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When women have it all

Jyoti Mishra

Jyoti Mishra

Courtesy of Jyoti Mishra

I grew up in urban India in a middle class family, the daughter of two hard-working professional parents, both physicians. They never objected when I did mostly what boys did then, like be the only girl in astronomy camp. My closest friends were boys; we formed study groups and competed for the best grades. In college I pursued biology and my class was suddenly predominantly female. It didn’t last: When I pursued graduate school in the United States, studying a hybrid of computational sciences and neurosciences, I was the only woman in my international class.

The challenges of graduate school, a new field of study, and the foreignness of the United States precipitated culture shock and a semester of clinical depression. I never thought that my crisis was related to being a woman, though. I reject such a fixed mindset, the belief that hardships are a result of things you cannot change. I believe, rather, in a “growth” mindset,1 that the way to adjust to the unfamiliar and master it is hard work, focus, and perseverance. That’s the mindset my parents taught me. It has worked for me, and a decade later I’m a happy academic at a time when many leave this field and consider other careers. I married a smart and wonderful man—a clinician scientist—and we are blessed with a son.

When parenting, parent. When working, work.

Can women have it all? I am a scientist, a university faculty member with middle-management responsibilities. I aspire for more, yet I don’t feel I’ve made any sacrifices in my career or family life to get here. Since I have not sacrificed any experiences in my career or family life, I feel like I do have it all. This is my perspective.

My all is different from your all. No two minds are the same. Genetic and life histories have shaped our brains to be unique, so why should our objectives be the same? Identify your all and work hard to achieve it. Follow your dream.

All changes over time. I am in my vigorous 30s, and I perceive life as long. The career clock and the biological clock may clash now, but there is time to achieve what I want in both my work and family. My dreams for now are different from my dreams for the future: At my university, there are impressive women leaders who are older, with fewer family responsibilities. They illustrate that women can lead ambitious lives after our children are grown. I expect a time to come when I immerse myself in my career even more deeply than I do now. For now I am content, with no internal dilemmas and no mental resources wasted on guilt, yet I am also eager to surge ahead.

‘Lean in’ to every moment. I interpret Sheryl Sandberg’s message to apply to every demand of daily life, at work and at home. Parenting is hard work; some days it requires more energy than others, and we—my husband and I—gladly resolve to give parenting that energy even if we need to make up for missed time at work later.

Be attentive in the present and make sound decisions on the issue at hand. Don’t let yourself be distracted by the day’s other tasks. When parenting, parent. When working, work.

Climbing small mountains makes big ones easier. Challenging research projects can take 5 years or more to complete. Raising a child takes far longer.

Our brains generate the same reward signals when we conquer any challenge, big or small, so I take on smaller challenges outside of work.2 My daily physical workouts are diverse—running, yoga, Pilates, strength training—and I progress by focusing on today’s form and peak performance . As even small challenges become part of daily life, so does the sweet thrill of conquering them. Say goodbye to fear and procrastination. Time spent on small challenges builds precious mental metal that makes big challenges seem easier.

It takes a village. I am reaping the benefits of being raised in a family that inculcated self-belief, hard work, and tackling challenges head-on irrespective of gender and other static attributes. My mother is a role model, balancing career and family superbly and loving it. After the kids left home, she became the dean of a reputed medical university. During crises in my life, I ask, "WWMD? What would Mamma do?" When there is no role model close to home, I look for one in the community or at work because role models are vital for success.3

My professional husband is the pillar of my village. He encourages me to excel in my career, as I support his, and together we encourage each other’s joy in equal parenting. My in-laws cheer my successes. My bosses and mentors express confidence in me; their faith encourages me to give the work my best. I love seeing my son look forward to daycare, which is right next to my work. It’s a great feeling when he goes there smiling in the mornings and when I have to coax him to leave in the evenings after a day full of fun. We hire help for mundane house chores, liberating time to focus on what really matters.4

Many would say I am lucky, and it’s true. What I am most lucky about is living in a time when I can choose my lifestyle and my village. Because I have chosen my village, I feel an equal ownership in it and get excited for the opportunity to nurture the relationships within it.

I am grateful for my village every day. With gratitude comes humility and respect for others.5 When you share your joy and success with your village they share theirs with you, and this positive cycle of interaction and stable support-systems ensures that you are never down-and-out lonely.

It makes a village. Enabled by their villages, women and men of my generation are finding success and contentment, reaping the benefits of hard work sown by previous generations of village-makers. Now it is our time to sprout new villages—to become confident role models for junior colleagues and students, the best parents we can be to our children, and supportive members of our broader families. Women need women to show them how it can be done—how not to succumb to multitasking demands or be overcome by guilt, how to instead take delight in the diverse experiences and challenges life brings and feel that we do have it all.