I was reading an article in the NYT today whose headline struck me as being remarkably retro and modern at the same time: “Many Women at Elite Colleges Set Career Path to Motherhood.” My first thought was of the movie, Mona Lisa Smile, where one of the characters gives up being a lawyer to stay at home instead. Indeed, the article goes on to talk about several high-achieving young women at Ivy League schools who plan on giving up their career when they start having children.
I’m conflicted over the concept — while I think it’s good that they intend to have the affluence necessary to be stay-at-home moms, I’m depressed by the idea that they won’t be out working and contributing to society in a meaningful way. I don’t intend for that statement to be demeaning towards those who stay at home, but I have known several girls throughout my life who were extremely gifted in academics, and were just very smart all-around, who simply gave up what could have been to stay at home and raise the kids. People who might have been doctors or researchers, simply opting to stay home instead. And I wonder to myself what the world at large has lost by their being stay-at-home moms. I will say that their children are very fortunate, however, to have such women as parents. I’ve no doubt that they will be raised well by a loving family.
There was a survey conducted, and the results were not unexpected:
The interviews found that 85 of the students, or roughly 60 percent, said that when they had children, they planned to cut back on work or stop working entirely. About half of those women said they planned to work part time, and about half wanted to stop work for at least a few years.
Two of the women interviewed said they expected their husbands to stay home with the children while they pursued their careers. Two others said either they or their husbands would stay home, depending on whose career was furthest along.
In general, those just starting out in college (their first or second years) tend to be fairly clueless about 1) what they want and 2) how life really ends up going. For instance, I was a hotshot student in high school who liked to overpower people with my intellectual first gear and beat them down in debates and such, but I absolutely floundered when it came to college. I started out as a computer science major and ended up in medicine instead. I don’t regret the change, but the person I am today is completely different than the person I was four years ago. I suspect these women will discover the same thing.
Those respondents in the second paragraph, I think, didn’t take into account their husband’s drive. Most men are very aggressive when it comes to being the primary breadwinner, and when it comes to sacrificing their career because their wife is further along… well this can create more than a little bit of tension. Expecting their future husbands to give up their careers simply because their wife had children and/or is further along in her career is very naive.
I found the first part of this quote to sum up my feelings about most (American) students quite well, both men and women.
“What does concern me,” said Peter Salovey, the dean of Yale College, “is that so few students seem to be able to think outside the box; so few students seem to be able to imagine a life for themselves that isn’t constructed along traditional gender roles.”
Though I would, perhaps, have said “contained within the bounds of existing commercial infrastructure or constructed along traditional gender roles.” I find the lack of entrepreneurial spirit and “grab the bull by the balls” attitude in modern American students frustrating and sad. I don’t know if it’s always been this way, but finding kindred spirits when it comes to ambition is difficult: most would rather take the easy way out. (Which certainly has its own appeal.)
In any case, lamenting “traditional” gender roles seems somewhat unfounded to me. Men and women are quite different physically, and as a result, emotionally: our muscle structure is different, and more importantly, our hormonal makeup is different. Testosterone lends itself to aggression and violence. Without delving into pecking order, in a modern first-world society like America, violence isn’t done on the battlefield, it’s done in the boardroom. Dominance is established by success. Men, it stands to reason, will be more aggressive than women due to their hormonal makeup, and as a result, these “traditional” gender roles form. Are these roles “bad”? I would venture to say that they aren’t, so long as one — male or female — has the personal freedom to choose what kind of life they want to live, and the opportunities available to them are fair and balanced compared to their counterparts of the opposite sex.
On the other hand, I do think it’s acceptable to lament for what society potentially loses every time a gifted person chooses to stay at home fulltime to raise their children. The upside of this, of course, is that their children will likely be better equipped, to make their own contributions when the time comes.