What do you want to be when you grow up? This career question is difficult for children because the possibilities seem endless. Why be an astronaut if you can also be a princess or superhero? As we get older, however, that question takes on a whole new meaning. You’re really being asked, “What career are you trained for that will also pay the bills and is realistic for your lifestyle?” Your answer is probably less thrilling than it was decades ago. Worse yet, you can be like me and have to resort to the embarrassing answer of “Well, the thing is…”
As a child, my answers to the career question ran the gamut from “author” to “bus driver” to “pediatric ophthalmologist.” My parents were mostly supportive—although “bus driver” and “cashier lady” did raise eyebrows. Dozens of careers appealed to me and I was eager to dabble in all fields. The one answer I never gave was “housewife.”
Not answering housewife is actually a bit unusual under my circumstances. I grew up in a very traditional Italian family in which none of the females worked. Only my Nana worked part-time as a travel agent, which in my eyes was a hobby that earned prizes like cheap cruises. All of the women kept immaculately clean homes, cooked extravagant meals daily, and were responsible for every errand that needed to be completed. I knew they took pride in caring for their husbands and children, but I never realized that what they did could truly be a career.
I had every intention of being as good a mom and wife as the women in my family, but I also believed I could be a scientist or the President on the side. I was a straight-A student who had the academic world at her feet. At 13, however, my great-grandma planted seeds of doubt in my head. A typical Italian matriarch, “Dee Doo” was 4’9” with a booming voice and commanding presence. She pulled no punches, and when I told her that I planned to attend graduate school, her response was: “But you’ll just quit whatever job you have when you have a baby.” While many may discount the opinion of an old-fashioned octogenarian, I took her words to heart. What WOULD life be like once I had a child?
I eventually stopped pondering Dee Doo’s inquiry and continued with my academic pursuits. A college paper, however, put the discussion back on the table. When interviewing my grandma about the Feminist Revolution of the 1960s, “Mimi” said that she thought Betty Friedan and the others made a huge mistake. My horror lessened when Mimi explained her answer: “Those women made it too hard for the rest of us. Now, a woman is expected to do it all—have a career and raise her family. That’s too much.” I explained to Mimi that I somewhat agreed with her, but also that modern men help out more than her generation’s husbands. Never mind that I never actually saw a family where both parents equally handled careers and the home life. My idealistic self was simply convinced I was right.
As my age of academia ended, a conflict commenced brewing within me, and I became overly invested in situations I saw on television. I was horrified that Charlotte on “Sex and the City” quit her career simply because she was considering having a baby. At the same time, I thought Rory from “Gilmore Girls” was ridiculous for leaving a marriage proposal and her family in Stars Hollow for the chance to follow Obama’s campaign trail. I seemed to weigh a personal life and a career equally and finally acknowledged that a choice may become necessary.
Fast forward to married life. My husband is a medical resident, which means he frequently works 13 hours a day, six days a week, or 24 hour shifts. Stressed from the new task of being solely responsible for an individual’s survival, he comes home pale as a ghost and exhausted. I, too, am a professional—an attorney and college instructor. Although I’m also fatigued and stressed, I pick up the slack for my husband. His only household chores are vacuuming, mowing the lawn, and taking out the garbage. All other housework, cooking, and pet care fall on me. I make our travel plans, schedule appointments, and try to maintain our familial and social relationships by remembering birthdays, staying in touch, etc. Perhaps I could request more from him, but my role model women all chose to be fully in charge of the home. As Mimi predicted, I became the working wife responsible for it all.
After a semester of complete burnout from teaching five classes, I had to cut my courseload. I know that many women juggle all the tasks I mentioned, but I simply couldn’t do it. A Type A overachiever, I’m physically incapable of not giving everything 100%. If I half-ass a task, I end up doing it over again. I found myself valuing my personal tasks as much as my career and knew something had to give. I reduced my classes, but as I still like to feel busy, I started teaching fitness and dance classes. (At least those don’t have papers to grade.) My family points out how I’m like the Energizer bunny with responsibilities all over the map, and they’re right.
Although I survive on five hours of sleep a night, I’m starting to worry about motherhood. My Italian upbringing is pervasive, and I don’t want to work much—if at all—when my child is little. My mother is ready and willing to provide childcare, but I want to be around as much as possible. There is simply no way that I can do all that I do now and be there fully for an infant or toddler.
I find myself wishing for the days of the 1950s. Back then, many women earned an education, yet gave up their careers to become a wife and mother. That old-fashioned social norm would alleviate my guilt, and I wish there was a way to bring that mentality back. I’m a woman with two graduate degrees, yet I’ll probably choose to be a stay-at-home mom for a few years. I feel my choice is a disgrace to feminists everywhere. I was even quick to make snide comments when a law school peer made the same decision. Women—especially other professionals– judge other women with this life choice and stepping away from our careers receives critical, raised eyebrows more than supportive nods. Those who make the choice are “privileged” or “lazy;” not “conflicted” or “traditional.” Unlike the somewhat liberating mindset of the 1950s, schooling condemns us to a career-oriented life path, rather than merely exists as an option or accomplishment.
I agree that I should utilize my academic gifts for legal justice or fostering young minds, but I also want to change diapers and watch my baby sleep. As Mimi predicted, I’m faced with a miserable choice that will result in remorse whichever option I choose. Rather than feel embarrassed for not utilizing my education, I sometimes wish I hadn’t received it. Then, being a stay-at-home mom wouldn’t feel like such a failure to live up to my potential. But even as I say that, I believe that not being a good parent is also a sign of failure as a human being. If someone knows how to be the best at both, I would love to hear her secret. Some may say that the best I can do is enough, but that’s settling in my book.
As motherhood is looming, I have come to the decision that I need to work in some capacity. Perhaps only one day of classes a week or some sort of telecommuting career—if those options are even possible. I know that I’ll wish to be a full-time stay-at-home mom and full-time career woman, but some sort of compromise is the best I can do. Until I earn the Harry Potter Time-turner that offers the ability to be in two places at once, I just have to accept my limitations and try to do whatever makes me the happiest. As I will continue to manage most aspects of our home and day-to-day tasks, my supportive husband knows that the critical mantra in our marriage is “happy wife, happy life.”
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