A little bit about my mom: She went to the best girls’ high school in Taipei and the best university in Taiwan, and then she moved to the US and got her PhD in 5 years — in a language she could barely speak at the start of her program. She got a faculty position at her alma mater and earned tenure in 4 years. (Most professors take 6 or 7.) She would go on to become a full professor and the chair of her department while co-founding a business on the side. Meanwhile, she cooked dinner every night, drove my brother and I to nearly all of our after-school activities, and attended all of our recitals and concerts. She and my father also had an active social life, hosting elaborate dinner parties and hanging out with friends multiple times a weekend. And she managed to do all of these things while being a warm, lovely, hospitable person, with nary a complaint about stress or her myriad responsibilities. In some ways, my mom is a bit of a machine: She doesn’t eat much or need a lot of sleep, she’s impervious to stress, and she thrives on work and being busy. She’s one of those people who seems to have a limitless capacity for work.
Thus, when I was growing up, this was my prototype of a successful woman. It wasn’t consequence-free — I was doing full days in preschool by the time I was 18 months old (my brother started even younger); I spent many an afternoon in elementary school latchkey, which I loathed; I had recurring nightmares where I’d be chasing my mom but never able to catch her, dreams that were ripe for even the most amateur analysis. But all told, I think I gained far more than I lost from this upbringing. I learned to read and write very early, I was socialized young — but most importantly, my model for womanhood was strong, capable, and ambitious. I cannot overstate the impact that this model has had on my life, on everything from my academic and professional achievement to my sense of self-efficacy to my identity.
I was 17 years old, and I was sitting in the dimly lit dining hall of Stockwell, the big all-girls dorm, eating dinner with the other freshmen in my campus fellowship. It was still the first month of my first semester of college, so the people around me were mostly new, and I was constantly surprised by the ways in which they were familiar and not.
Between bites of my salad, I was chatting with the girl to my right, going through the usual litany of first-month questions: where you’re from, what dorm you live in, what you study. She was a cellular and molecular biology major, she said.
“So you want to be a doctor?” I asked. I didn’t know any CMB majors who didn’t.
“Yeah,” she responded. “Or a housewife.”
I stared at her a moment, my eyes widening with surprise. If you’d be fine being a housewife, I wondered, why are you in college?
Thankfully, my thinking has evolved significantly since those days. I now understand the intrinsic value of an education — and the importance of an education for, say, a stay-at-home parent who will spend most of their days forming their children. I also understand that, as my new friend already seemed to know as a freshman, the realities of life mean that many people — women especially — have to make decisions between careers and childrearing. For all of the gains and opportunities that feminism has won for us, there are still only so many hours in a day, and it is supremely difficult to be an all-star mother and a highly ambitious career woman.
I didn’t realize these things because I was raised by a woman who was almost superhuman — one who managed to be very successful in a demanding career while also handling the majority of responsibilities at home, and to do all of this without looking fazed. I was well into my twenties before I realized that she was an outlier. Before I realized that I was not her, I did not have her boundless energy, and I would probably have to make some choices between my personal and professional lives that she did not.
I do not have children, but my husband and I are in our early 30s and starting to talk about having them — which, naturally, begs the question of how we’ll care for them.
I’m fortunate to have two highly flexible jobs. As a writer and a consultant, I set my own hours; I can work whenever I want, early or late, weekdays or weekends. My husband, on the other hand, works a much more traditional job. Given these realities, it would make sense for us, logistically and financially, if I did the bulk of childrearing.
Practically speaking, I’m on board with this arrangement. But then I think about how good it was for me to have a mom who was professionally ambitious, who worked a traditional job and excelled at it, who had a full, vibrant life apart from her children. And I wonder what messages my children — my female children especially — will receive when they see their father going to work every day and their mom hanging out with them and working on her laptop while they nap (which they won’t see, now that I think about it, since they’ll be asleep). I’m not saying that raising children isn’t respectable work; it’s arguably the most important (and rewarding) work there is. But since countless studies indicate that children learn far more from what their parents model than what they say, I wonder if they’ll pick up any messages about women belonging in the home while men go out to work. Or about women’s work being less legitimate or less important than men’s work. Or other garbage like that.
I also worry about how this plan will impact my sense of myself as a traditionally successful person. I graduated at the top of my class in high school, college, and graduate school; not surprisingly, much of my identity is built around being a high achiever. So in addition to the messages this hypothetical arrangement could send my children, I also worry about what it’ll feel like for me if, for their sake, I don’t work as much as I could. I’m sure I’ll find the sacrifice worthwhile, but I don’t doubt that there will be times when it feels like a sacrifice.
Ultimately, I think practicality will win out and my husband and I will tweak this plan to make it work for us, but these are the things I think about as I contemplate what my thirties will look like. I think about the choices I’ll have to make for my family and my career, choices that I haven’t really seen up close. And I think about how I might forge my own definition of a successful woman, informed by but separate from what my mom did.