Wednesday, June 26, 2013

On Choice and Childrearing

Did you see the recent post, Nine Reasons I Regret Being a Stay-at-Home Mom, from Lisa Endlich Heffernan at Grown and Flown? It made the Huffington Post, and the author even did an interview on Fox and Friends.

I didn't read the comments on Huff Po or F&F. I didn't think I could stomach what I am sure were some vitriolic gems from people safe behind the soft "anonymous" glow of their computer screens.

But I did read the post. Because I know Lisa from my former place of employment, where she sits on the Board of Trustees. I know her as brilliant and accomplished (three books! three sons!). She was also a warm, genuine person, easy to work with. Everyone on our management team thought she was great.

Which is why I was surprised when I detected a harsh note of self-criticism in her post. She writes, in her ninth reason for regret:
But far and away my biggest regret about my years at home was that I lowered my sights for myself as I dimmed in my own mind what I thought I was capable of.

The Definition of Accomplishment

Is it too cliche at this point to say we are our harshest critics? When did it become okay to surmise you amounted to too little after raising three boys, writing three books and being the chairman of the board of a four-hospital system, among many, many other things?

She claims her children don't think she does anything, and perhaps that is the ultimate litmus test for our generation of parents.

Somehow, though, I don't buy it. If my son thought I did nothing, I would be devastated. But even if he thought I did something important, if I didn't think so in my own mind, it wouldn't make one whit of difference.

This undervaluing our contributions to society... we women own that. And it's something we need to disown if we are ever to throw off the suffocating blanket of guilt under which so many of us live.

Pride and Prejudice

I admit it. This section, the second in her list of regrets, hit me hardest:
I got my driver’s license after a short course and a couple of lessons in 11th grade. My post secondary education took six years of hard work and yet, for years, I used my driver’s license far more than my formal education. And on one level I felt like I was short-changing myself, those who educated, trained and believed in me by doing this.
Recently I returned to the workforce. I have a part-time consulting gig, not the senior management role I had before. Yet I feel inexplicably lighter. Relieved to be "using" my degrees. Validated. Proud. More confident, in fact, in all aspects of my life.

I grew up receiving validation for intellectual pursuits, from school to work in the financial services and healthcare industries. When I wasn't utilizing those skills, all praise seemed hollow.

When I wasn't pulling in an external, rather than in kind, salary, I thought less of myself, just like interviewer who commented dryly on the full year I'd been out of the workforce. Never mind the ten years of schooling and experience that had led me to the seat in her office.

Even though I enjoyed being home every day with my son, I grew anxious. I, too, was worried I was short-changing myself, painting myself into a corner, getting rusty. I'm not proud of these feelings. Intellectually, I know how important a job child-rearing is. Yet somewhere along the way, I became wired to feel, viscerally, I needed to do something more, and I'm not sure that will ever change.

It doesn't get much better than this. And, yet...


On her blog, Allison Slater Tate responded thoughtfully to the article. She took issue, however, with the author's assertion that her "world narrowed" by living among the same wealthy white group of women who inhabited her privileged suburb. Allison remarked,
My world is rich, layered, and huge. I live in suburbia, and yes, I have complained about the homogeneity here at times. But one of the biggest lessons I have learned from leaving Los Angeles and its diverse, creative, urban landscape for suburbia is that everyone has a story. People are so, so interesting and valuable, no matter where they live and no matter what they do, and the preschool parking lot is as full of life and the world as Times Square.
First, I am not sure she really understood the kind of New York City suburb the Endlich-Heffernan family lives in. It can be fairly circumscribed; take it from one who knows.

Second, your world does narrow when you leave the diversity of the city, there is no way around it. Sure, you meet people with a rich array of life experiences. But only people with the means to move to your tony suburb. In the city, it's nearly impossible to avoid exposure to the wide range of experiences, languages, socioeconomic statuses and colors that make up the city's mosaic.

I also understood how the suburbs contributed to Lisa's seventh regret, i.e., slipping into a "more traditional marriage" with her husband.
He doesn’t ask me to run to the dry cleaners or fish store, but let’s be fair, they are both closed by the time he gets home.
Truth. By being home in the suburbs while your husband commutes to work in the city, you automatically take on more housework, child-rearing and errand-running. And so you fall into certain patterns, and those patterns turn into ruts, and before you know it, you are wearing the metaphorical white scalloped apron of a 1950s housewife.

What's Next?

I think we've established that we can't "have it all," as much as we might want to. The laws of physics simply preclude us from being in two places at once. Home and work, conference and playground. Life is about making choices.

I don't know what's next for me. I've given up developing a five-year plan, as I never, ever end up where I thought I wanted to go. And right now, I'm happily busy writing, working and parenting. Living.

I feel lucky to know women ahead of me on the curve who are willing to publicly confront these thorny issues. I will not, in 20 years time, be able to say I never thought about it. Thank you, Lisa and others, for helping the next generation of women make more deliberate, conscious choices, whatever they may be.

Do you regret the choices you made when your children were young? Are you worried you will regret them later?

Image courtesy of Stuart Miles /