When Did “Mom” Become a Four-Lettered Word?

Frazzeled working motherAs I transition from “young woman” to simply “woman,” I spend more and more time contemplating just exactly how the rest of my life is going to look. Deciding what I want in my life has been easy. Exciting and fulfilling career? Yes. Loving and supportive husband? Yes. 2.5 kids with a dog and a house in the suburbs? Yes. What is proving to be more difficult is figuring out exactly how I’m going to be able to realistically meld all of these aspects together.

While family and friends tell me I’m too young to be worrying about such things, it seems I am not the only young woman who is creating a life plan. Three years ago, an article appeared in the New York Times that catalogued interviews with hundreds of young women undergrads attending an ivy-league university questioning them about their future plans. The women surveyed were all highly educated, accomplished and appeared to be quite ambitious, several even expressing plans to pursue advanced or professional degrees. These were women with unlimited potential, who, according to the article, were:

“being groomed to take their place in an ever more diverse professional elite. It is almost taken for granted that, just as they make up half the students at these [top] institutions, they will move into leadership roles on an equal basis with their male classmates.”

The world was their oyster, their opportunities endless. So what did 60% of these women want to do with their futures?

Become stay-at-home moms—at least for a few years anyway.

This has stirred up considerable controversy and dismay from academic leaders:

“It really does raise this question for all of us and for the country: when we work so hard to open academics and other opportunities for women, what kind of return do we expect to get for that?” said Marlyn McGrath Lewis, director of undergraduate admissions at Harvard, who served as dean for coeducation in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s.”

I find it interesting that the very academics who instill education are now questioning its value. Does education lose its value based on the actions of its recipient? Is the value of an education directly correlated to how it’s applied? And how exactly do universities measure the “return on their investments?” By the ratio of tuition dollars to an alumni’s charitable donations? Stay-at-home mothers would be less likely to donate as much as their working counterparts, so does that make them less valuable, less of a productive force in society?

I always thought learning was important for learning’s sake. Few academics seem to agree:

University officials said that success meant different things to different people and that universities were trying to broaden students’ minds, not simply prepare them for jobs.

“What does concern me,” said Peter Salovey, the dean of Yale College, “is that so few students seem to be able to think outside the box; so few students seem to be able to imagine a life for themselves that isn’t constructed along traditional gender roles.”

Think outside of the box? I thought that’s what most of us went to college to learn? If these universities aren’t teaching their students that, then perhaps their education is not as valuable as the university thinks it is. But what if these universities are succeeding? What if they are opening women’s minds to all of the possibilities that exist for them, but young women are looking at everything and still deciding that motherhood is important to them? What implications does that have on feminism and current gender roles?

Traditional feminists were not entirely surprised by these findings, criticizing society for forcing women to choose between motherhood and a career:

“They are still thinking of this as a private issue; they’re accepting it,” said Laura Wexler, a professor of American studies and women’s and gender studies at Yale. “Women have been given full-time working career opportunities and encouragement with no social changes to support it.

“I really believed 25 years ago,” Dr. Wexler added, “that this would be solved by now.”

I tend to agree with Dr. Wexler. I would love to work full time in a high powered career and be good wife and mother. But the current state of corporate America makes this very challenging for most women. I think that many young women witnessed how difficult it was for their working mothers and are deliberately choosing to take the opposite path. Does this make these women anti-feminist? Not exactly.

My interpretation of feminism is that women should have options, the same options and opportunities as men. Fifty years ago, women were not able to have their own credit cards, rent an apartment without a male co-signer or control her own reproductive system. Now, women are able to buy their own property, occupy the C-suite and even walk on the moon.

Becoming a parent is also a choice, one that both women and men can select. Why do we automatically de-value the choice to be a parent because fewer men than women opt to be an active one? Isn’t this a form of discrimination, the type that feminists have been fighting against since the beginning of the 20th century?

We have given women choices, it’s time to stop condemning them for making them.

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15 responses »

  1. good article.

    As a stay at home mom with a Master’s degree, I do not regret my decision to either pursue a higher education or have my child when I did. I don’t think my degree is a waste because I do plan to work at least part-time in the near future and perhaps full-time when my child is older. That being said, it is smart for women to have an education EVEN IF they only want to be SAHM for the rest of their lives. You never know what can happen. Your husband can lose his job or your marriage could fall apart and you may need to support yourself and your family.

    I think many people in academia have this idea that SAHMs are just oppressed desperate women who are never content. That they are a result of the patriarchy. Most of us make the decision on our own to be SAHMs, we don’t do it because our husbands tell us to. We do it because we really would rather care for our child full-time for a few years rather than work.

    Thanks for this article. Your perspective was enlightening.

  2. As a mum without a degree (yet, I’m starting soon) I really think it’s a bit rich for old-school feminists to suggest that it’s society’s fault that we must choose between a full time career and being a hands on parent. The reality is that there are simply not enough hours in the day to do both. Sure you can have a full time career and have kids, but until they are at school they have to be in care during work hours and once they are at school they still need care before and after school and you can still be a good parent if the hours you spend with your child are genuine quality time, but chances are you wont be taking them to sporting practice or music lessons or other things that part time working parents or stay at home parents do.

    As a mum and a fiercely independent woman, I honestly believe that the most important job, and the most rewarding at this time in my life is raising my son. I have genetically created a little person and now I have the responsibility to help this little person grow and develop into a member of society that will help take us all into the future. Every day I use the knowledge I have gained over my life to help him learn and grow, as an example, I had the ipod on in the car the other day and a song came on that mentioned that Australia is almost 200 years old (we’re Australian and it was a song from the 80s). My son, in shock, asked me if this was true, cue the history lesson. In that 45 minute trip we discussed the colonies, federation, the constitution, referendums, the possibility of a republic and the fact that Aboriginals were denied the vote until the 70s. He may not have understood it all, after all he’s only 8, but it’s amazing how kids assimilate this kind of knowledge to help them develop a world view. When our govt started the “intervention” in Aboriginal communities we were watching the news together and as the reporter detailed the new restrictions and obligations that these communities would face my son got rather angry and upset because he felt it unfair that one group of people were being targeted when there are problems everywhere. He turned to me and asked me to help him write a letter to the Queen because only she as the head of state could over rule the govt.

    Sure I could be a sysadmin now, working 9-5 plus more, but keeping some companies email flowing has nothing on the pride and awe I felt and feel knowing that I have created an individual with an open mind, empathy and a desire to make the world a better place. I can have a career when he and any future siblings are older, right now I’m happy being a teacher, a nurse, a taxi driver, a chef, a seamstress, a negotiator, an advocate, a cheering fan and everything else that comes with being a mum. However, that doesn’t mean that I’m no longer trying to better myself, to learn and to be empowered. I follow current events, lobby the govt through letters, occasionally attend protests, debate with friends, family and randoms on the internet about issues that I am passionate about and try to learn constantly, I just don’t do a task for someone else for a paycheck and honestly I don’t need to do that to feel validated as a smart, independent woman.

    As an aside, maybe the unis and colleges worry that parents with degrees are undercutting them by handing out the knowledge they’ve had to pay for to their children for free 😉

  3. Excellent article.

    You are right to struggle with the choice of how to balance it all. It is a difficult task that I’ve personally been struggling with for some time. I was a stay home mom for the first 6 years of my children’s lives. I found that many working women would look down on me, feeling they took the superior path by sticking their kids in daycares and preschools.

    Today, their children are mostly unmanageable monsters that scream and throw tantrums, hit people, throw food, and are generally uncontrollable, whereas my children are calm, polite, well mannered and secure in the fact that they are loved. Babies as young as 6 weeks are being stuck into child care, and they are turning out to have behavioural issues that are leading a whole generation of parents to stick their kids on prescription drugs.

    These colleges are degrading the value of our most valuable service and product … the future generation. By giving mothers the message that children are not a worthwhile “career option,” they are essentially creating an entire generation of people with attachment issues who are ill equipped to deal with life and have normal loving relationships.

    Our children are our most important asset and our most important product. Strong, emotionally healthy children are needed to grow into strong, emotionally healthy adults that are equipped with the ability to deal with the massive problems our world is now facing. If we want a future, we have to take care of it, and that means raising our children right. Entrusting the children to state and private care at such early ages is damaging to them, and their earliest influences will be completely out of your hands. When you entrust your child’s care to strangers, don’t be surprised when your child returns strange.

    Feminism to me means having the ability to choose among all the options available equally, and that means choosing motherhood, too. Motherhood is the most important job. Where would we be without our mothers? People need to learn to respect that.

    Wishing you peace in your decision,


  4. Well I’ve been struggling with the said problem for a while now. I live in Trinidad, and for such a small island cases of child abuse have been getting more rampant since the lowering of the age of consent from 18 to 16.

    Seeing the headlines I’m petrified that something similar would happen to my child if i were to leave her under the care of someone else.

    I have come to the decision that when that happens I would give up my career to give my child the time & care that they deserve.

  5. In the last year I have recently entered the professional life and I started a blog about my pitfalls and stumbles. Come check it out if you get a chance! I think our blogs would make great assets to each other! http://catalysta.wordpress.com
    I mostly blog about my actual experiences with the professional world around me.

  6. My degree(s) give me options. Options for the type of career, industry, setting, location, and salary. Since we are in a society where people rarely stay with one company for the duration of their careers, having degree-based options seems the smarter way to go. With the long arm of the Internet, SAHMs are less likely be sitting around eating bon-bons and waiting to pork the underage gardener. Now SAHMs are developing home-based businesses that give them the flexibility to set their own hours, projects, and career prospects. Now if I can be a SAHM without the kids, I would sign up for that!

  7. Great article! Thanks for the insights. I, too, believe parenthood is the most important job in the world, and I bristle at those who imply that parents achieve less than their full potential when they dedicate their time to their families.

  8. I am a SAHM with a degree. People often ask me when I am “going to use it [the degree]…I tell them I went to school to learn something, not just to get a piece of paper to make money. We are lucky to be able to live on one income.

    With that said, I do think in part it is society that has made it this way. Not that women need to “use their degrees” but for creating a working mom v. stay at home mom. It has created a fear that if you are a mother and work that you are somehow doing wrong by your children because of all the horrible things that are out there. I am in the process of reading a book called “The Mommy Myth” (which I suggest reading) and it has actually opened my eyes to the way society, in general, has perpetuated these thoughts…you can be a mom and work, but you risk harming your children either emotionally or physically (by not being there to stop bad things from happening). If you are a stay at home mom, you are a “good mother” but you are not worth much as “just a mom” since all you do is take care of the kids all day (I have a SAHM friend whose husband actually told her that she doesn’t have a “real” job…even though if she worked at a daycare she would at least get paid).

    Feminism is all about choices…and it is wrong that women (and men) are judged because they choose to stay at home instead of working (or the other way around) and “using” their education.

  9. I think the last bit of the post was the most important, and the part that old-school feminists are missing: CHOICE. For them to bitch and moan because women are choosing to stay at home rather than rule the boardroom means that they don’t understand what equality actually means – that they only understand the dynamic of domination, us or them. Lame.

    I went to a women’s college. When I realized after graduation that I enjoyed cooking and decorating my new house and staying at home and knitting and cross-stitching, my “programming” told me that I was betraying the sisterhood, and that I should not want to do these things. It took me many months and a lot of pain to realize that it was my choice to enjoy whatever the hell I wanted to, regardless of whether they were traditional feminine roles or activities. Any system that dictates what women should choose to do, just because they are women, is oppressive, no matter the source of that system.

    Although I’m choosing not to have children, it’s because of who I am, not because I believe it will somehow weaken me. I greatly admire women who make the choice to have kids, to stay at home to raise them, or to raise them while working.

    Lina, I had not thought of what you say about attachment issues and the devaluement of family that goes along with this way of thinking. Well-put, and yikes.

  10. As someone who has two degrees, a professional license, and has attended graduate school, I feel that school is a complete waste of time unless you are studying something you want to study.

    Most people just want a nice paying job. School is not always the answer. There are many government jobs that pay well.

    I know many people who went to an Ivy League school and are doing the same work as someone who has only a high school diploma.

    If you set aside the $100k in debt that a good school costs. You still have the 4 year work free defecit. This is important because these are the most lucrative four years of your life in investing terms. If you work at McDonalds and invest for these four years, you’ll be on your way to retirement.

    Take it from someone who wasted ten years of his life struggling to get good grades in school. It amounted to a big zero.

    I told my wife not to go to school. She did. I supported her 100%. Now she hates her degree (accounting) and just wants to stay home. Well so do I!

    Remember if it results in massive debt and years out of the workplace, it’s not an “opportunity”. It’s a big ass burden.

  11. Pingback: How Mom and Dad Outsmart Those Ivy-League Schools : Brazen Careerist - A Career Center for Generation Y

  12. This quote cracks me up:

    “so few students seem to be able to think outside the box; so few students seem to be able to imagine a life for themselves that isn’t constructed along traditional gender roles.”

    It’s not the students who have trouble thinking outside the box, it is society and corporate America. I currently lead a satisfying life as both a mother of a two-year old as well as holding a full-time job that allows me to work from home two days a week. Those days, I am home with my son and grandma comes over to spend some quality time with him. The other three days he attends daycare, which he loves because he is very social. But, I worked very hard to have this benefit. I’ve stayed at the same job for 7 years and built up experience in my field so that when the time came to ask for for this benefit, my company valued and trusted me enough to allow for it. But, I do think that work-life balance is starting to become a consideration for more companies for both men and women who need more flexibility with their jobs, both full-time and part-time.

  13. Pingback: Interesting Blogs About Work-Life Balance « Cleveland Mom’s Weblog

  14. Could not agree more about the concept of women having options. We at the Hot Mommas Project found that about BALANCE EQUALS FEELINGS OF SUCCESS. Our yet-to-be-published survey results show the following:

    41% of respondents (female professionals)state they feel “more successful” relative to other colleagues. However, when we look ONLY at the respondents who are top balancers, 70% say they feel more successful than their colleagues. So, my takeaway as a mom, an educator of women, and a person is: “Hey. If I achieve balance, I stand a good job of feeling more successful…no matter what I’m doing.”

  15. One of the largest problems with being a working parent is time management.

    There are just not enough hours in the day to both watch your kids, and do your job.

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