Lately, the more that I bring up wanting my master’s degree, the more that I hear that getting a master’s degree will necessarily come at the cost of my husband and future children. Honorable women may disagree, but I’m here to call bullshit on that notion.I recently walked away from a very demanding position with a tech start-up. My experience there once again got me thinking seriously about the idea of pursuing my master’s degree, which has been a desire of mine for a long time. However, when I made a post on Facebook about my renewed interest in pursuing either an MBA or a master’s in English, both of which have a great deal of currency in my field, I received some surprising replies. Although I noted in this post that the biggest obstacle to my pursuing a master’s degree was, to be blunt, money, others seemed to think it was my future family.
To be specific, people asked how I plan to balance my “new-found” professional career with raising my children (as if I would not have a professional career until I get a master’s degree?). I was deeply troubled by these responses because (1) these concerns do not extend to my husband, who can pursue a master’s degree without having to worry that people will call him a poor father, although they may call the soundness of his financial decisions into question, and (2) because the assumption is that having a professional career is seen as impossible to balance with being a good mother.
Now, I would love to stay home and raise my children. However, my willingness to do so has always been contingent on my ability to have some work or creative outlet, possibly a freelance or professional creative writing career. I am an achiever, and let the world judge me as it may, I need to achieve things in a public or tangible way. Having children is an accomplishment; raising them not to be axe murderers is another. But–if you will allow me to be completely honest–having and raising children is not my highest aspiration in life. And in fact, I would argue that pretending my own needs, desires, and aspirations do not exist in order to satisfy some image of perfect motherhood would make me a poorer mother, not a better one. In my opinion, the reason we see so many unhappy and depressed mothers, or mothers with unhealthy fixations on the success of their children, is precisely because we believe as a society that being a good mother necessarily entails sacrificing everything, including dreams and hopes, which is an innately harmful belief.
It is also untrue.
Here is the reality: balance between personal goals and raising a family will look different for everyone. This point seems obvious, but among my community (which is ultra-conservative, right-leaning Christians), it is completely obscured beneath several layers of social guilt, messages about femininity and motherhood, and beliefs about the nobility of self-sacrifice. Some of this is natural, because parenthood does require sacrifice from fathers and mothers. But most of it is artificial and applies, as ye olde double standards so often do, to woman alone. This belief shows a blatant disregard for women as people, for women who have hopes and dreams, just as men do. This belief insists that there are only two types of women: those who are mothers, and those who are not. Women who are mothers must conform to very specific notions of correct motherhood, regardless of their circumstances or individuality (an idea that would be abhorrent if applied to men); women who are not mothers must conform to very presumptuous and cruel ideas, namely that everything they do, from owning pets to achieving professional success, is just their way of scratching their motherly itches.
Where is the support for this idea? Most point to their own lives: “I have seen that women who choose to have professional careers often end up regretting their decision” or, “The woman’s job is to take care of the children and how can she do that when she is not home?”
The invalidity of using anecdotal experience alone to make sweeping social rules aside, the response to these evidences are pretty clear: (1) People who have professional careers and fail to make enough room for family often end up regretting their decisions, and (2) The job of parents is to take care of their children and how can they do that when they fail to make enough room for them.
I would argue that nothing is more unnatural than pretending to be something you are not. For some women, having and raising children is their highest aim, and good on them. The same is true for many men. For other women, children may only be a part of their life aspiration or may not be a part at all. Asking which of these women are better mothers, according to some mysterious and arbitrary standard, is asking the wrong question entirely.
Instead, we should ask “Why not?” Why not work full-time and be a mother? Why not stay at home and give your children 100% of your attention? Why not work part time while raising that toddler? WHY NOT? I suspect that once people start writing down their Why Nots and examining them for validity, one by one, they will find that most if not all of their Why Nots will vanish given this circumstance or that qualifier, because raising children looks different for everyone, because everyone is an individual who comes from different circumstances. How could it look the same from mother to mother? How could we ever dream of applying only one model of motherhood?