True story: A long time ago, when my kids were very young, I was conflicted over whether or not to pursue a tenure-track job as a history professor. Tenure-track professors work a lot, and I really wanted to be home with my kids. I laid it all out for my adviser--a woman and a mother that I liked and respected--and she said to me, "Margaret, you can stay home, but if you do, you'll never be as smart as you are now."
As it turned out, I didn't pursue the tenure-track job. I teach part-time so that I am always home when my kids get out of school. In many ways it is ideal. I have never missed a school performance. I am home when my kids get sick. I am not constantly exhausted by the duel pressures of fulltime work and parenting. But I'm also laughably underpaid. I have no benefits. I get little professional respect outside of the wonderful writing center where I'm based. I am one divorce/sudden spousal fatality/sudden spousal disability away from poverty. My kids occasionally smirk at my lack of professional accomplishment. And I'm not as smart as I used to be.
I have a lot in common with editor Samantha Parent Walravens and the contributors to Torn: True Stories of Kids, Career and the Conflict of Modern Motherhood. They too understand that the balance between parenting and career is fraught with the sorts of challenges and dissatisfactions that can make you feel stupid. You can be the mom who makes the homemade cupcakes or an accomplished professional, but to believe you can be both at the same time is to believe in pink flying ponies that carry you to the land of the lemonade sea. As Torn illuminates, the real choice isn't balance, it's to change your mind, over and over again: This year it's part-time. This year it's home with the baby. This half year it's work like crazy. It's flexible, yes, but it's an awful lot to ask from a person. And it's definitely not a good way to plan for your retirement.
My favorite essays are the ones that openly acknowledge how money figures into the choices women make. After all, in an age when divorce is common and recessionary pressures still loom, most women are not seeking a balance between fulfillment as mothers and professionals, they're seeking ways to stay afloat. Kathryn Beaumont knows that. She traded the artistic life for that of a high-powered lawyer. She feels secure in knowing that she can take care of her family's needs, and she's not ashamed if that means nobody will be dining on Top Ramen. Amy Hudock gets it too. She committed "financial suicide" when she gave up a tenure-track job to follow her academic husband across country. Then they got divorced. Now she's totally screwed.
Really, that's the bottom line: When you put your kids first, you screw yourself financially and professionally, but there are some emotional rewards. Funny enough, fifteen years into this parenting business I've found my peace with all of this. The trick is to avoid old career friends/generally successful people. Likewise, avoid the parents of very successful children because they'll just make you feel like shit. Also try not to think about anything bad happening to your spouse. Also, make reservations to the lemonade sea. If you can manage all this, you'll be gold! (Figuratively, of course. Even I know how broke I am.)
Samantha Parent Walravens, Torn: True Stories of Kids, Career and the Conflict of Modern Motherhood. Seattle: Coffeetown Press, 2011.
Note: A copy of Torn was given to me with the expectation that I would write a review. Voila! I have served my purpose.