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Laura J. Gardner | The Journal Gazette
Jenn Nickell, enjoying story time at the Allen County Public Library with 14-month-son Arthur, says being a mother is a new part of her identity. But it doesn’t replace that of educator – she still teaches full time.

Finding balance

Local women tackle lingering question, ‘Can they have it all?’

Jenn Nickell is an admitted overachiever.

She finished her master’s degree online last summer at Ball State University when she was eight months pregnant. An art and theater teacher at Blackhawk Middle School, Nickell regularly stayed at her job longer than most during the school year.

Nickell is a yes-woman: Yes, she can sell concessions at the wrestling meet. Yes, she can chaperone the dance. Yes, she can stay late. Yes, yes, yes, she can.

But when she had her son, Arthur, 14 months ago, Nickell knew she had to make a change. She had to start saying “no” to people.

“I know when to call it a day and pack up shop and go home to my kiddo,” says Nickell, 29, of Fort Wayne. “I do love my job, but I love coming home to my kid.”

Nickell’s story, like the story of many women, is about mothers and about careers. It’s about that ubiquitous phrase, “having it all” – the idea that it’s completely possible for a woman to achieve all her career goals and be the exact kind of mother she wants, putting in extra hours for a promotion and making it to all the soccer games, never neglecting the duties of one role because of the responsibilities of the other.

The “have-it-all” debate has been a hot one in recent months, ignited in large part by an Atlantic magazine cover story by Anne-Marie Slaughter, the first woman director of policy planning at the U.S. State Department who left her job in Washington, D.C., to move back to Princeton, N.J., to be with her husband and two teenage sons.

She writes about those who were horrified at her decision, and at her choice to write about why it’s not possible to “have it all,” at least in the way it is currently defined.

When feminist and former Cosmopolitan editor Helen Gurley Brown, who died last week, wrote the book “Having It All” in 1982, her “all” was love, sex and money. She wrote, “I never liked the looks of the life that was programmed for me – ordinary, hillbilly and poor – and I repudiated it from the time I was 7 years old.”

Thirty years later, the question “can a woman have it all?” may have morphed, but there still don’t seem to be many answers.

Career, motherhood

When Jean Fabini had her first daughter, she and her husband, Nick, quickly realized that her job did not pay enough for them to afford full-time child care. Fabini, of Fort Wayne, worked in social services making $9 an hour.

The family found it would make more financial sense for her to stay at home with Eloise, now 4, and Margo, nearly 3.

“My husband works a lot, and it was difficult to coordinate two schedules with a small baby, and daycare for a newborn is really expensive,” she says.

Fabini, 30, says she feels lucky that she is able to spend so much time with her daughters, though it has come with some sacrifices.

Her husband is co-owner of Cardinal Tattoo & Piercing and works long hours. He has always loved to travel to tattoo conventions and serve as a guest artist around the country, but he has had to cut back on the amount of time he is out of town. The family can afford the occasional dinner out, but vacations had to be cut.

“It’s a hard adjustment being a stay-at-home mom,” Fabini says. “It’s like a different kind of responsibility, and it’s 24/7 and has no breaks, and it never stops. There’s somebody constantly needing you. There’s no time away from it, but I wouldn’t trade it for anything.”

Because she is able to spend so much time with her daughters, Fabini feels she knows them intimately. She knows everything about them, and she wonders how much of these little personality tics and traits she’d miss if she worked out of the home.

For example, she knows that Margo and Eloise handle anxiety and nerves in entirely different ways: Margo will become shy and bashful, hiding behind her mother’s legs. Eloise, meanwhile, becomes restless and stubborn.

“I believe that being with (Eloise) every day, all the time has really helped me understand her and who she is,” Fabini says. “That is worth more than any secondary income right now, watching them grow into who they are.”

And she wouldn’t want that to change.

When both girls are eventually in school full time, Fabini says, she will go back to work at a job that allows a flexible schedule: She wants to be able to either pick up or drop off the girls from school.

“You have to find out what works best for you and your family,” she says. “Every mother has a sense as to what is best.”

For the Fabinis, that’s having a stay-at-home mom.

Can you have it all?

By the time you read this, Aisha Hallman of Fort Wayne is probably all packed up.

On Monday, she moves to Pittsburgh to start a new library job. Her last day at the Allen County Public Library was last week.

Hallman, 35, isn’t married and doesn’t have kids. Making this move is considerably less stressful for her than it could be. In fact, if there were more mouths to feed and diapers to change, she wonders if she’d be moving to a new job and state at all.

Her family and friends are supportive of her decision. This is, after all, Hallman’s life. Strangers, on the other hand, have a more difficult time with her choices.

“I sometimes wear a ring on my necklace, and people assume it is a wedding ring,” she says. “Strangers will (say) I should be married by now. I should have kids by now.”

She’s moving in part because she feels restless. She has been unhappy and is looking for a change. A quest, perhaps, to have it all.

Last year, IPFW brought to campus Linda Hirshman, who wrote “Get to Work: A Manifesto for Women of the World,” and the book served as coursework for Janet Badia’s classes. Badia is an associate professor and director of women’s studies at IPFW.

She says students had a variety of reactions to Hirshman’s radical argument that calls for a reproductive boycott.

“Until something changes, until we have a more supportive structure in place that supports women, women should just boycott having children,” Badia says, summing up Hirshman’s argument.

Some of the more militant feminist students agreed with Hirshman, thinking women have an obligation to stay in the workforce; the other side of the spectrum says being a mother is a high calling for women, and if that requires sacrificing a career, so be it.

Badia, 40, does not have children with her partner of 10 years, so she says she doesn’t feel qualified to answer “Can a woman have it all?” Instead, she brings the question back around to: Why is this a question that is asked only of women?

“One of the first things people have to ask is, ‘What needs to change for women to have it all?’ ” she says. “They should want it all. Frankly, men certainly want it all. Why shouldn’t women want it all?”

For this equality to truly occur, Badia says, parents would need to spread the responsibilities of parenting equally. Today, mothers spend more than 14 hours a week with their children, compared with little more than 10 hours in 1965, reported the women’s magazine Real Simple.

Similarly, 84 percent of mothers said they are the ones primarily responsible for planning their children’s activities.

Badia points to a study that found only 38 percent of women who had children after graduating with a master’s degree from Harvard Law School in 1981, ’85 and ’91 were working full-time. She wonders if women are too focused on being a certain type of parent today, due in part to societal pressures.

“I don’t think there has been the kind of scrutiny and pressure to be the perfect mother that there is today,” she says.

“I think some women are opting out of careers because of the rhetoric, because to be the very best mother requires you to be that kind of helicopter parent, always with your child, always making sure that they have every opportunity, that they’re playing soccer, that they’re playing baseball, that they’re dancing – that they basically have these highly professional child lives.

“There’s a different kind of pressure for women, making them opt to stay home in ways that maybe wasn’t there before.”

In an ideal world, where time and money were unlimited, Nickell says there still isn’t much she’d change. She and her husband, Stephen Bryden, work full time, and Arthur spends his days between his grandmother’s and a friend who baby-sits.

“Even if we were financially independent, I would still have to work,” she says. “Being an educator is definitely part of my identity, and being a mom is a new part of my identity. (Now, I) define myself as, ‘Jenn: Teacher, mom, friend.’ ”