When my mother was in grade school, her teacher asked each child to share what they wanted to be when they grew up. When the question came around the room to my mother, she said she wanted to be a mommy. “A mommy and what else?” her teacher asked her. My mother recounted this story to me many times, using at as an example of the evil feminist indoctrination of girls against their god-given maternal impulses that takes place in public schools. This teacher did not consider simply being a mother “good enough,” my mother told us.
Now first of all, as my regular readers know, I seek to affirm the choices of both career women and stay-at-home mothers. I sometimes find this tricky, as sometimes affirming the one can sound like a dig at the other. This is unfortunate, and is I think one of the things that has gotten in the way of a more cohesive women’s movement. We live in a world where stay-at-home mothers sometimes feel looked down on by career women—and vice versa.
But I don’t think the “A mommy and what else?” question was so very out of line. I suspect that that teacher simply wanted to make sure my mother knew that she could be a mother and have a career. It’s important to open up girls’ worlds and make sure they are aware of all of their options. Further, every girl—and woman—has interests and talents that should be fostered whether she stays home with her children or not.
It’s also worth noting that the dichotomy is not always so simple. I’m part of a local moms group on facebook, and I see mothers with careers, mothers taking a temporary break from careers to stay home with young children, mothers working part-time, mothers working from home, and mothers who are at home with their children but are counting the days till they can get a job or go back to school. I haven’t looked into the research on the subject, but I would imagine that most women who stay at home at some point also hold jobs or have careers at another point. I suspect it’s a minority of stay-at-home mothers who never have a career or job outside the home.
And what about my mother? How does the story end? My mother graduated from high school and went on to college. She worked as a professional for a year after college, and has kept up her license in case she ever needs to go back. She has used skills she gained through her degree and work experience constantly in raising her large family at home. For all her use of that anecdote as proof that public schools are bastions of feminist mother-hate, I suspect she is glad she went into a career, however briefly. Her life—and our lives—were better for it.
This brings me to another point. Women (and men!) who choose to stay at home with their children are better off if they have a backup plan in case their partner loses a job, becomes injured, dies, or leaves them. This means things like job training, higher education, or work experience. A stay-at-home mother with a bachelor’s degree, a teaching certificate, and several years of experience teaching will not only be better prepared to handle sudden family changes (such as job loss or divorce) but will also have more ready career options when the children are grown, or in school.
In other words, grade-school girls answering “A mommy and what else?” with “a teacher” or “an engineer” or “an artist,” that does not mean they cannot also also being full-time mothers at some point in their lives.
Having a degree and job prospects affected the power dynamics of my parents’ relationship in a very positive way. It meant that both of my parents knew that my mother could leave and support herself and us children on her own if need be. It’s not that she mentioned that or brought it up. It was a background noise kind of thing. In addition to her degree and her brief time working, my mother also had a myriad of interests she pursued, generally within the orbit of female interests but nonetheless genuine on her part. Things like quilting, scrapbooking, and home decorating have given her an outlet over the years. She may not see it this way, but she is much more than “just a mother.”
I have read many of the stories on Homeschoolers Anonymous and spoken with many homeschool alumni like myself, and I’ve noticed a bit of a pattern. The mothers who fare most poorly tend to be those without outside interests and without any prospects for supporting themselves. Those mothers who do have these outlets—whether in the form of hobbies, or autodidactic education, or part-time work on the side—tend to be happier and more fulfilled—and their children, too, tend to do better. Those mothers who have career prospects, skills, or a degree tend to be less likely to succumb to more abusive patriarchal relationships—not necessarily because they leave so much as because their partners know they could.
I am interested in a world where girls are inspired to pursue their dreams and interests; encouraged to think practically and pursue skills, training, and job prospects; and supported in their life choices, whether that be working full time or spending part of their lives as homemakers and caregivers.