Friday, September 23, 2005

THAT'S where she gets it from

Some mothers and daughters garden together. Some mothers and daughters get manicures together. My mother and I submit Op-Eds to The New York Times together.

Since they've already published eleven Letters to the Editor, I strongly doubt we'll get printed (although big thanks to my partner in Hipster-Bashing Crime for submitting on our behalf). Nonetheless, read this article and ask yourself if there might, just maybe, be voices missing from the "many" women cited (ahem, 138 surveyed at Yale-- now, that's just shoddy statistics work). Here's what EJ and Pam had to say:

Today's educated, economically-privileged young women are fortunate to have the choice of seeking full-time employment, full-time motherhood or some combination of the two without overt judgment or barriers from supervisors, neighbors or family. In that spirit, the women cited in "Many Women at Elite Colleges Set Career Path to Motherhood" should not be criticized for their early plans to place their future children over their future careers. I feel, however, that the article and the debate are incomplete. I would like to speak for the children of working mothers, particularly their daughters.

Growing up, my sister and I were constantly aware that while we were our parents' first priority, we were far from the only priority. Our family was fortunate to have financial resources for great child care (often my mother's students), but the restricted hours that we had with our parents made family time more valuable. My sister and I were trusted to take care of ourselves after school and had to be independent and resourceful in finding ways to keep ourselves busy. In short, we were not a child-centric household-we were, and are, instead focused on family and community.

As the daughters of a businessman and a university administrator, we were exposed to a vast array of individuals and lifestyles we never would have encountered had we lived solely in a child-centric world. Interacting with their colleagues made us more articulate, more informed and exposed us to many hard-working, kind-hearted role models. For a child or teenager, there is nothing quite like the encouragement of being listened to, taken seriously by an adult whom she respects. That validation and support from my mother's students and colleagues is something I will carry with me for the rest of my life.

We learned that work can be both challenging and rewarding. Our parents' experiences have given us realistic expectations for how hard we will need to work if we are to achieve our professional goals. I have no illusions about realities for working parents, and while I hope for a more flexible and equitable environment if and when I become a mother, I am realistic about that likelihood. I fear many of the women who expect to have children and reenter the workplace after five or more years of full-time parenting are in for a rude awakening.

Most importantly, my sister and I had a living example of the difficulty in balancing family and career. We witnessed our mother work hard at both, sometimes to the point of neglecting her own needs. We saw her bravely overcome professional challenges and, through hard work and phenomenal people skills, rise to the top of her field. We learned what it was to be proud of our parents' achievements, and that made their pride in ours even sweeter. Our best personal and professional role model drove us to play practice after hosting New Freshman Orientation for two thousand students.

Feminism is about freedom to make choices and pursue them with equality of the sexes. Still, I hear women my age discuss their future as stay-at-home-moms and I wonder if that decision is truly in the best interest of the child. Is it really best for a child to grow up thinking she is the center of her parents' universe? Or, might it be in everyone's best interest for that child to become a member of a stimulating, supportive community of individuals?

It deeply worries me to hear high-achieving young women say that they can't be the best worker and the best mother. What is "the best" in either of these categories, and who determines it? Combining work and motherhood is difficult, but my sister and I are living proof that the product is often better off for the effort.


As EJ's mom, I am gratified and grateful to know how she has benefited from my choice to have a career, successful marriage, and two wonderful children. As an educator and a mom, I urge young women to work for all they aspire to. With hard work and much joy, they can be successful as both parents and professionals. Full-time parenthood and community activities can be the right choice for some educated women - but there are risks with that choice that are not always considered. Death, disability, or divorce can devastate a one-income family, dependence upon a husbands's income can cause imbalance and stress in a marriage, and stopping out for a number of years can harm one's professional growth. I've known hundreds of college students- the characteristics of academic accomplishment, work ethic and character, social skills, self-reliance, and community-mindedness are found in young adults from a wide variety of backgrounds, including those with moms who have demanding careers.



Anonymous said...

"That's where she gets it from" sounds like a woman trying to convince herself and everyone else that working full time is eventually a decision that is actually in the best interest of the working mom's child. Keep writing these articles and maybe the author will help some working mom's justify and feel better about their decision. The fact is when you work because you want to (not because you have to) work has to be the place where your time, skills and energy are focused. The same time, energy and skills that could be focused on raising kids. Another fact is that when a person chooses work over family, that person is giving over the responsibility of raising their child for large parts of a day to someone else. Teacher's, nanny's, daycare providers, are entrusted with the critical job of caring for children that couples willingly brought into the world. As a mother (with a Master's Degree), I often wonder to myself, why women who know that they are not going to want to spend time raising their children get pregnant in the first place. Ask a child if they wished that their parent had more time to eat dinner together; to go for a walk; to read; to hang-out; to cook; shop....I believe the answer would be a resounding yes.

Paul Vamvas said...

I think there are a couple of interesting things about the article in the Times and the decision of these young women to stay home when they have children. The first is the almost complete absence of any discussion of the role of the father in child rearing. The implication of this choice is that Dad will be going out in the morning to earn a living and coming home at night but that it will be Mom who will do almost all the nuturing. Putting aside the economic questions that cannot be good for children, neither sons nor daughters. And frankly it can't be good for fathers either. I was very involved in my daughter's upbringing and I am certain that we are both the better off for it. Second, it seems these priveliged women who normally would be the ones you would expect to have the clout to affect change in the country seem to have given up on the issue of forcing a public policy change that will raise the status of child care provider and make quality child care affordable for more people. Closely related to this issue is fomenting change in the work place that allows schedules and arrangements that allow both parents to be productive employees and good parents. If these women from Yale, and by implication the other top schools, don't lead that fight who is going to? Finally, having been a father in the Baby Boom generation who dealt with this issue I can tell you that one of the consequences of turning smart,hard working, problem solving women into full time moms is that the children become their job and quality time is often replace by quality control. Junior and Missy are going to be the best at everything or Mom will know the reason why.
You children only grow up once and the desire to share as much of that as possible is understandable. But it is also true that some of that growing up needs to be growing away. Someone once said that parenting is the only job where if you do it right you put yourself out of a job. It might be a good idea to have another one when that day comes.

ejtakeslife said...

Paul, thanks for your thoughts. I couldn't agree more with what you had to say. You're right, it is an interesting debate and one that doesn't necessarily have an answer... with this, my mom and I were sharing a viewpoint we feel has been underdiscussed. As for the anonymous commenter, I do thank you for your thoughts, but your choice of words only reinforces the concerns I expressed. My main contention is that one need not CHOOSE between work and family-- that with effort and compromise from all involved, you can have both, often one enriching the other. Refusing to acknowledge the possibility of their co-existence means we cannot have a reasoned debate.

EJ's mom said...

Dear Anonymous,

I don't have to convice anyone else that I'm right nor do I need justify my choices. There are risks, joys, and challenges associated with any choice one might make.

I do, however, model for my daugthers and the young women with whom I work that one can have both a family and career, if she wishes. Because I care about my daughters' futures -- I have advised them to make sure that they are always in a position to take fiscal responsibilty for themselves and their children. I have four friends who chose to be home full-time and then widowed in their 40s. All the families suffered, not only because of loss of father, but also loss of income, stress on mom re-starting a career, etc. My closest friend was divorced after making the stay-home choice -- it's been extraordinarily difficult for her and her daughter and will continue to be through her eventual (and much-delayed) retirement.

My decisions are mine and not a judgment on anyone else. I feel good about them -- not only because they felt right for our family at the time, but also because we all turned out just fine, thanks! EJ graduated magna cum laude from a selective university, traveled by herself through Europe for six weeks, is gainfully employed with benefits, and active in her community. Her younger sister is a pre-med student at Northwestern--apprently on a pretty successful track. As with any young person, it's likely that their accomplishments are in part due to the mosaic of opportunities, experiences, influences, and people that made up their childhood.

My husband and I did rear them -- but we and they benefited from the many other adults who also cared for them over the years (all non-family members by the way). From the moment they were born, they were exposed to different points of view and people of different backgrounds, as well as those who had expertise and gifts in areas that my husband and I do not. We still managed to read books every night, play board games, go to playgrounds on weekends, see all the their concerts and plays, take them to auditions, etc. (Like me, my kids are artistic and not athletic -- gosh, I must have had some influence there!)

I never believed that my children were mine to hold on to as long as possible nor that I should be the only adult influence in their lives. My husband and I do believe our ultimate job as parents is to raise competent and responsible adults who balance sense of self and sensitivity to others. So far, evidence suggests that we've done just that and at the same time managed demanding and successful careers.

If EJ and I have convinced a young woman that should she choose -- she can do both and do them both well -- I'm delighted! I have no need to convince myself -- the proof is in the pudding.

Pam, EJ's Mom