'ALL OR NOTHING' CHOICES?

By Sally Reid Hair ’82

All families need to balance the seemingly endless demands of children and jobs. Different solutions fit different people and situations. I have learned this the hard way by trying nearly all of the various possibilities.

When I was in graduate school my husband took a tenure-track position in the chemistry department of a small college about three hours away. We saw each other once or twice a month, on weekends. Not an ideal situation, but it was temporary, and our careers seemed the most important thing at the time. I could finish my research and write my thesis with minimal distraction, and his teaching career got off to a good start without any other responsibilities.

The following year I began a teaching fellowship at another college, and we spent another year commuting on weekends, this time two hours away. As the year wore on our commuter marriage began to lose its appeal. But I was reluctant to move to my husband’s small town without a job, so we decided to seek a shared position. We accepted one at a liberal arts college in 1989, excited to be living in the same place, working together.

We enjoyed our job, and the college certainly got its money’s worth: The two of us worked more than one person would have been able to. We had two children while we both worked part time. My husband and I were able to rearrange our responsibilities so he did more professional work and I had extended maternity leaves. I had more time at home than most working mothers: three months for my first child and six for my second. When my children were tiny, I felt I couldn’t concentrate fully on either work or home. I wanted to do everything full-time faculty members did and everything stay-at-home moms did. Our children spent 15 to 20 hours a week at day-care, and either my husband or I was at home with them the rest of the time. Life was busy. We did a lot of running around, with half-days at work and half-days at home. But it was a nice mix. The trouble was, the college we worked for also seemed to want me and my husband to each do everything a full-time faculty member would do. For this and a variety of other reasons, we didn’t get tenure. I took a full-time faculty job without the demands or pressures of the tenure track. My husband does freelance work out of our home while taking care of almost all kid demands and activities. Now that they are reaching school age he has more time to work, but still provides an effortless backup for sick children and an unlimited chauffeur service for playmates and after school activities. I often find myself missing the half-days at home with the kids. I see them briefly in the morning, then during the last half of the poison hour from 5 to 6, when dad is making dinner and everyone is whining. Then dinner, bath and bed. But I do see them more than a junior faculty member on the tenure track would. I generally take the weekends off and put work completely out of my mind. And I console myself that my children spend lots of time with their dad, who is much more patient and mentally robust than I am when it comes to a day at home with the kids. I seem well suited to being the bread-winner in the work world where people are usually rational and polite and do what I ask of them. But I can’t help feeling a bit sad some days when I come home after a hard day at the office and learn that I missed an afternoon at the park. I have come to believe that the really sad and difficult thing about the whole children/work trade-off is that one has to make such all-or-nothing choices. It is exceedingly difficult to stay home with children full time and give up all professional life. And I find it equally difficult to spend such limited time with my kids while working full time. I think the best solutions allow parents to do some of each, to have both a professional and family life. But those solutions are few and far between.

Author’s note: Sally Hair lives in Hanover, NH with her husband Brian Reid and their children Eleanor (8) and Graham (5). She is the Director of the General Chemistry Laboratories at Dartmouth College.

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MULTITASKING

When I was a senior at Bryn Mawr, I perfected an elaborate system of getting work done. When I had a paper due or an exam to study for, I would clean my small attic apartment from top to bottom. For finals week I would also clean the refrigerator and make a pot of soup I could eat for several days. Then I would settle down with books, articles and a supply of food and begin work, knowing I had no distractions or excuses. This style of working, with all the procrastination taken care of in advance, served me well for many years. Until I had children. Now, if I waited to start a project until the house was clean, I would never start. I have surrendered to this inevitability, but have discovered a new working style that serves me even better. I call it Multi-Tasking or Parallel Processing—professional-sounding synonyms for Distracted Wandering, or Doing Everything at Once. Below I illustrate the Multi-Tasking approach to cleaning up the house for company, making dinner and caring for a preschooler and an infant.

Look at clock. Yikes, they will be here in an hour! Put fussy baby in sling. Put on peppy children’s music. On the way to CD player, kick toys on floor into corner of living room, closer to toy basket. Head for kitchen. Engage preschooler with playdough and potato masher. Pick up miscellaneous sippy cups and plastic plates from floor, dump in sink. Put the chili you made yesterday on the stove. Get out a big bowl to make corn bread while swaying to peppy music to amuse baby. Admire preschooler’s playdough sculpture. “No eating playdough, remember!”

Notice time is getting short. Proceed to front door. What is the first thing they will see? Put away markers, scissors and paper spread all over the front hall. Haul vacuum cleaner out of closet. Return to preschooler to retrieve potato masher from under the table. Bonk baby’s head on table leg. Stand up and sashay into the living room to soothe baby. Pick up two handfuls of toys and toss them into toy basket while swinging hips to “I’ve been working on the railroad.” Continue dancing and picking up toys until baby is calm. Admire playdough pie preschooler has made and pretend to eat it, making loud, appreciative smacking noises. Find corn bread recipe and stir chili. Get out ingredients, making space on counter by moving lunch dishes into sink. Call husband to see when he will be home. “Can you pick up beer on the way?”

Measure dry ingredients while swaying to relax baby, still a bit fussy when motionless. Return to table and ask preschooler if she would like to set the table. Give up on that idea when she carefully places encrusted playdough toys at each place setting. Return to corn bread. Grease pan and turn on oven. Mix in milk and honey, get eggs out of the refrigerator. Answer phone. (“What kind of beer? Would wine be better?”) Hang up when preschooler begins to move playdough into living room. “NO NO! No playdough in the living room!” Chase ensues. Engage preschooler in Teletubbies video, given to her by grandparents. Search in bedside table for your ear plugs.

Return to corn bread. Scrape batter into pan and put in oven. Stir chili and take a deep breath. Baby is looking sleepy. Gather up playdough toys and fold up plastic tablecloth. Search for cloth replacement in linen closet, then attic. Put it on table and sweep up playdough bits. As baby almost falls out of sling, realize that he is asleep and spend five minutes easing him into the crib and easing your body out of the sling.

Door bell rings as oven timer goes off. Turn off timer and wonder why there are three eggs sitting on the counter. Peer at corn bread suspiciously. Hurry to greet guests, being careful not to trip over the vacuum cleaner in the front hall.

—SALLY REID HAIR ’82

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CAN WE ALL AGREE TO LIGHTEN UP?

By Susan Rovi Mach, Ph.D. ’80

Don’t you wish women would get off one another’s backs about motherhood? I mean, don’t you yearn for a truce in the competition for The Perfect Mother Award? Can’t we halt the endless debates over how—or even whether—to mother?

Aren’t you stiff with boredom with the issue of whether having a professional life automatically gets you a kid who’s a serial murderer? Aren’t you completely indifferent to what “the research” says?

I say, let’s go for tolerance of each other’s choices. Let’s learn from each other all the huge variety of ways we can approach being mothers. And let’s all respect each other’s choices instead of acting just a lit-tle bit superior about our own unique experiences.

A confession: I wasn’t always such a strong advocate for mutual acceptance. I didn’t come easily to the wisdom that there’s no single, right answer. I earned it the hard way—through years of holding every conceivable position on motherhood, making loud public policy proclamations on the subject and pretty much making a fool of myself.

True story: I grow up in the 1950s in a Catholic ghetto. Everyone I know is either the child or the grandchild of Italian, Irish, Polish Catholic immigrants. I participate in many May processions singing “Mary-like in Mind and Body.” The atmosphere is thick with holy incense. My thoughts on motherhood: I want to spawn. I yearn to pop ’em out like a guppy.

But it doesn’t turn out that way. My husband and I are married two years. A fertility expert tells us we will never have children. Repeat: never.

I change my tune. I announce to anyone who listens that motherhood isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. We remarkable women have other great accomplishments to tackle. And being childfree is a helluva lot of fun.

Years later, I am working on a Bryn Mawr Ph.D. in France. My period is late. My fondness for the smell of cigar smoke has turned to waves of nausea as I walk up Rue de Rivoli each morning on my way to the Bibliothèque National. And I have to pee a lot. In fact, I am convinced I have enough first-hand research to write Les Toilettes de Paris.

Convinced I’m dying, I go to a doctor in Paris. She smiles as I explain my symptoms. She requests a urine sample. The next morning, I receive a telex: “La réaction est positive.” Uh-oh.

Sheepishly, I call family and friends to tell them I’m pregnant. They are shocked. About half of them think they somehow have misheard what I’ve told them. My mother asks, “What did you say, Hon?” My father blinks. Months later, I give birth to a beautiful boy, a Renaissance cherub. My husband and I are ecstatic.

But having a baby really catapults me into the thick of the motherhood fray. For example: Is my son’s birth “natural?” Do I find breast-feeding the most spiritually fulfilling experience of my life? Is my son’s day-care center providing him a Truly Meaningful Experience—or is he just wasting his time having fun?

I become a full-time mom, and then a corporate mom. And, let me tell you, in many ways, they both suck. The debate drags on. Most of the time, having learned my lesson, I try not to get too dogmatic about these issues so dear to the hearts of The Fretful Mothers Club.

But sometimes I forget my resolve to remain humble.

Two years ago, late one night, my son and his local high-school friends—all college freshmen home for Thanksgiving—are downstairs in our living room enjoying a reunion. I am upstairs in bed, enjoying the sound of their laughter, the guitars, the singing. Such innocent, wholesome fun. I smile to myself in the darkness. Perhaps I should write the definitive guide to motherhood, How I Raised the Perfect Child: Notes from a Perfect Mother.

The next morning, I go downstairs to make coffee. I notice in the dim light that there are people—many people—sleeping all over the living room floor. In the kitchen, I spot two huge brown-paper grocery shopping bags—and they’re brimming with empty beer cans. The beer cans all are neatly crushed to save room in the landfill.

Hey, at least my son and his friends are all Greenies, I feel compelled to brag here. But obviously, I am forced to hold off writing that book.

I resolve—once again—to stop judging other women and what kind of mothers they are, the decisions they make, the styles they choose.

Once again, I realize there is no one true path—or, if it exists, I can’t find it.

So resolved: Let’s learn from each other, support each other, fight shoulder to shoulder on behalf of all kids. Let’s abandon the pursuit of perfection. Let’s stop craving that “A” on what kind of mothers we are. And, as for me, I’ll settle for an “Incomplete.”

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STAYING HOME: A NECESSARY CHOICE

By Sarah Woodbury Haug ’90

Do you really think you can just jump right back into an academic position after staying home for five or 10 years?” I stared at the questioner, a young graduate student in my husband’s department, to whom I had explained my reasons for staying home and homeschooling my three children, then ages 5, 3 and not-yet-born. The possible responses passing through my mind were, “Yes, I do”; “No, I don’t”; “I don’t know”; “Do I care?”

More and more professional women are choosing to stay home with their children, postponing their careers in the belief that childrearing will offer a different sort of fulfillment. For the formerly professional women I know who are full-time mothers, the very act of having children necessitated this choice: Once we had them, we felt it impossible to leave them in the care of another for a significant portion of their childhood. I could not even allow my husband to fill this role. He had assumed he would become a full-time father when I finished my Ph.D. and began a job. I told him I was better at taking care of children than he was, and that this job was the one I wanted.

I stay home with my children for the very simple reason that I believe raising them is the most important thing I can do in this life. I realize that raising my own children is inefficient in an industrial society where it is acceptable for one day-care worker to supervise six toddlers, or for one teacher to respond to the needs of 30 children. But for me, raising children is more than watching them grow and keeping them out of harm. It is a process of education that begins at birth, the execution of a conscious, intended plan for nurturing a human being to adulthood. Childrearing, therefore, is not a task I can delegate to another person for many hours every day.

My subsequent choice to homeschool my children is even more radical. It has prompted family, friends and professional peers to ask not only, “Why are you doing this?” but “How can you do this, you of all people?” The underlying implication is, of course, “what a waste.”

I cannot agree. One of the fundamental tenets of the Baha’i Faith, of which I am a member, is universal education. Furthermore, Baha’is believe that if forced to choose between educating a boy or a girl, parents must educate the girl because women are the first educators of children, a monumentally important task. In China, where my in-laws live, the national government has begun to embrace this idea, translating it into the aphorism, “If you educate a boy, you educate one man. If you educate a girl, you educate a family. If you educate a village of girls, you educate the nation.”

It seems to me that educating girls—or women—is precisely what Bryn Mawr is all about. It is a primary reason for Bryn Mawr’s founding: At that time many women were deprived of a college education, and “the nation” surely suffered as a result. Deborah Mandell ’71 wrote in the Winter ’98 Bulletin that we must “really solve this problem” of combining a career with childrearing so that every woman is not “forced to figure it out on her own.” The solution Mandell is searching for, however, is not one that a society can provide. It is the individual who must ultimately answer fiercely personal questions: What role do I want to have in the raising of my children? How much time should I spend with my children? What am I willing to do in order to create proper balance in my life?

For women who do not want to stay home, who want a fulfilling career and a fulfilling family life, there are few simple answers. This fact betrays what we thought we learned at Bryn Mawr, where we came to understand that we could do anything we set our minds to. We were surrounded by high-achieving, driven, interesting women. We saw in our faculty, administrators and peers women who were making unique contributions to the world. But raising children as part of that contribution was never evident. How we could combine a fascinating career with a fulfilling marriage and family life was never discussed. It is unpopular to say that the “problem” of combining career and family cannot be solved in a way that would make most career-inspired Bryn Mawr women happy. However, raising children and working the number of hours a day that many “careers” require seem to me to be mutually exclusive.

I graduated from Bryn Mawr in 1990 and immediately began my graduate studies in anthropology at the University of Washington. I had been on the Ph.D. track since I was 5 years old, and even the two children I had before receiving my Ph.D. in 1995 didn’t deter me from that chosen course. It was only when I faced the actual fact of having to apply for jobs—jobs that would occupy the vast majority of my time—that I opted out, never applying for any at all. My daughter would have entered kindergarten the following year, and my husband and I decided that we would opt out of that as well.

As a full-time mom with a Ph.D., I open myself up to an incredulity from others that is staggering. My parents were appalled and my professors confounded when I told them I was going to stay home and homeschool my children. Even though my mother had stayed home with my sister and me, my parents never thought I would consider it an option. They had not raised me as a feminist and reader of Ms. and sent me to Bryn Mawr only to have me living, as they viewed it, in the 1950s, as if the women’s movement had never happened. How could I waste my talents in this way? How could I turn my back on “achieving” something? The general view expressed by them, by other relatives, by my professors and fellow graduate students is that even if a mother staying home with small children is marginally acceptable, not returning to work when those children reach the age of 5 is a waste of one’s life.

Many people have brought before my eyes the specter of the 50-year-old woman who has done “nothing” but raise children all of her adult life. Will I in fact have done nothing? Does staying home with my children make me so unsuitable for doing anything I set my mind to? Those who think so reflect the disdain with which our society regards the avocation of rearing children, evident in the low wages child care workers earn as well as in the lack of respect accorded to women and men who stay home with their children. This disdain grows out of our society’s emphasis on earning money, which obscures the importance of raising children well. I know stay-at-home mothers who have not finished, or never started, college. Their decision to stay home is a sacrifice on a different order than the one I am making.

Because of their lack of formal education, they are subject to a general disrespect that I find appalling. Even so, the choices for them when their children are grown can be as diverse as mine. My mother-in-law, for example, returned to school to be a chiropractor when her children were 6, 8 and 10. It took her six years, taking one or two credits a semester, to fulfill the pre-med requirements. When my husband was 14 she entered chiropractic college, and she graduated the same week my husband graduated from high school. She was 46. I will be 46 when my youngest child is 18. More people than I can count have asked me, “What will you do then?” Once again I stare at such a questioner and think, “I don’t know; Do I care?” I am limited only by my imagination.

Sarah Haug lives in State College, PA with her husband Dan and her three children Brynne (8), Carew (6) and Gareth (2). Although most days it doesn't seem like it, she is also an affiliated faculty member in anthropology at Penn State University.

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MHK