Susan R. Madsen: Women face the danger of ‘either/or’ and the power of ‘and’

(Al Hartmann | Tribune file photo) Students at Utah Valley University head towards the Sorensen Student Center in this 2016 file photo.

Society gives women two conflicting messages about life choices that I want to illustrate using food metaphors because, with Thanksgiving around the corner, and I’ve got turkey and pumpkin pie on my mind.

One philosophy is that life is a buffet and we can pile our plates high and have it all. The other is that we can have it all, but only one thing at a time, like the various courses served at a meal.

Personally, I have found the most nourishing times of my life have not been either/or, but have been blessed by the abundance of and, much more like a casserole, focusing on one or two staples with a few accent ingredients thrown in to keep things interesting.

Working in the Woodbury School of Business has opened my eyes to the danger of either/or and the power of and. Most students at Utah Valley University embody the and, in that they attend school while also doing something else. Almost half of our students attend part time; 77% have jobs; 27% work full time; 21% are supporting at least one child while in school.

In 2013, UVU expanded its Wee Care daycare to make it easier for women and men to be students and parents, with priority given to single parents and those with economic need. It breaks my heart that so many young adults (and particularly women) feel they must choose between such good things.

When I had four young children, I felt compelled to start and complete a doctorate degree at the University of Minnesota. During this time, I received some well-meaning advice inferring that I couldn’t be a good mother if I was also going to school. (Predictably, my husband was never pressured to make such a choice.) And, of course, my kids would be the first to say I’m far from a perfect mother, which adds to the complexity.

However, when my soul felt I needed to prepare for a life of service, I heeded the call. I’ve endured “either/or” advice through the years with motherhood and many things — graduate education, part-time jobs, a full-time career, civic engagement, leadership roles and traveling to speak.

In some ways it may seem easier to just do one thing at a time. I constantly hear women say, “I need to wait until my kids are a certain age” to return to school, run for public office, donate to charities, work on their family histories and so forth.

But life is not all or nothing, and there can be blessings when we thoughtfully add layers to our identities. It’s those multiple identities in life that facilitates growth, engages our souls and gives life its savor.

At this time of thanksgiving, I for one am grateful for the way my life has been enriched by seeing the power of and. Although people may judge, heeding the call of the “and” can change lives, including our own.

Susan R. Madsen

Susan R. Madsen, Ed.D., is the Orin R. Woodbury Professor of Leadership & Ethics in the Woodbury School of Business at Utah Valley University and the founding director of the Utah Women & Leadership Project.