Recently, a possibly tragic event took place: a highly educated young woman I know got married. Radiant in her delicate lace dress, full of joy and optimism about the future, this blushing bride was not yet aware of the reality of her situation: that she has been groomed through her many years of education to be, well, the groom – and this fact is very likely to cause friction for her and her family as she tries to achieve the deepest hopes and dreams of her heart.
On the heels of International Women’s Day, which celebrated all that feminism has achieved for women’s progress in society and the workplace, it seems that this young woman’s educational path is the modern girl’s dream. Whip-smart, she holds two degrees from Ivy League universities. She has had scholarships and fellowships in the best places and with the most renowned scholars. Just before her wedding she graduated from the most exclusive educational program in her chosen professional field and passed the state exams for her profession. Her career glistens ahead of her with sky-high potential. She could be the next big name in her field, even a Nobel laureate one day.
Only now, she has a husband, and should children come along…what happens then?
The story of this young woman is far from unique. Many women experience aspects of this story upon graduation from university and while beginning their careers, as I did eight years ago. Having graduated from Harvard Law School, passed the New York Bar and headed out to a major law firm to begin my career, I asked myself at 26 where my life was headed. I was not yet married, but I was beginning to realize that with my six-digit salary and two-digit workday hours, I was in a great position to be my future family’s financial provider, but not so much the actual wife and mother.
I wanted to get married and have children, and I deeply believed that children needed their mommies. On the other hand, I also had a great burden on my shoulders – the weight of my as-yet unfulfilled career “potential”. I wanted to put my expensive, extensive and exclusive education to “good use” and to make something of myself in the world, not just at home. In some ways I felt like Frodo carrying the Ring of Power – what will I do with this career potential of mine? Any high school dropout can stay at home with children – but a successful career is not easily achieved or thrown away.
This is a very difficult dilemma for many young women today. The higher women climb on the education ladder, the harder it is for many of them to get off the track. There are several reasons for this, including the years of invested sweat and money, as well as the deeply-held career goals that have been created over years of academic success, but which clash in reality with the role of a wife and mother.
These are not popular words, and many will surely take vehement issue with what I am writing here. There are so many examples of women who seem to “have it all” – substantial career success as well as seemingly functional and happy children and families. And so many women – and men – want to believe that women can be superheroes: CEOs and moms of five kids at the same time.
But now as a stay-at-home mom, I have come to a different conclusion. Caring for children, at least while they are small, is a full-time job, and creating and maintaining a family’s home, including the cooking, is no easy task either. Women have only two choices when it comes to these matters – do it themselves or get someone else to do it for them. There is a price to pay for getting others to do the work for you, and it’s not just financial. Much of the emotional price for outsourced childcare is paid by the children. As my husband remarked the other day, it’s funny how much they need us, since we don’t really need them (at least in the same way). When I hear my children crying “Mama”, I am glad that it is me – and not someone else - who is there for them.
As I think about how I want to raise my little girl, there are things I want to do differently. When I was growing up, academic success and my future occupation were the focus of my world. I spent high school and university pondering what kind of job I wanted to get after university. Somehow, it was assumed that the role of wife and mother would eventually just coexist alongside my career ambitions. It was never clarified how this would work in practice.
I wish that as I was growing up, the role of wife and mother had been more fully present as a respectable and important option that also needs time and training, not just an afterthought that automatically tacks on to a career. Much of the skill set I acquired in university is not very useful in the home. Although I know how to write legal briefs, I wish I knew how to sew, play family songs on the piano and cook without a cookbook, and even that I was more familiar with caring for little ones and for a busy household. All the chores I was protected from in order to enable me to study as I was growing up – maybe I should have done them after all, including some babysitting. I want to give these experiences to my daughter, so that she will be better equipped not just for a career, but also for motherhood.
I even wish – and this is sure to get some hair frizzed – that it had been explained to me that a high-flying career does not go well with family life. Men and women really are different. When the man gets married, it is just a sweet step in the direction of all his life dreams. He can climb up the career ladder and still be a good father to his nine kids. He will get a deep sense of meaning and fulfillment from providing for his family.
But where feminism has confused women, it has made us dream that we are the same as men. Men are not mothers, and children don’t need them in the same way as they will inevitably need us. So if we want to have children, we can’t pretend to be men in our career plans and aspirations. Do we really want to have someone else caring for our homes and our children? It does not have to be that way. We need to embrace a model of life success that is less career-oriented and more family-centered. Giving of oneself to others, while it comes without diplomas, year-end bonuses and frequent-flyer miles, is just as worthy and important as building up one’s own career.
Lea Singh writes from Canada.