Friday, June 1, 2007

I have been thinking a lot about working and being a parent. The two things consume 99.9% of my time, so there are many issues to explore, but the overall question to consider is “why do I work?” The obvious answer is the paycheck. Having two incomes means I’m able to give my child experiences outside of her little world in the suburbs. Among other things, I want to expose her to big cities and national parks and camping and skyscrapers and everything I can—hopefully even other parts of the world someday. Now I can afford to take her to swim lessons and music classes to expand her mind and help her learn to use her body and feel good about both. (I keep hearing critical voices saying she doesn’t need classes to experience music or swimming. We sing and play music every day, thank you very much, but I don’t own a pool or know anyone who does, so I would have to pay for that somewhere!).
So I'm working just to pay for “extras?” No, not quite. Just the basics—reliable transportation, housing in a safe neighborhood with good schools, the ability to pay for college—are expensive. It’s sad but true that you can’t live just anywhere and be assured of these things anymore. If we tried to live on one income, we would be living in our old (unsafe) neighborhood (did I mention the crack pipe we found in our yard?) with the really bad schools and I will not subject my child to that just to have a stay-at-home parent.
There’s also the issue of my future, my family’s future. What kind of retirement would we have if we were only putting away money from one paycheck instead of two? What about life insurance? College?
But it’s also more complicated than that. I have realized how much I need to make my own money to feel secure. I am not anticipating being single anytime soon, but I would feel very much on shaky ground if I didn’t make my own money, if I didn’t know I could provide for myself (and now my child) if (God forbid) anything happened to Bret. It’s a psychological thing, partially tied up in my mother’s experience of being trapped in her marriage because she wasn’t working. But even more so, because she wasn’t working she had no power in her marriage. I know that sounds cynical, and why should draw the comparison to myself? After all, I am not in a crappy marriage like she was. Who knows. Who can account for how these things play themselves out in our psyches. All I know is that I would feel useless to the world, to myself, to my family, if I weren’t making money. I know, I know. Someone (a lot of someones) out there will say that staying home to raise your child is the most important thing you could be doing for the world, for her, blah blah blah. Maybe I am just too much like a man in this regard. (How many fathers do you know who’d be truly happy, who would feel fulfilled, not earning a paycheck?)

And I also realized this: my whole life it was assumed I’d go to college. I was badgered by my parents throughout my school years (including college) about my grades, about “applying myself” and getting As. I was kept out of activities when my grades weren’t what my parents wanted them to be. And for what? So that I would be a success in life, I assume. So that I would get into a good college and grad school and get a good job. (Otherwise, what’s the point of all that pushing?) I did marginally well (although never did truly “apply” myself), and three and a half years ago finally got a good job—one that is challenging, uses my talents and pays me well. And now I’m looked down on for actually keeping—and liking—this job because I have a child. Family members, friends and acquaintences have implied or stated outright that I should be staying home. No one would EVER question a man this way. (If a man chooses to stay home with his children, he’s looked down upon. Thought of as lazy, or not a real man. A woman who chooses not to stay home is thought of as selfish. Not a real woman.) No one has ever implied or suggested or said outright to Bret that HE should quit his job and stay home—despite the fact that I contribute a great deal to our family’s income, despite the fact that I have my advanced degree and he’s working on his.
I got my education and worked my way through several jobs for the same reason anyone does—to get a good job. Why is this different for a woman than a man? If it is, then it means that her education is…what? Finishing school? Just a way to pass the time until the man and the babies come along? I feel a responsibility to my family just like a man does—to PROVIDE for them. And anyone who’s seen my house or my clothes knows that I am not living an extravagant lifestyle. In fact, of all my friends, I am sure I have the crappiest house, the crappiest furniture (hello 1985 wallpaper and 1973 dining room table).

Is working a choice for me? Yes, because I choose to live in a safe neighborhood with good schools. I choose to drive a reliable, fuel-efficient car. I choose to be prepared for retirement, and not be a burden to my family or society in my old age. I choose to expose my child to as many good things the world has to offer as I can. I choose to be able to save for her education so she’s not saddled with the enormous debt I had when I got out of school. I would never try to tell someone that my way is best. I am tired of the media’s focus on the so-called “mommy wars” between work-at-home and work-outside-the-home moms and I have no interest in putting someone down for their choices. I’m just tired of being judged for mine.


Kathy said...

Amen, sister! I am not a mom, but I feel for the situation you describe...and I have seen many friends--including you!--struggle with the criticism, whether real or implied!

It's been 3-1/2 years already?! Wow, time flies! And I still miss you at work! ;-)


Susan said...

Double Amen. You have articulated what I think many professional mamas think but don't say, or don't even know they feel. Being a mom in this day and age is tough. You are doing just fine.

Susan at Working Moms Against Guilt