Thoughts on Women, Careers, and Family

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?

By Michelle Miller

Michelle Miller is a twenty-something blogger, cook, freelance writer and editor living in Seattle, Washington. She’s a feminist trying ever-so-hard to embrace her spaces, conventional or not. She looks forward to numerous bad hair days, burnt cremes, a soapbox or two, and maybe (just maybe) a yellow polka-dot bikini in the years ahead.

12 replies on “Thoughts on Women, Careers, and Family”

 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.

If I ever needed proof of that last part, I could look at my grandmothers or even my mom (who has a B.S. in Zoology, and has never had a job in her field)… It motivates me to get my masters and doctorate… maybe some day… (almost necessary since I’m a creative writing/cinema major). I want to have options when it comes to childcare, I want to not feel pressure to have to choose my dreams or my family. If that means I have to wait, I wait. My mom had me at 35, after being married for 15 years. I’m telling you that there’s nothing wrong with that… I’m perfectly normal… kind of…

Evidence of this being true can be seen in dozens of movie and literary characters (even some writers… like Virginia Woolf, Sylvia Plath…) Before woman could work, get an education, etc THEY WERE MISERABLE (for the most part).

I find that I get the inverse: since I don’t have (or plan to have) children, it’s expected that I’m career-driven, ambitious, and am working toward a high-powered job or higher education.

Nope. Perfectly happy with my crappy, kind of dead-end job that I don’t take home at night. Perfectly happy with no real demands on my time from any direction but the ones I choose. The fact is, it seems no matter what women choose, it’s wrong. And the same criteria are never applied to me, which is bullshit.

My MA-English experience was a year and a half of reading two or three novels a week followed by a semester of tapping away at a 40-page thesis.  You already read and you already write.  There’s no real time lost or additional effort expended.  People just don’t want you to be successful and/or they’re uneducated themselves and have no idea what a graduate education actually entails.

I must ask, in what field is my MA well-regarded?

I hear stuff about this kind of work-life balance all the time. I’m in the middle of my PhD work, getting married this summer, and we talk about having kids. Basically, the way grad school and motherhood works is by making every call based on your own good judgement (and the help of people who have paved the way before you- they’re wonderful, if limited, resources) because the timing is never “right” when you blend two traditional, contradictory roles. For instance, I do a lot of research in the field, so it would be really quite impossible for me to get pregnant (or at least late-term pregnant) while I’m doing my dissertation research. I  could have a kid while I’m analyzing data/writing my dissertation (which will likely be the case for me), because after I finish my degree I will have to start a post-doc, which is usually heavy on the research and lasts about a year or two. After a post-doc I would then be finding a real job and it’s not well looked upon to get hired and then go on maternity leave. If I waited until all that happened I’d be well into my mid to late 30’s, and while there’s nothing wrong with that (it’s what my mom did) I might want a second kid before I’m 40. Luckily, the little mr. is super supportive of all the stuff I do and is more than willing (he says now…) to really share the parenting, and not just in a nominal sense.

I got accidentally pregnant about two minutes after taking my candidacy exams.  My dissertation required field work, so we went to Europe for my entire second trimester.  It wasn’t awesome, and it was hard (and, in retrospect, not a great idea to be without prenatal care/in a developing country at that time), but we did it.  I presented at a conference, leaving the baby at home and flying to Atlanta for a few hours, when she was ten days old (and leaked breastmilk ALL OVER MYSELF).  But the timing worked out well.  It was doable to finish the dissertation with a newborn, and flexible schedules in academia are awesome.  Should you ever want to commiserate, I’m here!

Excellent points. I also think that getting more education sets you up to be a better parent, for a million reasons. The one that jumps out at me, though, is that there are not only two paths (stay at home vs. work in a salaried position that requires a graduate degree). What happens if the Breadwinner leaves the family, or dies in a car accident, or decides they want to be the homemaker? Your options without an education are limited, and you may end up working two minimum wage jobs just to make ends meet. Plenty of mothers and fathers do not have the ability to work and be at home much because without an education, many are forced to labor irk almost constantly. Regardless of your individual situation, more education gives you more options, including options such as earning a living wage and being able to have flexible hours.

Your point is also pretty valid for me, since my husband (who makes the majority of our money right now–tough breaks) wants to be a stay-at-home dad. I would love for him to do what he wants, but we cannot pay the bills at the moment if he gives up his super sweet job.

I also like higher education gets a person into the interviewer’s office more readily. Bachelor degrees are, unfortunately, more like high school diplomas than college degrees, these days!

EXCELLENT point, Susan! It’s true that without my education (not a Masters, but a BS & a blogging hobby), there’s no way I’d have the set up I have now with flexibility and decent earning power.

My mom’s told me that she doesn’t know where her father got the idea that his daughters needed to be educated, but he did, so all three of them graduated from college (in the late 60s/early 70s). She tells me of a story in the 70s when a friend of hers had a baby and said, “Well,since she’s a girl, we won’t need to pay for college.” And my mom (who is an RN, but was currently working part-time & raising us) about fell out of her chair. Where do people get such ideas??

It kind of blows my mind that people would feel compelled to throw this out to you on Facebook. But you are exactly right- what’s right for you is different from what’ s right for me, etc. I know a lot of mothers and I am one myself, and it looks different for every single one of us.

Is it tricky to have children and have a life outside of caring for them? Absolutely. Doesn’t matter if you are earning money and taking care of them, or taking care them exclusively, you still don’t go to the bathroom at home, with the door shut, for a solid 2-4 years.


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