Last week I was at a party with my daughter for a friend’s daughter. We were classmates together in graduate school, obtaining our M.A.s in Clinical Psychology together and while I switched over to the Developmental program for my Ph.D., she stayed in Clinical for a couple years before leaving the program when she had her first child.
Her choice wasn’t that she truly wanted to give up school, but she has pre-existing health conditions that take up a lot of time (and include a lot of pain, doctor’s visits, etc.) and everything became much more difficult when she was also responsible for caring for a child as well. So instead of starting her research for her Ph.D., she opted to leave. It’s been about 3 years since she left the program and a year since we’d seen each other. She has two children now and of course, having the opportunity, I asked how things were going.
“Well… I’m an overly-educated stay-at-home mom.”
That’s it. That summed it all up for her. There was a bit of bitterness in her voice, a bit of sadness too. There was a tone that suggested somehow having the education she had should preclude her from being a stay-at-home mom. And yet in all that, and in all I saw that day and know of her, I know she likely wouldn’t change anything if given the opportunity to go back. Her children are a testament to how wonderful she is, at home, with them and I know how much she loves the time with them.
I ended up sending her this piece when I got home because I wanted her to know that being “just” a mom is quite something indeed. I reminded her how amazing her kids were and that’s a testament to her parenting (along with her husband, of course, but that’s tangential). I hope that message got through, even though I also feel for her and the fact that she gave up something she did want because a system wasn’t equipped to deal with her unique situation.
It got me thinking of the unjustness that our school couldn’t handle one person’s special circumstance. I know first-hand how unsupportive the academic world can be to parents and I have been truly blessed to have the supervisor I do, who accepted me taking a bit longer, working from home, and knowing I was first and foremost a parent. It seems so wrong that a school can take away the chance of a degree from a deserving candidate because she was unable to complete things on their schedule of what an able-bodied, non-parent can complete.
I finished thinking of all of that and I realized I was still disheartened. I was disheartened because her statement about being “overly-educated” implies that somehow being educated and being a stay-at-home parent is incompatible. I don’t know how much she herself feels that, but I know it’s a common view in our society.
It brought to mind my own mother who faced criticism from some classmates when she decided to stay at home with us kids after getting her undergraduate degree from Princeton (and was part of the first female class). Hadn’t they fought for entrance into one of the most pre-eminent schools so they could advance themselves as women? How could she, as they put it, “throw it all away”? My mom always thought the fight was for equality and choice, but apparently she was wrong.
I have to ask something to anyone who believes this state of mind: How is having a child spend most of their day with a highly educated person a bad thing? More importantly, how is having a child spend most of their day with a loving parent not always a good thing?
This idea that somehow staying at home is for the uneducated is not only insulting to everyone, it feeds a system that erroneously dictates what being a mother should look like based on socio-economic status, like:
- If you’re rich but didn’t get an advanced degree, you’re the ideal candidate to stay at home.
- If you’re rich but got an advanced degree, you’re wasting your education by staying at home and that’s a bad thing for you, your children, and women in general.
- If you’re middle-class, you have the right to choose what you want to do, but we’ll think you’re strange and something’s wrong with you if you aren’t out there working to “contribute” to your household and your upward mobility.
- If you’re poor, regardless of education, you can’t stay at home, you should be out working no matter what, and putting your kids in substandard daycare because we as a society don’t really trust you.
For men, it’s even narrower:
- No matter what you are or what education you had, you should be working.
This is ridiculous people. Not only is it just wrong, it fuels a fire between those who work and those who don’t for no reason whatsoever (after all, apples and oranges are different but neither is superior per se, it’s personal preference and what you need). If you can find a way to stay home with your children and you want to, do it, mom or dad. If your work is necessary to your survival, work. If your work is something that you truly feel needs to be a part of your life, keep it as a part of your life either by continuing working or finding a way to do it from home or part-time or whatever. In fact, I would say that no matter who you are, if there’s a way to spend more time with your children, especially when they are young, it is something you will never regret.
Having a loving, caring parent at home is a wonderful thing for every child. It’s sadly not possible in our society for every family to do this, but it is never a bad thing. In many countries, it’s seen as the ideal and society works to make this possible, through longer parental leaves, flexibility in part time work or working from home, and a society that is all-around more conducive to a family being, well, a family.
Can we cut the crap about who should or should not be staying at home with the kids based on things like education and wealth? Can we not focus on making sure every child has the opportunity to have a parent or an otherwise loving caregiver take care of them? Here’s the new societal take I’d like to see, for both mothers and fathers:
If you want to be with your children, you can. Love them, spend time with them, play with them, cuddle with them, leave them to play by themselves, teach them new skills, have them help around the house, do everything that you might regret not doing later. Your children will benefit from their time with you and no one should tell you that your key responsibility is to anyone other than your family. How this will look will depend on if you’re at home full-time, part-time, work from home, or work out of the house, but it’s all possible if you make it a priority, regardless of wealth or education or sex. Hopefully, as a society, we’ll structure things that all of this is possible for you, even if there will be sacrifices on your end as well (like living more prudently or accepting fewer promotions).
Remember, the greatest gifts you can give your children are (a) your time and love and (b) to be true to yourself. Balancing them can be hard, but if you can do it, you’ll have found the recipe for a very happy, loving household.