Growing up in the the "Berkely of the Midwest" (Madison, Wisconsin), I self-identified as a feminist from a very early age and frankly, I really despised anybody else who didn't. Back then, that was a lot of people - even in Madison. Honestly, I was cutting edge. My mother not only went back to school (part-time) and earned her PhD in clinical psychology, but she focused her studies on women's issues. She volunteered in a battered women's shelter and wrote a dissertation on dating violence. She and my pediatrician father would give talks to medical students on how to recognize signs of domestic violence. My formative middle and high-school years were spent living and breathing feminism. I chucked all college pamphlets sent my way from schools starting with a "Saint" because of my assumptions about sexism and anything even remotely religious.
Fast-forward twenty years and I'm a "former lawyer, now SAHM." In the whopping 2.5 years I've spent as such I've noticed that people make assumptions about me they wouldn't have made before. Assumptions I really do not appreciate. Many reading this blog post are already assuming that I "went off the deep end" in college and am some sort of secretly self-loathing anti-feminist, in spite of the happy childhood I spent with two great parents. Unfortunately I have yet to read a truly compelling summary of why that isn't the case for me or for many other women like me. So I'm going to continue with my story in the hopes that I can provide a better example of a SAHF (stay-at-home feminist) than the women featured in the above article.
I got here in a roundabout way. I grew up with the absolute assumption that I would be a professional (a lawyer, a doctor, a professor, or maaaaaybe a teacher) and I felt that anything less would be a disappointment to both of my parents, my mom especially. And to be honest with you, it probably would have been. Yet the entire time I was growing up my favorite part of the day was coming home after the academic and social stresses of school and having a snack with my mom while we chatted about the day. 2:50 p.m. could not have come soon enough for me; I was by nature a homebody and my mother was always so insightful. I could, and did, tell her anything and I definitely assumed I would have the same tradition with my own future children. And so unbeknownst to me I was already straddling two different sets of expectations for my life. Not that these two dreams are entirely incompatible, but when someone like Anne-Marie Slaughter can come along and describe "only" being a law professor as taking a huge step down, I already wasn't out to be the full-on career woman I assumed every sane woman wanted to be. And boy did I assume it - and judge. When I found out my college boyfriend's cousin was going to become a P.A. instead of an M.D. because she wanted to be able to balance family life with her career, I could not believe it. Ha. Now I sometimes wish my husband were a P.A., even as I myself stay home!
Yes, as I made my way through college the concept of "balancing family life with career" did not even enter my mind; I just carried on with the dual assumptions that I would both have a professional career and also (magically) be home after school and summers. I started out wanting to be a French professor but after spending a year in France to prove to myself that I wasn't going to be limited by "having a man," I just simply never wanted to be away from him that long again. My other major was history but after writing my "Senior Thesis" (on women in the French Resistance and subsequent historiography on that topic) I was disillusioned. I believed that because history had already happened, people were largely trying to rewrite it or focusing on something so narrow as to not really be significant. The only out I found was writing about writing about history - essentially my thesis argued that recent historiography had gone overboard in downplaying how revolutionary gender roles were in The Resistance - and by the time I was done with it I was just sort of done, even though I scored an A and a very difficult professor told me I was "playing in the big leagues." Later I flipped through GRE and LSAT prep books and I liked the LSAT book better (I considered memorizing vocabulary a waste of time, and I loved logic games). So I headed off to law school, my progressive boyfriend and I still believing we'd both eventually work part-time, since we did want our kids to largely be home with one of us.
Law school turned out to be everything I wanted it to be. I remember after the first few days of class excitedly thinking "Oh please, let me be good at this if nothing else ever again!" And I was decently good at it. I graduated top 20% and I was one of the top 2 finalists in Honors Moot Court, so out of over 80 other students originally. But the job market was bad even back in 2006 and my first job was in a practice group that grossly overworked its associates. I was doing what I wanted to do - I was getting significant litigation experience in a trial-by-fire atmosphere, going to court probably once a week and largely handling my own cases unless they were worth reeeeeaaaally big money. I had a gorgeous office on the top floor of a downtown building with big, beautiful windows and views. But I wasn't actually happy. In fact, I was miserable - as were almost all of my colleagues in that particular firm, male and female alike. Turns out working 60-70 hour weeks in a super high stress environment wasn't the key to happiness after all (blasphemous, I know). I did eventually find a much more family-friendly firm but it was a step down in prestige (no partner track), and the work was not nearly as interesting to me. But working "just" 45 per hours per week and working those hours with other happy, normal, well-adjusted people felt like a permanent vacation. I loved life again. I lived life again. And I remembered many a French person who had asked me about the "American workaholics" and explained to me that the French believe you must "work to live, not live to work."
All this while my husband was doing his own career soul-searching. He'd taken a year off medical school to do medical research on a Howard Hughes grant. His research was successful and he became one of the very few to ever receive a second year of funding from this extremely selective (read: usually only Harvard med students) source. By the end of his second year he'd won some contest out of 6,600 other medical students for best abstract... there was a press release about him! He also had several papers, I believe first author on some and definitely published in the big time journals. When he had me proofread his resume I had to pinch myself. It was three pages long and full of awards and charitable work, and everything else under the sun. His heart and his Christian faith (yes, I ended up there...) were leading him in the direction of a career devoted to cancer research. Although I had NO IDEA how we would afford for me to stay home with him going into research instead of medical practice, it was increasingly clear to me that I wanted the after school snacks and summers at home with my kids, and that my kids (and our household) would need more from me due to the extreme busy-ness of my husband. So when MGH (Massachusetts General Hospital - a Harvard affiliate and the #1 hospital in the nation according to last year's rankings) wanted him, we figured we'd find a way to make it in Boston. And while finding that way has been anything but easy - we've struggled intensely with how to make our family work under extreme stresses of literally running out of money more than once, constantly worrying about our lack of savings, and Mark being unable to help at all or even be home and awake for more than a few hours a week for months at a time, for nearly four years now - the bottom line is we are both doing what we truly love and what we feel called to do, and what is (or at least will be, someday) best for our own passions and for our family.
Through it all I've remained true to my own feminist upbringing. We left our first church here, at which we'd made many good local friends, after it became clear to me that the church's views on women were, in my humble lay-person opinion, unbiblically sexist. And yes, I made clear to the head pastor why we were leaving (in spite of the awkwardness) and provided him with an excellent essay on the topic from my brother-in-law who is also a pastor. Which, for the record, was just one of many things I read after consulting several theologically-educated people.
And so I have a few things I want to say in defense of being a SAHP. I want to respond to some criticisms I've heard and I also want to note some of the benefits. And that's not to say that there aren't benefits to both parents working as well. For one thing, if we ultimately can't afford to send our kids to Saint Olaf College (or some other dream school of theirs) I'll be really heartbroken, no doubt. And I have no shortage of mommy physician friends whom I admire and respect and whose absence from the profession would be a great loss for their patients as well as for themselves. Without all my working mommy friends, my daughter might not know that she really can be whatever she wants to be in this world. But having a parent at home does also have some pros. That's why I think we need to stop asking "whether moms should work or stay home." I even think we need to stop asking "Why Women Still Can't Have it All." IMO, the only question we need to ask ourselves is "how do parents - moms AND dads - adequately show their children devotion, investment, and love?" Having a devoted parent at home is one way of doing that, and for me it's a clear-cut, easy way. It's not the only way; it's just the way that makes the most sense for us. And my answer to Ann-Marie Slaughter's article is that parents can't have it all. Because if my husband were keeping hours like Ann-Marie kept and it carried over past residency, yeah, our family would fall apart too!!
Responses to Criticisms:
- No, my child is not short on "socialization" because he "stays home" with me. Utterly absurd. Read my rant here.
- Yes, some parts of staying home are tedious. Almost as tedious as some parts of practicing law or medicine!
- No, I am not "mooching" off my husband. Every single time he works late, so do I - at home without relief in the evenings or on weekends. My work enables him to be extremely successful in his field and hardly a work event passes that an attending physician doesn't come up to me and tell me how "clinically brilliant" he is - even in front of other colleagues. Frankly, if we valued the "women's work" of staying home more, maybe more men would do it - and then maybe more women would break the glass ceiling.
- No, I am not setting a bad example for my daughter. I never felt limited by my sex growing up - ever - and she won't either. Honestly, if I were to worry that one of my kids might feel limited by his sex, it would be my son. I hope (and believe) my daughter will know that she can do whatever she enjoys the most, whereas my son is much less likely to consider anything other than full-time big career person, even if it's not what he'd enjoy most in life. I can't tell you the sympathy I felt for all the male associates in my first law firm as I left it.
- No, my kids aren't going to have too many sick days in school since they're not in daycare. I didn't.
- No, staying home is not "mindless." Child development is fascinating from infant sleep patterns to language and ethical development, and everything in between. As a pediatrician my father has spent countless hours fielding questions from new parents about starting solids. How is that so different from me figuring these things out for my own kids?
- No, staying at home is not "socially isolating." We now have the internet and free long-distance calling. And even if it was, you can hardly count on the work place to provide you a socially appealing environment. At least not at most law firms.
Why I Do What I Do:
- Makes it very easy for us to show our kids that someone is devoted to them and that they matter. Again, it is NOT the only way for parents to do that. But it does make it easy.
- We have no stress about finding good childcare. After working in a very reputable daycare in college, I do believe that quality non-family childcare is harder to find than many people assume it is. I always encourage friends in the daycare selection process to find out how much the workers are actually paid at the daycares they're considering. The bottom line is that with few exceptions (and those exceptions are almost always placed in the infant room to attract new parents) you can't hire lots of quality people for barely above minimum wage. Ask yourself if you'd like to make $8.00 an hour manning six two-year olds and their diapers all day, 5 days a week. If you think you'd "go crazy" taking care of your 1 or 2 kids full time, just imagine that!! The food at this particular daycare was also not what I'd want for my own kids, and led me to wonder if the obesity problem doesn't start long before the oft-criticized school cafeterias. Hopefully that's changed some over the past decade, I have no idea.
- We like that I can take the kids to various parks and museums around town during the day. A nanny would also provide this advantage. And I'm not sure to what degree it would be really available if we didn't live in such an urban area.
- As someone who was bullied in school, I am personally not comfortable sending my kids off into the social world without my guidance until they're school-aged. Or even then, really.
- Again, with the after-school-snack-chats and summers at home. Probably my deal-breakers.
- I like being the boss, not having one, because I'm a perfectionist and I want things done my way. If I ever "go back" it'll either be doing freelance legal work or I'll start my own business. A food-related business, of course! And my husband is the same way. I can see how running his own lab will be a much better fit for him than practicing medicine.
- We like only having to plan vacations around one schedule. And believe me, my husband's schedule is already plenty to plan around.
- When I read threads on my list serves about "how to get out of the house by 7:15 with my 1 year old and 3 year old" it all sounds like my idea of misery. Maybe not anybody else's, but definitely mine. And these posts and the answers to them are all written by moms... never by dads... so I'm not convinced that just because both parents work, gender equality has been achieved in any household.
- I like doing all the errands and housework during the week so that we can have fun on the weekends. BUT I will say that because I need my husband's help with some things, we often still end up stressed for time on the weekends, since he really doesn't have real weekends as a medical trainee. One thing you can't understand unless you're married to someone who works insane hours is that it's not just the time they're gone, it's what happens to the time they're home. They're sleeping, or catching up on other work, etc... in any case, it's hard to have quality family time and it's stressful when you need them to help with anything time-consuming. I truly cannot imagine how we'd function if we both kept the hours he's currently keeping.
- I like cooking and baking for my family, and someday when I don't have a baby and a toddler I'll be able to do it again! I hope!
- Whether or not anybody else feels the same, I would someday regret missing this time with my children if I worked. I know they'll leave the nest and for me, when they do, I want to console myself with the knowledge that I got to see and "live" as much of their childhoods as I possibly could.
And there you have it. That's my explanation for why I stay home, and why doing so doesn't mean I'm anti-woman or anti-feminist. And for how it is that I can value the work I do for my family without devaluing different choices made by others who have different life experiences, different children, different spouses, different career paths, and different personalities. The bottom line is that if you love your children, you *will be* devoted to them, whether you work outside of the home or not. And they will know that they're your priority. How that love and prioritizing expresses itself for each family is as diverse as the families themselves; this just happens to be how it does so for ours.
|Credit for this Awesome Photo: http://www.strawberrymohawk.com/2012/06/we-can-do-it.html|