“I know you probably don’t understand. I’m not like you,” a colleague of mine explained. “My career is not what’s most important to me. My life is what happens outside of here. I want to have a child and raise a family.”
Raised by parents following a 1950s model of family life, my father was the breadwinner and my mother, a schoolteacher, became a homemaker after I was born. She worked part time for a year here and there and but always in a job that allowed her to be home when I got back from school, or shortly after when I was old enough to be left on my own. I remember walking into the kitchen to the smell of freshly baked chocolate chip cookies. Every school day, even those when there no warm cookies, my mother took time to talk with me about my day while we shared a snack. The opportunity to verbalize my experience, as a child, to an adult audience, and be taken seriously, was invaluable. My mother’s mantra was, “You can always have your own opinion as long as you express it nicely.” Aside from the fact this mantra does not translate to the work world, having time to sort through my experiences of the day gave me room to explore and establish a strong sense of identity. My mother’s choice to stay at home made this possible.
My mother was an educated woman, but her choice to stay home, once celebrated, would amongst many educated women of today be seen as a sell-out of hard-won feminist gains. “If you don’t work, and you choose to rely financially on a husband, your future security depends on his success,” was an argument, in the spirit of having my own opinion, I often gave my mother for why I would always work. Even though the 1950s dream seemed to work well for my parents, not working didn’t seem like an option to me – driven partly by fear, absorbed from my financially prudent parents, of not having financial security, and partly by my acceptance of my status as a modern woman.
So when my colleague told me that I wouldn’t understand her choice to prioritize life outside of work I was left with an uncomfortable question. Did I project I didn’t understand? “I want something different for myself,” I told her, “though I respect that my chosen path is not the right path for everyone. We all want different things,” I responded.
Her statement touches upon half of the two-part expectation of today’s woman – the expectation you want to have children and the expectation that you want a high-powered career along with children. Just as I explain to bewildered faces why I don’t have children, she felt she had to explain to me why family would be her main focus.
Though there are still many advances to be made, women have made gains in broadening their reproductive rights and options and climbing the corporate ladder. As we look to further these gains, we should also look at their corresponding expectations. We rejected the one-size-fits-all family model of the 1950s; we should take pause before buying into a one-size-fits-all model for today.