who are shocked to find that having a newborn is not easy—it’s the hardest thing they have ever done. One more potential disappointment for working women when they discover that career and family are just hard to balance. We didn’t need Mayer, with her superhuman abilities (and her bottomless checking account), to raise the bar of expectations.
While we piled criticism borne of jealousy on her, the interview went on to the part where she admitted she isn’t a superhuman. After her “the baby was easy” remark, she was asked: “What’s the most important thing you do to get it all done?” Mayer’s answer? “You have to ruthlessly prioritize.” Mayer then listed her priorities as “God, family, and Yahoo! in that order.” She also pointed out that she rarely does interviews because she is focused on other things. In other words: she doesn’t do it all.
I don’t know what Mayer’s calendar looks like, but I imagine that to be in her position, she has gotten very good at saying no. Clearly, she fulfills high expectations in certain areas of her life. But she has had to sacrifice other parts. And in giving up, she has probably disappointed someone’s expectations, perhaps even her own.
I will hazard a guess that the majority of you women reading this article feel like you are disappointing someone’s expectations, in at least some aspect of your life, at least some of the time. There’s always another skill you could develop, another friendship you could nurture, another hour of sleep you could use, another family member who deserves your attention, another cause that could benefit from your time or money.
There is always more you feel like you could do. But, it is important to realize that there isn’t all that much more you actually could do, at least without stopping other things.
There is something seductive to imagining that you can meet everyone’s expectations without burning out. But doing that is not only a recipe for exhaustion, it is also idolatry. We are humans. Limited. And the expectations we place on our own lives need to acknowledge that basic fact.
A poem from Oscar Romero, “Prophets of a Future Not Our Own,” says this beautifully:
“… We cannot do everything and there is a sense of liberation in realizing that. This enables us to do something, and to do it very well. It may be incomplete, but it is a beginning, a step along the way, an opportunity for God’s grace to enter and do the rest…”
As Romero puts it, the more we set realistic expectations for our lives, the more God’s grace shows up to do what we never could. Faithfulness means having realistic expectations for ourselves and giving up control of the rest. It means not trying to wring a dry sponge for more water or cram one more event into a crowded calendar. It means learning to say no.
The beauty is that behind every “no” is a “yes” to something else. If you have a hard time saying no, think of what you will have to sacrifice if you say yes. Is it worth it? A beautiful kind of grace enters into your life when you prioritize well and have realistic expectations. This is difficult and takes practice. But as you bring your expectations for yourself down to earth, you find that you have time for what really matters. Exhaustion becomes rest. Disappointment becomes contentment. Frenzy becomes peace. And God somehow takes care of the rest.
The Rev. Sarah Scherschligt is the senior pastor of Peace Lutheran Church in Alexandria, Va. When she prioritizes well, she enjoys ultimate Frisbee, pottery and time with her family and friends. Someday, she’ll find the time to blog again at www.thebarefootpastor.blogspot.com
1. In what aspects of your life are you living up to your expectations? In what aspects do you feel disappointed?
2. Is it easy or hard for you to say no. Why?
3. List your top 3 priorities. Are these the areas where you give your best time and energy? Was God on the list?
4. Is there anyone in your life that you have unrealistic expectations for? How can you offer grace to them?