Sometime during our first semester at college, in the fall of 1987, I mentioned to a male friend that I intended to stay home to raise my children. He said that if that was the case, I shouldn’t be taking up a space at Harvard that could go to somebody who would actually make good use of it. I was appalled.
Later that year, I declared my major: women’s studies.
I suppose that to most people this seems strange. To me, it makes complete sense. When I tell people that I majored in women’s studies, they correctly assume that I am a feminist. However, they usually do not know what that means. It doesn’t mean that I hate men, or that I want to be one. It doesn’t mean that I don’t shave under my arms (although I don’t). It does mean that I think that women—all people, in fact—must have the right to self-determination.
My feminism is a broad movement for human freedom, in the spirit of the nineteenth-century collaboration of Frederick Douglass and Elizabeth Cady Stanton. My feminism finds any orthodoxy—whether it states that women should follow Donna Reed or Andrea Dworkin—repugnant. To paraphrase Rebecca West: “I do not know precisely what a feminist is. I only know that people call me one whenever I express sentiments that differentiate me from a doormat.”
And, true to my word that day in 1987, here I am, a feminist and a “stay-at-home” mother to my four-year-old son, Noah. Our family of three, which includes my husband, Mark, manages to live on what Mark earns as high school history teacher. Noah won’t be having any fancy birthday parties, but we’re all fed and clothed, we own our own house, and we go out for Chinese food and ice cream every Sunday night. We have enough for now.
When people ask me if I work, I say yes, I just don’t get paid for it. I’ve had many ridiculous conversations on the subject. “What do you do all day?” a retired, never-married social worker recently asked me. By now I am tired of the questions, and I told her that I live my life, with my son next to me. She seemed immensely relieved a few moments later to learn that I also tutor from time to time—at least I do something.
So where did this come from, the appalling yet widespread notion that leaving the paid workforce to raise one’s children is a waste of a good education?
The idea reveals some common prejudices—about education, about money, and about childrearing.
First, it assumes that paid employment is the only legitimate use for higher education, with the corollary assumptions that mothering doesn’t use the knowledge acquired in college and that paid work does. This has not been my experience. My pre-baby work as an editor required a certain basic literacy and facility with words, but beyond that, it demanded what every job demands: skills that I learned on the job. Of the many titles that I edited, I can think of only one, a book on Shakespeare, that actually made use of what I’d learned in college.
My college friend’s comment also presumes that earning money is more important than childrearing, with a concomitant devaluation of childrearing. This is not all that surprising. Our culture values fame and fortune, and mothering is guaranteed to yield neither. In fact, mothering is the anti-fame, the anti-fortune. Almost every other job that people do earns some type of recognition—at the very least, a paycheck. My byline is on this piece, but it is not on my son. And as wonderful as Noah is, he does not ever come to me and say. Thanks, Mom, for raising me.
So why do I do what I do? First, I have come to realize that fame and fortune are not important enough to me. Certainly they have their perks, but one usually pays dearly for a lot of money. Once I had Noah, the idea of leaving him to go back to editing was absurd to me. I didn’t even like to go to the supermarket without him, so how was I going to leave him for most of the day, most of the week?
Here is the bottom line: Noah needed me and I needed him. My husband and I chose to bring him into the world. and it was our responsibility to meet his needs. And, as far as I could tell, his most basic need was for me.
What of my pedigree? Am I not wasting the precious Harvard diploma stored in my basement? Conventional wisdom has it that a Harvard diploma might as well be a winning lottery ticket: it sets you up for life. Frankly, I wouldn’t know. I was never interested in fields that lead to high-paying jobs (law, medicine), or those that lead to insanely high-paying jobs (economics, hedge-fund studies). But I have found that my women’s studies degree has come in handy in unexpected ways. Once, grocery shopping at Whole Foods, I looked up to see a large quotation on permanent display over a refrigerated case. It has been one of my favorite quotes ever since I read A Room of One s Own in my first women’s studies course: “One cannot think well, love well, sleep well, if one has not dined well.” Below it, in smaller letters, read “— George Bernard Shaw.” Suffice it to say the mistake no longer adorns the dairy section.
I knew as soon as I began reading A Room of One s Own in the spring of my freshman year that it would stay with me always. I would have been less inclined to believe that Cherrie Moraga’s first-person account of Chicana lesbian sadomasochism, part of the reading list for my junior tutorial, would also resonate with me personally. And then my son met the little boy across the street. They had a tumultuous love affair all spring. When apart, they pined for each other, calling passionately across the road to one another at all hours. When together, they fought. One afternoon, as I watched a masked Ethan beat Noah about the face and neck with a large foam sword, as Noah squealed with delight, I had an epiphany. I remembered Moraga’s statement that the “bottom” in an S/M couple had the power. It was s/he who controlled the action. Noah was the bottom! Imagine my relief.
Obviously, my feminism informs who I am and how I raise my son. Most profoundly, it has allowed me to view what I do as work. Mothering is my full-time job. The women I met in the mothers’ group I joined when Noah was an infant know me by my maiden name, which I use professionally, because in my view they are professional associates. My husband and I divvy up the household chores, just as we did when I worked outside the home. So, although I miss my paycheck, I am very happy with my decision to raise Noah full time. I am one of the few people I know who are actually doing what they want to with their lives, and for this I consider myself very lucky indeed.
Karen Prager lives her life, with her son next to her, in Teaneck, New Jersey, firstname.lastname@example.org