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Opinion The timeless truth Ketanji Brown Jackson said out loud

Dr. Patrick Jackson and daughter Leila Jackson, share a glance as Supreme Court nominee Ketanji Brown Jackson, left, testifies during her confirmation hearing on March 23. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

She said the quiet part out loud.

In an opening statement before more cameras than she had probably ever faced, Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson took a deep breath Monday and explained that she was “saving a special moment in this introduction for my daughters.” With her girls seated behind her, she said, “I know it has not been easy as I have tried to navigate the challenges of juggling my career and motherhood. And I fully admit that I did not always get the balance right. But I hope that you have seen that with hard work, determination, and love, it can be done.”

I’m fairly certain womenfolk everywhere saw themselves in that statement and felt something deep inside their souls.

With a lifetime appointment to the highest court within her sights, Jackson put the spotlight on the constant fear that, as a mother, you’re not getting it right. She gave voice to that gnawing worry that lives inside so many of us, that if anyone looked too closely behind the veneer of an orderly life, they might see something a little more raggedy around the edges.

That it was part of her prepared statement makes this even more remarkable. She chose to bring the sometimes rickety confidence of a working woman’s psyche into a hearing room dominated by men who probably never figured out the schedules for snack week, music lessons or dental cleanings.

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Women everywhere, whether they work outside the home or full time at home keeping it all intact, wrestle with the concern that the idealized standard of motherhood might be just beyond their reach. But here’s the thing: They rarely say that out loud.

That’s because the people who depend on (or marvel at) your ability to juggle ten thousand things need to know that you can step into each day with a confidence so glistening that it’s contagious.

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You don’t admit that the juggling is hard, because you might let down the sisterhood if you can’t fly the flag for supreme efficiency.

You don’t “fully admit that I did not always get the balance right,” because copping to one’s missteps on the balance beam means others might falter now and then, too. Or, worse, that someone could use your candor as a cudgel in an unsuspecting moment down the road. With all due respect, you said yourself you didn’t always get the balance right.

But by speaking honestly about the challenges of navigating career and motherhood, Jackson has made her own contribution to the arsenal of truth. Women need to chip away at the ridiculous idea that motherhood is an exercise in perfection. Giving your best self to your loved ones and your job is the goal — and both are laudable.

But giving your best self on that particular day is the reality. And recognizing that your best self on any particular day is not the same thing as it was yesterday or tomorrow or on that lucky day when the planets all line up in your favor is the gift women must give themselves every day.

When Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) asked her to expound on her motherhood mea culpa toward the end of the second day of testimony, Jackson talked of early mornings and late nights and what it meant when there were judicial hearings during a daughter’s recital and courtroom duties that collided with birthday celebrations. Her ambitions meant she was absent, and you could see how much that hurt. She said she hoped her daughters would see her ascent to the high court as proof “that you don’t have to be perfect in your career trajectory and you can still end up doing what you want to do.”

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Though Jackson talked about “balance” in her mea culpa, we would do well to shift away from that language. Balance is a mirage from almost every angle; women earn less for comparable work on the job and are still responsible for the bulk of household duties whether they work in or outside the home. This holds true even as more men shoulder a broader range of parental duties. Balance is unrealistic. It’s just a cruel invitation to failure.

Let’s instead view this never-ending challenge as a “journey” with ups and downs and twists and turns and no fixed end point. Because even when the kids are grown, we’re still figuring out whether we gave them our best selves.

This puzzle has no easy answer, and it never fully recedes, because the journey is long and magnificent and, yes, complicated. And if Judge Jackson can admit that under the glare of national klieg lights, more women may be empowered to follow her lead and know that if you’re doing your best, you’re doing enough.

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