4/25/11

Margaret--Commerical Shill--Writes a Book Review: Torn: True Stories of Kids, Career and the Conflict of Modern Motherood


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.



19 comments:

Joanne said...

Bravo to you for your choice! I have a feeling you never have, nor never will, regret it. I agree, financial sacrifices might come with the choice, but don't you find that you also learn to live differently this way? And I say that in an honorable way, not trying to be cute or funny about it. And, I'd argue you on the not-as-smart thing. Life is the best teacher.

Petrea Burchard said...

I'll argue on the not-smart thing, too, Margaret. As far as not hanging out with generally successful people, well, I'm trying to change! But then again, I made choices, too. Har.

As to the book, brava to the writer and editors for rinsing away the sugar coating and telling it like it is.

Daisy said...

I can understand the "conflict", and also think there are different kinds of "smart". I doubt you are "not as smart as you were" because you live a dynamic life even if it's not in academia. Do you have any idea how many jackasses have PhD's? Living in an ivory tower numbs ones brain too.

Anyway...I'm on your side Margaret!

Desiree said...

Your adviser, kind, warm, and witty, she may have been, had a typically narrow view of what constitutes smart. It is standard for our culture to demean the intelligence women bring to their interpersonal relationships, their families, their eyes-wide-open sacrifices for their children. What kind of intelligence does that take?

Bah! I know plenty of idiotic tenured people. I just won't name them here.

Shell Sherree said...

I love the lack of sugar-coating, too. And I've known some extremely academically bright people who could wax on about startlingly impressive-sounding things but not know how to pay a bill or get by in everyday life. Give me practical smarts any day. {Much more likely to make it home in one piece.}

... daisy... said...

I am sure you made the right choice.:-) well done to you!

Olga said...

I was torn about whether to laugh or cry. We all have to make choices and it is human nature to justify those choices in our own minds. In the end, though,the greatest choice is to believe we did the right things in spoite of it all.

Margaret said...

I really am not as smart as I was, but I will grant that you that I probably wiser and also kinder.

Paula said...

I thought I was the only one who felt that way for making a choice not to follow a professional career. I feel much better knowing I'm keeping good company like you, Margaret. And the truth about those parents with over-achieving kids? Those kids are successful because their parents will trounce anyone who gets in their way - and smile at you will they're doing it like some benign fascist dictator. And I doubt they ever lose a minute of sleep over it.

Margaret said...

Paula: I think you are right about those parents. Heaven help us from them and their future little dictators.

Jess said...

It's a tough choice to make. Sometimes there are no "right" answers.

Deb @ PaperTurtle said...

This is the most thorough and honest book review I've ever read, Margaret.

Isn't this usually the case though - every choice we make involves sacrificing something, but there's also reward. The trick is in SEEING the reward even if it's not always obvious.

altadenahiker said...

The only thing is, it's not just women. I know my dad gave up painting and illo work to support the family. He became an engineer. Though he never openly complained about the choice, he told all us kids, "Be anything but an engineer."

Margaret said...

AH: As always, you are right. Thanks for the insight. Sad, but I always want to tell me kids: Be anything but a writer. (Of course, I never do say that, but it's implied)

Petrea Burchard said...

I hadn't thought of it that way, Hiker, but you're right. My father-in-law wanted to be an actor, but he had three kids to raise so he became a lawyer instead. As soon as he could, though, he started doing some theater. I saw him in a play in Chicago long before I met him or my husband.

He had a respectable acting career in retirement. I don't think he regrets his choice.

Bec said...

We're much alike career-wise (although I'm about 12 years behind you on the parenting thing). I think part-time teaching at the college level affords flexibility that other jobs wouldn't but I'm still conflicted about my choices. I used to think I could "work at home" writing when I had kids. And then I had kids. It's never quiet enough to do real work at home!

I just found someone to proctor my midterm so I wouldn't have to miss my little girl's first "Mother's Day Tea" . . . I was so sad to think of her there without a mommy! Loved your review and how laid out your own choices - thanks.

Margaret said...

Bec, I had a feeling we were in the same boat. I think you'd like this book.

Susan Campisi said...

I could relate to some of the struggles you describe though I never had kids nor pursued a tenure-track position. Yep, I made choices, too. I think you made the right decision, Margaret, being home for your two goddesses. Plus, the most brilliant people I've met in life never even finished college.

"Do you have any idea how many jackasses have PhD's?" Daisy, you made me laugh.

TheChieftess said...

Well said Margaret...for what it's worth, I think you made the best choice! I believe whole heartedly that one of the reasons there's so much bullying, and violence with kids now has to do with the lack of stay at home moms...your kids are lucky to have you as their mom...and you are and always will be a smarty pants!!!