Last year my book group read Anne of Green Gables. We had a surprisingly lovely discussion. I say surprising because I was amazed at the depth we found in that much beloved volume when looking for something more than just a story. As the evening wrapped up, I remember posing one last question that wasn't addressed thoroughly because of time and inclination, but it is something I've often thought about.
Now that I'm serving with the Young Women, it is something I've been thinking about again.
You remember the Anne books. Anne is so bright, committed and highly competitive. She wins awards, honors and acclamation from her peers and professors. Marilla and Mathew are so proud of her efforts which put her right on par with the male counterparts in her class. In the second book she teaches, in the third book she goes to college and in the fourth book she is the principal of a school while Gilbert becomes a doctor. Anne is probably 23-ish by the time she marries. Pretty much spinster-age in that time period.
And then, boom! Anne marries, takes no thought to ever teach again, keeps house for Gilbert (brilliantly I might add, there is little that the red-head cannot do), and waits to have a baby.
Each year Anne says goodbye to her crop of kiddies, and is properly regretful to see them go, but there is no indication that she regrets leaving her classroom teaching behind for good. She moves into her house o' dreams with nary a backward glance and becomes as perfect a mother as she was a teacher. I'll tell you how my own experience feels after I pose my question.
How do we teach our girls to be ambitious and to work hard, while still instilling a desire for motherhood? Or, conversely, how to we nurture their desire to have children and stay at home with them and simultaneously encourage them to set academic and career goals?
Right now I have a group of young women who want to be mothers, at least for the most part. For some of them, though, this supersedes all else. Too many of them express indifference to their school work and classes, and little desire to go to college or have no interest in any career path when they get there. I see lots of untapped potential in the way they are approaching their lives.
Our YW president recently read a book called "Do Hard Things." It is about modern youth and their laziness in response to how convenient and entertaining their lives are. I had one of our most spiritual and sweetest girls tell me the other day, in response to something I told her about door-knocking on my mission, "I could never do that." Her brother just left on his mission, but I'm wondering why she thinks this hard thing is just something for her brother to do? Why isn't a mission something she might keep her mind open toward? And for all that several of them have expressed a desire to be stay at home moms, some of them have told me without flinching that when they babysit they don't do diapers. We have to teach our kids to do hard things. To love hard things. What does Tom Hanks say in A League of Their Own when Geena Davis tells him that baseball just go too hard? "It's the hard that makes it great." I have also often heard young women say, "I don't want to go on a mission; I want to get married." Where does this false dichotomy come from? Serving a mission doesn't rule out marriage, any more than staying home from a mission guarantees a spouse. Or "I don't plan to work, I'm going to be a mom." What if you don't get married until you are 30?
The last several young women who have graduated from high school in my ward come back to visit from time to time--each of them seem without anchor in their way. They don't seem driven by anything that makes them want to jump out of bed each morning and just grab life by the horns. They are wishing so desperately for Prince Charming to come along that they seem to have forgotten to take the lead role in their own lives.
I was not like Anne. I didn't jump in to keeping house head first; I was busy keeping my head above water at my first middle school job. On our first anniversary we moved far away to take a job for Plantboy. It was the opportunity of a lifetime, one that couldn't be passed up, and we knew it was the right move. But I left a job I loved, and I walked away from a valuable professional opportunity that would have led to some very interesting graduate opportunities for me.
As the kids came along and times got very lean, I always worked part time--tutoring, writing curriculum, supplemental instructor in the schools, and whatever I could get my hands on. My hubby worked for the Church, and although the benefits, both spiritual and physical, were fantastic, the pay was lousy. When we approached our five year mark with LDS employment, Plantboy felt that it was time to go back to school. Though I was entirely supportive, I have to admit to being surprised at the turn our life took. I thought I'd be the one to go back first.
When Plantboy went back to school we made a very prayerful decision for me to work full time, and met with mild criticism from very surprising places. Thankfully, my family was always supportive of our decision, my parents especially. We were blessed--I had a wonderful job just 10 minutes from campus, was home by three every day, and most of Plantboy's classes were afternoon and evening. We had very little babysitting in the two years we spent back at school. Baby #3 was the biggest leap of faith either of us had ever taken we were blessed again both with his birth and presence in our family as well as a job opportunity we never had anticipated.
Now with all of this, I want to point out something very important. It is true that when I have worked (nearly always), we have done it primarily from necessity. But there is something more: I really like it.
Scratch that. I love it.
I love my children too, and they are absolutely my priority right now. If they weren't, I'd be teaching during the day instead of delivering papers at 3:30 every morning. When I worked full time while Plantboy was in school, it was hard, but I was grateful every day to be at a job I loved so much, even if it meant I had to be away from home.
Some days back I was standing in a group of women talking about mothering and those little things you do day in and day out a million times over. I don't think anybody was really complaining, just observing. One friend said, "Just think, if you worked, you'd miss out on making those lunches every day." She didn't mean to be sarcastic, but it sounded a bit that way. A couple of people in the group jumped on the tone, affirming how much they loved doing it and so on and so on.
Now, my own working experience was not having to drop kids off at daycare somewhere. I knew they were home being exceptionally well-cared for by Plantboy. Still, when everybody finished re-affirming how much happier they were at home than at work I couldn't help but say how much I had enjoyed working, and how much more centered I felt when I came home to my little ones each afternoon, ready to be a parent full time and enjoy their company.
Talk about being able to hear a pin drop.
The stay-at-home-mom thing in LDS circles is like being a Republican. Everybody just assumes that everybody is in complete agreement, even if there might be lots of different opinions in the room. My mom always worked (part time, as a nurse) and was always active in the church. I was never raised to see a conflict between working and mothering, nor was I raised to think that earning money was the sole province of the father.
Here is the thing: if women have the means and the desire to stay home I think it's wonderful. When I see sisters take a leap of faith to quit work and do full time childcare I think it's awesome. (I think it's not so awesome to listen to a handful of these same women spend much of their time complaining about money, however.) I think that men and women with testimonies need to do all they can to follow the prophet's counsel, but it might just be that there are times you have to choose which counsel to follow. When Plantboy went back to school we chose self-reliance over mom staying home. There was no way to pick both. Did we make the right decision? I think so. We certainly don't regret it.
I'm not so delusional as to think I can have it all, but I've always seen myself going back to work one day. Yes, yes, the money will be nice. My working might allow Plantboy to really pursue a career he dreams about though the pay is lower. A house with more space would be nice: I had that recurring dream again this week where I discover a secret door leading to a part of the house I didn't know existed, like something straight from a JK Rowling novel. Being able to sock a little bit more each month into our savings would be a relief. A current teaching certification would be a fantastic life insurance policy.
All of these are great reasons, but at the end of the day I think the main reason I see myself working, is just that I like it. I'm good at it. Classroom teaching is really the one thing I feel like I have a clear talent for. It isn't just a job or a career for me, it is a passion. It's a gift. The thought of never going back makes me feel like a bucket of cold water has been dumped on my head.
In recent months I've heard people say the following, "Well, STM, maybe it's time to find a new passion." "We would never even consider a loan just for the wife's education" "Can't you just teach your children or at church?" While each person might have a point, none of these things sit all that well with me.
These thoughts have been on my mind partly because of my young women, but also because of something else: as my family gets older and busier, my tutoring is interfering too much with family life. Our afternoons are crazy and I feel like we are all in a mild state of disarray on the days I tutor. Add a night of YW into the mix and well, it is just too much. We are at a crossroads. Or maybe an impasse.
So next year I'm giving it up. But we still need some additional income, so I'll be keeping the paper route. As I prepare to sacrifice the job I love (tutoring) for the one I often hate (papers), I know it's for the good of our family. But I keep watching and waiting for the time when what is for the good of our family will allow mom to get a master's degree. When the good of our family will send me back to the classroom. When there is an outlet for my abilities that doesn't exist right now.
With my sons, this whole question of ambition is so cut and dried--mission, college, marriage, career, family. There is an order to things with boys, and there isn't quite so much choosing. I'm not so naive to think that my boys won't feel conflicted at times and that the path ahead will not always be smooth sailing, but with girls the way is much less plain. Even when grown women have babies and a husband and a home the way is not so plain.
As I look around at the many remarkable and talented women I know, I'm amazed at the things you've sacrificed to become mothers. Of course, the blessings of motherhood outweigh the sacrifice, but it doesn't make the giving up any less real or painful. It might even be this sacrifice, in part, that makes motherhood so great. I admire the courage of the great women I know--you mothers for what you've exchanged for your children; you single-tons for the zeal you put into your careers and extended families; and childless friends for making the unexpected twists in your lives a matter of optimism.
I want the young women I know to feel this burning commitment inside so deeply that regardless of the hand life deals them, they want to go all in. I want every possible door to be open to them because of the preparation and sacrifices they have made. I want them to get on their knees when it is time to make choices. I want them to be women that men look up to and not just look at. I want them to do hard things.
But perhaps this is too ambitious . . .