What do you want to be when you grow up?

Most people start asking themselves that question early. It starts out in preschool, with talk of being fire fighters, doctors, or police. By senior year of high school, the question is asked increasingly frantically. But I didn’t ask myself that question until I was in my early twenties. Until then, I had only seen one option: I would be a wife, mother, and homemaker when I grew up. Suddenly and for the first time asking myself, in my early twenties, what I wanted to be when I grew up was disconcerting. And life altering.

I’m not the only one who has gone through this, either. I have a surprising number of friends with similar backgrounds, and also in their mid-twenties, who are also trying to figure out what they want to be. They’re talking about going to college for the first time, or back to college for more education, but still not sure what they want to study, still not sure what they want to be. The thinking about what you want to be when you grow up while you’re still growing up? Yeah, they missed that. 

The funny thing is, my brothers have such a totally different experience in this area. They grew up knowing they were to have careers, that they must work outside the home, that they must support their families. They grew up thinking about what they wanted to be when they grew up, and ultimately choosing careers. Not so for my sisters and I. We never expected to have careers, never even thought of it. It was so far off our radar screen that it’s honestly still hard sometimes for me to picture it.

And yes, I went to college. But since I didn’t plan to have a career – and had never even considered the idea – I chose a major I figured would allow me to bring in a little extra money tutoring homeschooled students while I homeschooled my own many children. So far, this has been the case for the sisters in my family. College isn’t for having a career. College is for being well rounded and having a skill to bring in income through tutoring on the side. College was also seen as important for making us intellectually compatible with our future husbands, who it was assumed would all have college degrees.

The “you have to be a stay at home mom” programming was so strong for me that I didn’t even consider having a career until years after I had finished my undergraduate degree. I questioned and left so much, but somehow could not shake the idea that my destiny was to be a homeschool stay at home mom with a large brood of kids. In fact, being a stay at home mom was just about the last thing I questioned, years after the questions first started, and not really that long ago. It’s still hard for me to look into the future and imagine anything besides being a stay at home mom.

But the truth is, I don’t want to be a stay at home mom. The truth is, I only want a few children. The truth is, I don’t plan to homeschool. I spent years and years staring adoringly at the one-size-fits-all model held in front of me, and now I don’t want it. The whiplash I feel from this is huge, because now I have to find something else to replace it with, from scratch.

And so, in my mid-twenties, I am myself still trying to figure out for sure what I want to do with my life. Do I want a high-powered career, or something more middle of the line? Do I want a more flexible job, or a job with regular hours? I’m in grad school, so I’ve clearly chosen a subject that interests me, but I’m still not 100% sure what I want to do with my degree when I finish.

I wish I had been raised with a multiplicity of options rather than only given one option. My mother tells stories of being raised with that multiplicity of options, but says all she ever wanted to be was a mother. She says that people were forever trying to push her toward choosing something else in addition to mothering, and even telling her that “just” being a mother wasn’t enough, but she says she never wanted anything else. She resents that all those other options were pushed on her. Does she realize, I wonder, that she did the same thing with her children, only in reverse?

I am not against families making the decision to have one parent stay at home, especially while the children are young. Sometimes this really makes sense, especially with the price of daycare. But in this case, I don’t think the mom staying at home should be the de facto choice. Rather, I think each couple should decide which of them it makes most sense to have stay home. Women in our society generally grow up with some sort of understanding that staying at home with their kids, especially for the early years, as an option, but do men grow up with that same understanding? Nope. I want this to change. I want our society to stop making this a mommy thing and start making it a parent thing.

But the model set up by Christian Patriarchy – the model I grew up being taught to follow – doesn’t allow for flexibility or differences. It sets out one basic course for women and for families. Sure, there’s some fluidity – a homeschool stay at home mom can run the local co-op, or tutor, or have hobbies – but not a lot. There is no understanding of the differences among women or of the different circumstances of families. Being a stay at home homeschool mother to a gaggle of children may be a fulfilling way of life for some women, but it isn’t for everyone. And, for many women, staying at home isn’t even a financial option. But none of this diversity in temperament, desires, or situation matters for those in Christian Patriarchy. Instead, there’s just one track, one model.

And getting off that track – and re-imagining your life from scratch – is hard. And when I started climbing off that track, I had no idea just how hard re-imagining my life would be – or how long it would take.

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About Libby Anne

Libby Anne grew up in a large evangelical homeschool family highly involved in the Christian Right. College turned her world upside down, and she is today an atheist, a feminist, and a progressive. She blogs about leaving religion, her experience with the Christian Patriarchy and Quiverfull movements, the detrimental effects of the "purity culture," the contradictions of conservative politics, and the importance of feminism.

  • Mattie Chatham

    My parents had some old friends of theirs, and the father stayed home with his 3 yo daughter, and the mom had a career. The daughter was a little bratty the day we visited them, and as we drove away, my mom commented to us kids that the little girl was acting like that because her mom didn’t stay home with her. I asked why they did that, and she told me that maybe their parents were just happier that way, but that it wasn’t God’s plan for us to do that.

    • http://cfiottawa.com Eamon Knight

      Heh, nothing like a little confirmation bias applied to a small data set, is there?

  • Caitlin

    When one parent is at home and the other is the breadwinner, it really upsets power dynamics if the couple is striving for an egalitarian relationship. There are other ways, such as both working part-time, or working swing shifts. Sociologist Nancy Chodorow notes in The Reproduction of Mothering that there is no such thing as separate but equal. In a society that values money and devalues carework, it’s hard to generate mutual equality when the spheres are separated.

    • http://patheos.com/blogs/lovejoyfeminism Libby Anne

      Yes, this is one thing I’m still trying to figure out, because I do see that potential issue. I have a friend who is staying home while her son is young but had previously worked to put her husband through grad school whereas he’s working now, and she says that they don’t have a problem keeping things equal in part because she supported both of them before for some years. But I realize it’s complicated. I may look up that book you suggested.

      I think part of the trouble is being in “a society that values money and devalues carework.” Jeanne Boydston’s Home and Work talks about how this dichotomy – “working” for wages and “not working” in the home – came to be. Originally both men and women worked within the household, be that a farm or a small business. But as wage work increased among the middle class, men felt robbed of their manhood because they were working for someone else instead of for themselves. In order to smooth this transition, the idea that men “work” for wages outside of the home and women stay at home and “don’t work” came to be. However, Boydston points out that the middle class women at home were actually still doing a great deal of work and were making the family’s middle class status possible as financial managers, etc. In other words, they were contributing to the family’s financial standing even as their work was rendered “invisible,” in Boydston’s words. We still see this today – men with stay at home wives make more money than do men whose wives work – but as you say there is still this dichotomy of “work” (i.e. for wages) and “not work” (i.e. in the home, care giving, etc.). Anyway, I certainly find it all very interesting!

      • Emily

        You may like how Amy Richards works through these questions in Opting In: Having a Child Without Losing Yourself. She’s my favorite feminist author.

      • Rosa

        There is also a near-total devaluation of part-time work. I prefer working part time, even before I had a baby, and it is really difficult to find decent-paying part time work that provides healthcare and retirement benefits. Most people get to it by being full time for years first and then asking to scale back.

        About do you want a steady job or a flexible job, recently Badmomgoodmom had a great post on work-life balance (she’s half of a two-scientist working parent couple) http://badmomgoodmom.blogspot.com/2012/03/connecting-girls-inspiring-futures.html and in it she linked to a really amazing post by another scientist mom about having a career and a family. http://www.wandering-scientist.com/2012/02/having-it-all-logistics.html

    • Noelle

      But I work full-time while my husband is the stay-at-home-dad. He offered to do this for our future children while I was in school. I currently make almost 10 times what he did the last time he worked. We can afford
      to have him stay with the kids and run the household. Should I assume that our relationship is off-balance because I’m the only one bringing in money? He can work if he wants to. I’m not holding him back. But is he required to find part-time or shift-work to be my equal?

    • http://kpoplover llala


  • S. Lane

    “The “you have to be a stay at home mom” programming was so strong for me that I didn’t even consider having a career until years after I had finished my undergraduate degree. I questioned and left so much, but somehow could not shake the idea that my destiny was to be a homeschool stay at home mom with a large brood of kids. In fact, being a stay at home mom was just about the last thing I questioned, years after the questions first started, and not really that long ago.”

    So, I’m curious: how did you get from there to here? That is, what did you do between undergrad and grad school, and how did you make the decision to go to grad school? (I’m particularly curious about the latter.) Just wondering. :)

    Also: “But none of this diversity in temperament, desires, or situation matters for those in Christian Patriarchy. Instead, there’s just one track, one model.” This is SUCH a recurring theme. Ugh.

    • http://patheos.com/blogs/lovejoyfeminism Libby Anne

      “So, I’m curious: how did you get from there to here? That is, what did you do between undergrad and grad school, and how did you make the decision to go to grad school?”

      Um. Well. I know this will sound weird, but I originally started grad school to help pay the bills, because my husband was still in school himself and we couldn’t make it on what he got alone, and I was bright and hard working enough that I was able to get a fellowship. It was while in graduate school that I realized I wanted to have a career – and this wasn’t really all that long ago. :-/

      • S. Lane

        Ahh, I understand. As long as you’re enjoying grad school, it seems like it can’t have been a bad move by any means. It’s heartbreaking to read this post and some of these comments, though. It drives home to me that I dodged a serious bullet. But perhaps because I was/am so driven and strong-willed, my parents just knew convincing me to be a wife/homemaker would’ve been a colossal waste of their time. :)

        On a somewhat related note, a suggestion: perhaps you could share your thoughts at some point on stay-at-home dads and the cultural factors at play there (assuming you do, in fact, have any thoughts). When I was a child I once encountered an Evangelical, homeschooling, SAH dad (not QF, though, only 2 or 3 kids) and, looking back, I wonder what he went through in such a highly unusual position.

  • http://www.ayoungmomsmusings.blogspot.com Melissa@Permission to Live

    I am asking all of these questions for the first time as well. All my activities from childhood were tailored to my future role as a stay at home baby producer and homeschooler. I’m not even sure what my true interests are. And I struggle to decide if I should just randomly take some classes and figure out what stuff I enjoy, or get on track for some sort of job that pays more than entry level, but what?

    • Emily

      Taking classes is a great way to learn what you like broadly, but most lower level college classes aren’t linked to a specific career. Tech classes are more so if you’re interested in that. Is there a college near where you live? Check out the career center. They have lots of tools to help you discover your interests and skills. Plus, they’re usually incredibly encouraging people. I’m following the advice to “figure out who you want to be before you look into the question of what you want to do.” That said, it seems from the blogs I’ve read like many post-Christian patriarchy women gain a lot of confidence from getting a low pressure, away from home job, just being out with working people. And know that the skills you learned in your childhood are plenty transferable to non-mom work. I imagine you got really good at managing others, meeting deadlines, delegating responsibilities, creative problem-solving, etc. And from what I have read on your blog, you’re a stronger critical thinker than many college graduates I know. What do you think, am I off base?

      • Carolyn the Red

        I think the only way some of us find out a career path is to fall into it – when we need a job, we pick one we’re interested in and qualified for, see if we hate the industry, and then see what education or experience we need to move somewhere more interesting. It’s what I did when I graduated with a degree in mathematics, it’s what my brother did when he graduated with a degree in history. You pass out your resume, you hit the job fairs, you do a little introspection, you browse job listings, and see what would take you, that also interests you. If the job really doesn’t fit, well, be analytic about what really isn’t making you happy. Sure, you can take training for a specific career, but it’s hard to know what one without being near it. So, a lot of us meander towards what we want to do, and stay somewhere once we’re satisfied enough, whether it’s with money, with the work, or whatever.

        One of my friends, a mathematician, said he always wanted to be one, but didn’t know what that meant until he was one. Chances are he’d be happy as other things, but he’s happy enough, so he stays. My husband loves his job, but didn’t realize it existed until he fell into it. I fell into a job I liked well enough, then went back to school to move into something a bit different.

        If with a little introspection, you find a passion, that’s great. But most of us don’t have huge career passions, so we figure it out as we pay the bills.

      • http://elliha.blogspot.com Elin

        Start by listing everything you could consider doing and everything that is out of the question. That might lead you in one direction or the other. Ask other people that know you what they would see you as working with in the future and see if they point in any direction and how it corresponds with your wishes. It is not easy to find out what to do but you somehow do at some point.

    • Mattie Chatham

      You can also take some aptitude testing and see what that suggests you do, and then shadow people in the fields you’re thinking of exploring.

  • H

    These really are difficult questions. They aren’t always easy for anyone, even men and women who were asked that all their lives. The world has changed so much in the last 20 years that the careers I’m interested in now didn’t even exist when I was a child.
    Remember that life is a long time, and your field of education may end up having nothing to do with your career. You could even have multiple careers. It’s all about the confluence of opportunity, interest, and effort.

    • Emily

      Ha! We were thinking similar things at the same time!

  • Emily

    I hate that you didn’t get to imaginatively explore your options as a kid. It sounds like you were bright and inquisitive and would have really thrived with that freedom. That said, take heart. The “what do I want to be when I grow up?” question is common to most future-professional women in their mid-twenties, regardless of their permission to imagine possibilities while growing up. Besides the ones who knew exactly what career they wanted since high school (usually accounting or medicine), every woman my age I know is trying to figure that out. We followed the advice of wise people who told us to study what we were passionate about, but in the cases where grad school doesn’t lead to a particular career position, we’re still wondering where we’ll go and what we’ll end up doing. I’m encouraged by my dad’s stories of the joy he has found in exploring his strengths and the ways he finds to be helpful to others. I also believe the people who tell me that I’ve probably never heard of the careers or positions I’ll be in. Ambiguity can be hard but just think of the possibilities! How have you gone about investigating things you may be interested in? Do you have good mentors? Those things have helped me.

    • Liberated Liberal

      I am 30 and still trying to figure it out. It has reached a crisis point for me and I’ve been thinking about it my whole life! Some of us simply don’t know; I am at a complete loss. It also doesn’t help that my brain doesn’t have the ability to work through the things I’m most interested in. It’s like a punishment.

  • Jeri

    I am in my mid-30′s and just now trying to figure this out. No idea what kind of career to prepare for–what would flex best around my family’s “style”? Or a job that I love and that utilizes my strengths to best advantage?

    I already feel more “equal” with my husband because I have a class schedule and expect him to care for the kids those nights. Not that he didn’t before, but now I am that much more aware of his contribution now.

  • kagekiri

    I’m also mid-twenties and in the “what the heck do I do next” period, but I’m suffering more from the loss of the theistic certainty of the future than gender expectations. My parents were thankfully not conservative when it came to gender expectations (my Mom liked Bill Gothard’s stuff other than submitting to her husband and some of his female gender expectations…dodged a bullet), so my sisters were actually pushed towards careers as much as me as a boy.

    Yet being raised in a church that basically tried to preach the whole “don’t worry about the future” idea of concentrating on just serving God, and everything will turn out as it should….starting with that kind of certainty and blind hope in the future, then transitioning to the uncertainty and ultimate responsibility of atheism; that is a tough change. I used to console myself that my uncertainty about the future was irrelevant, and that I’d just do whatever God led me to do. Then, as time went on in college, I realized God just wasn’t answering my calls for guidance in any way. I started to panic, getting pretty depressed at the same time.

    Finally, becoming atheist…it’s really a big change to not say “everything is going to be okay, and even if it’s messed up, there’s always the afterlife”. That cop-out of responsibility for life leaves me feeling a bit daunted now that it’s gone. I’m responsible for my happiness, for what I do to affect the world positively, and there’s probably no second shot at it, no safety net of an afterlife or a God who will make sure it’s all just, fair, and good in the end.

    I struggle a bit with the idea of considering being a stay-at-home dad at any point…but that’s mostly because I’m so far from the possibility of any relationship right now that I know I’ll definitely need to provide for myself for the foreseeable future.

  • ArachneS

    Haha… I guess I had a “choice”… I could be a stay-at-home-mom….. or a nun!

    This was really as far as I could see myself going when I was a little kid up until I was 14 or 15. It wasn’t until I got a part time job and started meeting other people outside of the family circle when I realized I could go to college and be anything I want.

  • Adele

    My husband and I both agreed that we wanted one parent to stay at home so we did not have to put our child in daycare. Since early in our marriage I have made more money and I have always been more career-oriented than my husband. Also, my husband really dislikes working in a corporate environment and enjoys being able to schedule his own days, plan his own projects, etc. So it just made sense for him to be a SAHD and me to work. That’s what we did from a couple months before my daughter was born until she was in elementary school. Then my husband got a part-time job and now he works full-time because we need the money, but for us, the ideal situation is him at home and me working outside the home. Regarding equality in the relationship, I don’t think that should be an issue so long as the roles are not proscribed by gender. I would have stayed home with my daughter if that solution had made the most sense for us, and I don’t think our relationship would have been any more or less equal. Of course, I was raised to assume I would have a career and to consider myself an equal in any relationship.


  • smrnda

    I can’t realize how fortunate I was to grow up in a family where women had careers and educations. It wasn’t like nobody said “I don’t want to be a Mom” but it was more like the idea that it’s part of your life, not all of it.

    Other nations do better than the US on providing maternity and paternity leave. I am very supportive of paternity leave since I think it’s important for fathers to have real relationships with their kids. It’s strange to me that the ‘family values’ supporters tend to have little support for government programs like that, even given how often they talk about how important it is for kids to have a father.

    I think a problem with the whole ‘trust God and everything will work out” is that it’s like telling someone that if they are sick, just go to a doctor. Even if it was a good choice it leaves out all the details of how to get well.

  • Kalipay

    after leaving my QF patriarchal family, I worked as an EMT for a few years while taking college classes and trying to figure things out. I eventually decided on a career and moved to another state to attend college for it, air traffic control. it was quite a slow process of figuring out what things I liked about my job (I loved dispatching, enjoyed the crazy and random hours, for ex) and what I disliked (the low-class atmosphere and lack of commitment to the company and dedication to excellence). thought about the fact that I love airports and airplanes, that I can handle stress quite well… and picked a career. now, I’m not working in it yet, so there’s possibility that I may not enjoy it as much as I think, but here’s to hoping and working hard towards a goal!

  • Rilian

    When I was a kid, my mom shot down every idea I had for a future career. I believed her that it was hopeless and ended up limiting myself because of that.
    In other news, my dad doesn’t have a job, but guess who still does all the housework?

  • http://elliha.blogspot.com Elin

    My mother was a stay at home mom and she was open with both the good and the bad things about this. She said that she only regretted one thing, that she did not have a real opportunity to work in a better job once she had older children. My parents were born in the 1940s and working class and did not have the opportunity to study like me or my brothers and sisters have so my mother always pushed me and my sister to do well in school and get a job that we liked so that we would have full choice to live the life we wanted. My sister has never wanted to be a stay at home mom and loves work, I am more positive but I still do not think that I will be one but hopefully work part time at some point.

  • Noelle

    We have very different upbringings. I was the oldest of 6 kids, but more because of lack of consistent health care and access to contraception. My mom cried when she found out she was pregnant with my baby brother. We were homeless and living with my grandparents at the time. Every day of my childhood she and my step-father insisted all of us kids go to college. It was the only way to survive. It was the ticket out of poverty. We were asked all the time to think about what we wanted to be when we grew up. First, I wanted to be Daisy Duke. Then, when I realized that wasn’t a possibility, an actress would do. Or when I didn’t like the teacher’s rules, I thought I might be a teacher one day and make up my own rules. Or an author, because I loved reading and wanted to create books that other people would snuggle up with on the couch. Or a psychologist, because people are so interesting. Or a journalist, so I could teach people things about the world. Or so many other wonderful things.

    I once mentioned I could just marry a man with money, and that would fix the poverty situation. But that was not found to be funny and I was told it’d be better to carve my own life. I was good at school, always at the top of the class. This one can do whatever she wants, every adult who met the child me told my parents. So I did.

    I can’t imagine only having one choice. It makes me want to sit down with you and plot all the possibilities. The joy of doing this as a child is you aren’t hindered by reality and even the wildest dreams take root. It’s never too late though. There’s a whole world out there.

  • Palaverer

    I was raised Jehovah’s Witness. College was all but forbidden and instead of having lots of kids, we were expected to devote maximum time to the door-to-door ministry. So I could look forward to having a career, but it would most likely be of the cleaning toilets variety. Now near age 30, I’m working on a bachelor’s degree and I’ve settled on political science as a major (dappling in politics was expressly forbidden). I plan to have a family and a career, and I’ll do my damndest to make the world a better place for other women. QF and the JWs may go about things differently, but the end result is the same: women are inferior and should be servants to men, either their husbands or their religious task masters.

  • Jetboy

    This is pretty close to home for me. The circumstances of my life and that of my wife’s have dictated that (more or less) she will wind up the primary breadwinner. It makes more sense this way. She is a few years younger than me, and we were on track to have me go part-time and go to school, and have her work full-time on a career path that was very promising. But – she got laid off, and I didn’t.
    Total change of plans; she goes to school first, works part-time, I go to school when I can afford it – or when she gets a job in her field. I am thirty-five years old and am no stranger to labor, but it is getting old. So when she does decide she’s ready to have kids, I’ll take care of them while she does what she wants to earn the money. I’ll go part-time somewhere when the kids hit schooling age.
    If there’s one thing that’s true about my life, it’s that I was raised to be a dad, by parents who knew by experience what a dad wasn’t. I like showing kids how amazing the world can really be, and how they can make their way in it. So any money I earn during that period goes to retirement/emergency/FU funds; and she’ll pay the bills doing something she loves anyway. Then, when the kids hit college (or leave the house, at least,) I’m going back to school, to be the oldest intern at SpaceX or JPL. Then when she retires, and we plan on early, then she will do likewise.
    It’s way easier to do this when neither partner, and I stress Partner, is subscribed to any ridiculous notion of arbitrarily assigned roles coming out of a made-up book. I’ve noticed that the best relationships begin when you take people as they are, and what you know they’re capable of, and you bridge that gap. Any male who thinks me less a man because the wife makes the money can come see me – I’ll set him straight about which of us is more a man.

  • http://getinhangon.wordpress.com/ Meg

    I had a very different upbringing than you and came out of college fully trained and ready to focus on my career as a civil engineer. I worked all over the country on projects big and little….until our first child was born.

    I then spent the next 19 years raising a couple of kids and homeschooling them along the way (liberal, secular homeschooling). When we only had one left and she was already in high school, we opted for her to finish in public school. And I was left trying to decide what I wanted to do when I grew up.

    That daughter graduates from high school next month and while I have found a job I’m loving, I’m still not sure if this is my “grown-up” job or just a way station. These days instead of setting earth-shattering goals and conquering the world, I try to look at the process as the point of the adventure.

    I had that “grown-up” job and I had national head-hunters knocking on my door; I was also able to be in the position to stay home (financially and emotionally) and focus on my family; and now I’ve lucked into a productive job that allows me to be flexible to balance between being mom, wife, and employee. And honestly, as I have been in each stage, I have loved it.

    When my daughter was about 3 or 4 she attended a little pre-school (this was before we ever thought about homeschooling) and one day she was telling me about how one of her little friends’ mothers worked at Walmart (or some place similar). And all little kid innocent she then asked me when I was ever going to get a “real” job. It left me nearly speechless trying to explain how mommy had had a “real” “real” career and had chosen to stay home and just be mom.