O Alma Mater, and assumptions about other people’s lives

3557813915_0a36126a2d_z-1Today’s post is a long one, but it’s about a topic I find fascinating, partly because of how people try to argue their points. I hope you’ll read to the end.

A few months ago, Keli Goff wrote a piece for The Guardian arguing that “Female Ivy League graduates have a duty to stay in the workforce.” She described recent research finding that women with degrees from highly selective universities are more likely to opt out of the workforce than others. Women with the potential to earn high incomes often marry men with the potential to earn high incomes. The man’s high income then means that the woman’s income isn’t necessary for the family live a good life. Women with elite degrees opt out because they can. The problem, notes Goff, is that highly selective colleges are the training ground for the future elite, and therefore a degree given to someone who primarily cares for her own children is wasted. As she writes:

“Perhaps instead of bickering over whether or not colleges and universities should ask us to check boxes declaring our racial identity, the next frontier of the admissions should revolve around asking people to declare what they actually plan to do with their degrees. There’s nothing wrong with someone saying that her dream is to become a full-time mother by 30. That is an admirable goal. What is not admirable is for her to take a slot at Yale Law School that could have gone to a young woman whose dream is to be in the Senate by age 40 and in the White House by age 50.”

This statement, understandably, stirred up some responses. Among the most well-read was a piece called O, Alma Mater by Anne-Marie Maginnis (no, not Slaughter — different Anne-Marie) over at Verily Magazine. Maginnis argued that her Princeton degree was being well used in her work as a stay-at-home mom. Unfortunately, in her response, Maginnis falls into the same trap of false choices that Goff does — false choices that limit much of the discussion on this topic.

Goff’s argument has plenty of flaws. For starters, few people know at age 17 (or even in their 20s for grad school) what the course of their lives will look like. A woman may want to be a full-time mother, but finds a career she can’t imagine leaving. She may want to have children but can’t and channels that mothering impulse into founding a network of high-quality affordable preschools. She may focus on raising her kids for 20 years and then run for office at age 45 and have a distinguished career in public service. It’s a fool’s game to figure out who will waste a degree and who will not. It’s even more absurd to look at this question solely through the lens of parenthood. There are people who’ve participated enthusiastically in the paid workforce who are now wasting their Ivy League degrees because they’re sitting in prison. Jeff Skilling, an alum of Harvard Business School, comes to mind.

But Maginnis, in her attempt to convince the world that her Princeton degree wasn’t wasted, likewise presents us with false choices — the same dandelions vs. paychecks choices we looked at a few months ago.

She writes “Perhaps the most meaningful way in which stay-at-home moms use their elite degrees is by raising their children to be well-educated, confident leaders of the next generation. When a mother with an Ivy League education stays home to raise children, she is making it her full-time job to invest the best that she has received, including her education, into these children. She is choosing to form a few people in a profound way, rather than to affect a broader audience with a smaller per-person investment. These mothers are not sacrificing pay, prestige, and a stimulating career without good reason. They feel they are giving their children something they could not otherwise give if they were out of the house all day. This is not to denigrate mothers who cannot afford to stay home; they obviously serve their family, often at great personal sacrifice. Nor is it to criticize working mothers who choose to share their talent with the larger world. It is merely to point out that highly educated women who choose to stay home with their children have a unique contribution to make as well.”

But what exactly is that unique contribution? This is where the false choices come in.

Maginnis primarily relies on a few examples from her own life. “When my daughter is driving me to distraction, I stop what I’m doing, pick up a book, and read to her. We read the entire Little House on the Prairie series in a couple of weeks, which I love for all its sense of history and appreciation for craft…Reading these books to my daughter is a reflection of my own passion for literature — the very literature I majored in at Princeton, where my eyes were fully opened to the beautiful intricacies and art of books.”

This is all lovely, but does Maginnis believe that Princeton moms who work don’t read to their kids? That we don’t read long books, classic books (she went for Pinocchio; we recently did Peter Pan), and so forth? Reading is not unique to stay-at-home mothers. It’s not even unique to moms. My husband read Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH to our boys. Grandma’s reading Charlotte’s Web. In 168 Hours I talk about a Princeton alum — a man who runs a major investment fund — doing book clubs with his five kids, grouped by age, in which they read through classics like Huckleberry Finn. People who love literature share it with the kids in their lives. Some of us share our love of literature by writing books, too. My 6-year-old wants to be an author. If I were not making time in my life to write books — making time because that’s my paid work — he might not see that as a possibility. As it is, according to the American Time Use Survey, the average married SAHM of pre-schoolers reads to them for 0.12 hours per day, or 0.84 hours per week, which is about 50 minutes. Do SAHM Ivy League moms read to their children more? Probably. But I’m guessing many employed Ivy League moms do too. I log my time and it’s well over that.

Maginnis goes on to talk of music. “Sometimes we turn on the radio and guess the composer. I’ve had a love of classical music since I was little because my own mother played it. By the time I got to Princeton, I really wanted to know more, and I began music classes with a curiosity and delight that I owe to my mother. She, in turn, had leaned it from her stay-at-home mother, a graduate of Radcliffe.”

Again, does she think that mothers who work don’t love music and share that love with their kids? I took music classes at Princeton with “curiosity and delight.” I’ve continued my love of music beyond Princeton, singing in a choir for years, and now, through my volunteering and donations (can I use the word “philanthropy”??), I’m encouraging the composition of new music.

Perhaps I got my love of music from my mother, who studied music in college. But this isn’t a unique contribution of stay-at-home mothers. My mother worked. There are 168 hours in a week, and there is plenty of time available in those 168 hours for reading literature and sharing music, even if you work for some of those hours too.

But I think we get at the issue with Maginnis talking of her own stay-at-home mom, and her mother staying at home too. In Maginnis’s family, we have multiple generations where it is the norm that the mother does not pursue a career when the children are little. It is a human tendency to see what we know as the correct state of affairs, the way that is right. Others with different life stories must not do the things we do. When people have made profoundly different choices, it is hard to imagine that we might, in fact, have similarities in our lives.

I don’t deny that “when a highly educated woman is home with her children day in and day out, she weaves the riches of her education into their lives in continuous, subtle, living ways.” But I do know, from the time logs I study, that women with lots of professional achievements to their names spend vast hours with their children, too. No doubt they weave the riches of their education into their children’s lives — and the riches of their professional lives into their children’s experiences and expectations as well. If we’re using personal examples, my son’s preschool has benefited from presentations from a vet, a doctor, and so forth. All moms.

And some of us are figuring out our own ways to create the mosaic of our lives. On Tuesday this week, the day I wrote a draft of this, I celebrated the launch of What the Most Successful People Do Before Breakfast. I did several media interviews, interviewed people for other projects, dealt with various editors, and yet I ate lunch with my kids. Incidentally, so did my husband. It’s a false choice to believe that even traditionally employed people are locked in cages at their desks during the day. I played with my sons during my toddler’s nap. I spent a relaxed evening reading with my daughter. I take my work very seriously, but there are lots of ways to work.

Personally, I’m excited to know that my daughter will grow up knowing you can have a full and wonderful life, that parents can be deeply involved with their children, and deeply committed to their careers, too.

This is not either/or; my Princeton degree helps me see possibilities.

In other news: Give Me 10 – a website about using bits of time for bits of joy — does a video interview with me on my new book. Which came out Tuesday. Have you gotten your copy yet?

Photo courtesy flickr user wsilver



28 Responses to O Alma Mater, and assumptions about other people’s lives


  1. Pamela says:

    I wonder how this “opt out” business breaks down along racial and/or economic lines? For example, I wouldn’t be surprised if women from lower middle class and poor families who graduated from Ivy Leagues were less likely to opt out than their upper-middle-class and wealthy classmates. And I wouldn’t be surprised, either, if minority women were less likely to opt out than their white peers. I can’t help but think of Michelle Obama – she was raised in a middle class (lower middle class?) family, and has spoken pretty openly about the stresses and difficulties she had when Barack was a senator while she was managing her career and family. I’m sure at some point, she could have “opted out” too, and who could blame her? But she hasn’t done that, and I just wonder what role her upbringing had in that decision.
    ***
    Also, this whole drama just adds fuel to the mommy wars. You don’t have to be a Ivy League graduate to be a good mother, or to read poetry to your baby, or introduce your child to Beethoven. My mother read me Little house on the Prairie, too, and my parents paid for my piano lessons out of my Dad’s salary as a warehouse manager (a solidly blue collar job). Somehow in this country, culture and education are “elite” and “snobby” and that’s just wrong – the whole point of having public libraries, for example, is to make great literature (and ok, sparkly vampire stories too) available to anyone, regardless of economic status. We have public schools so that all citizens can get an education. Didn’t women’s magazines used to print short stories and poems by well-regarded authors? Now it’s all celebrity fluff and weight loss tips (and a big ol’ dose of guilt of course), and I think we’re all worse off as a result.

    • Carrie says:

      “And I wouldn’t be surprised, either, if minority women were less likely to opt out than their white peers.”

      Being born and raised in Atlanta I can say that it’s *very* rare to find a black stay at home mom. So yes, that’s probably true.

      The part that makes me want to vomit is this quote:

      “What is not admirable is for her to take a slot at Yale Law School that could have gone to…”

      The idea is that an education is wasted on a stay at home mom is elitist and absurd. I read a bit of research lately that said in the 70′s, most college kids went to school to “get an education/philosophy on life”. In the 00′s that changed to “so I can make a lot of money”.

      Our society used to value education for its own sake…. not with some end goal in mind. And that was a very very good thing.

      Speaking of the Little House books, I have no education to speak of. No college anyway. Yet I have read the entire series aloud to my kids more than once. One of the things that impressed me about Caroline Ingalls was her focus on educating her kids. Laura became one of America’s most beloved authors, and Laura’s daughter Rose is the godmother of the Libertarian movement. Not bad work for a stay at home mom.

      My 15 year old is reading
      Sophocles and taking college classes online. Yesterday after beginning Persuasion he quoted a line from Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court in reference to Sir Walter.

      I’m one of these nobody SAHMs who appreciates education.

      I also get up at 4-5 AM to work before the homeschool day begins. Before marrying my husband, I supported my family as a divorced mom. I too appreciate possibilities, and I’m not a Princeton graduate.

      • Carrie says:

        To sum up, all these assumptions and stereotypes just piss everyone off.

        • Laura says:

          @Carrie – yep, pretty much! Goff’s got an elitist attitude. But then there’s a hint of it in Maginnis’s piece, too — that an elite degree might make you a better mother. I think no one’s got a lock on that.

          I’m interested in a different part of your comment, though — what makes people identify as a SAHM. The lines are so blurred these days with freelancing, home-based businesses, etc. You’ve found a way to earn an income while preserving lots of time with your kids. I imagine there’s quite a broad spectrum of people doing this, so at what point does one identify as one thing or another? As I study people’s schedules, I’ve seen women identify as SAHMs who were working 20 hours a week on income-generating activities. Others spending that amount of time working might identify whatever the work was as a major part of their identity. I think this is partly social – what’s seen as the norm in one’s community.

          • Cara Marcano says:

            Motherhood is tremendously rewarding… but people get used to perfect lives … there is a good amount of evidence that within a spectrum it is difficult to “ruin” children… so for example, probably the best mothers are those folks who are raising children with mental illness or autism … the rest of us are trying to enjoy our children and keep them safe and reasonably happy. the rest is mostly icing and the obsessing over how you do it is a bit off … if you want to stay home and couldn’t bear to leave your kid in the baby room good for you. if you want to have a space o utside of parenting or being a wife or spouse that is yours that is great too… definitely definitely no concrete research that says you are a better mother if you stay home… perhaps more able to say do suzuki piano with your kid or have more personal time. but we kid ourselves when we sort of think that those things on the margin are what will make a difference.. think of what could be done with our lost youth.. those who don’t have access to stimulating summer activities or whose parents can’t afford preschool or quality stimulating activities.. think of what is on our TVs and the level of violence many folks are exposed to in average american society … there are probably more important issues than this.. that a 17-year old girl who enlists in the military has a an excellent chance of being raped … excellent and statistically probable. seems like as women there are better things we could take on as “our ” issues.. affordable care and/or support for stay at home moms or something like this….

    • Laura says:

      @Pamela – yes, women’s magazines did used to have a lot more intellectual heft. Though there were other retro assumptions in those mags of the time, on how much housework was supposed to be done. Here’s my story on that: http://www.city-journal.org/2013/23_2_womens-magazines.html

  2. ARC says:

    Why aren’t we also talking about male graduates and their “duty to stay in the workforce”?

    What about all those guys I went to school with who got their fancy Caltech physics degrees and are doing something completely unrelated to physics, like the one who’s now a social worker, the one who is an acupuncturist, the guy who makes independent films, and the guy who stays home with his 3 kids while his wife is an exec at a startup? Can’t we argue they’re also “wasting” their elite education, since Caltech is primarily a training ground for research scientists?

    I don’t get why this is just a woman thing, really. Maybe I live in some weird alternate universe where I know almost as many men who have taken time off?

    But as a rebuttal to the “duty” article, what else can you do but defend your choices? I agree that it’s *possible* to work and do all these things, and many people obviously do it.

    I’m not sure why more people don’t acknowledge that they just want a different pace of life. I don’t think anyone can argue that adding even part-time work into the mix means *something* has to give, whether that’s sleep, hobbies, or not attending every.last.PTA meeting or preschool picnic.

    Obviously we’re talking about privilege here, but if you’re in that spot, why not take advantage of it and call it like it is? I’ve gotten to spend lots more time on my hobbies than I would if I was also working 30+ hours. I’m not ashamed of that. Life is pretty darn sweet right now.

    • Laura says:

      @ARC – yep, the duty argument falls apart pretty quickly when you look at the variety of choices people make. Someone made a similar argument about women physicians. Many had stopped practicing or were working part-time, and so an argument had been floated that this should be taken into account in med school admissions. But come on, there are plenty of MDs working in industry, in government, in academia, in business in general. We should be more outraged every time an MD takes a job at a consulting firm vs. a MD who decides to work 3 days a week and spend the others with family.

    • Liz says:

      “…what else can you do but defend your choices?”

      Answer: Ignore the haters. Haters gonna hate. If your life choices are satisfying and appropriate for you and any immediate family members (spouse, children, other dependents) in YOUR (collective) opinion, then screw what anybody else thinks.

      More articles celebrating the diversity of choices, rather than lambasting people’s inability to accept that diversity, could be a second step after this “recognition” piece. (Admitting you have a problem is the first step to solving it.)

      • ARC says:

        That’s a good point. It really doesn’t matter what someone else thinks, or opines in The Atlantic, or whatever. Maybe we’d all be more productive if we just ignored it :)

  3. Nancy Pelosi was a SAHM for many years, though I guess she didn’t get an ivy league degree. Gosh… apparently you can achieve even without graduating from an ivy.
    *
    I do agree that if we really don’t want to “waste” these ivy league spots, we should make sure that more of them go to smart but lower SES kids. They’re the ones who get the most benefit. That’s why Sarah Turner and Carolyn Hoxby’s recent field experiment in getting poor kids to apply up is so exciting.
    *
    And using the argument about law school spots is pretty poor– those elite women who go to elite laws schools usually end up working pretty sh*tty jobs full of sexist jerks (high-paying, yes, but also with an expectation of high spending and long hours on top of all the sexism). It’s too bad that many of them see the dichotomous choice of elite law office vs. stay at home parenting so they leave the labor force rather than the job. (Of course, men leave the law career too…)

  4. p.s. My DH read the first two little house books to DC1. We don’t think that the later ones are age-appropriate yet. My working mom also read them to my sister and me when we were little. What a bizarre example. Does she really think working parents don’t have time to read to their kids? (Tonight they’re on the last chapter of 21 Balloons, and glad to be getting to a more exciting next book… they’re discussing whether the Hobbit would be a good next choice or if they should go with something shorter. Having DH do bedtime reading is great because he hasn’t read or heard most of the children’s classics, so they’re new to him too. It’ll probably be my turn when DC2 hits chapter book age.)

    • Laura says:

      @NicoleandMaggie – this faulty understanding of time is evident in many of these arguments. No one reads to their kids for 168 hours a week. No one spends 168 hours a week interacting with their kids in any way/shape/form. The essay mentions, off hand, one kid being in preschool and the other napping. These are both things that limit the available hours for interaction, regardless of what the parents are doing, which is one reason the ATUS numbers are not as different for parents in different employment situations as people might think. In fact, the numbers for reading to/with kids for moms of preschoolers are exactly the same if mom is at home, or if she’s working part-time.

      • Like you said, if they don’t have any experience with working parents, how would they know any differently. My mom (and aunts) always worked, as did my grandma (and great aunts), and her mother, and so on. I don’t know any different from my experiences either.

      • Hm, I think maybe I’ll pull the ATUS for my take-home final this year. Usually I give them the GSS, but I could use a change.

  5. Cloud says:

    Both articles sound ridiculous. Since I’m in a “don’t read stupid things that will just make me angry” phase, I’ll skip them. I don’t think education is wasted on anyone, ever. I don’t think you can only succeed in the work world via an elite degree. I think most working mothers (and fathers!) find time to enrich their children’s lives with the things they are interested in. I am so sick of watching women tear each other apart. It is distracting us from working to make the world a place with real, actual choices for everyone- not genuine choices for the lucky few that come with a side of judgment no matter how you choose and impossible choices for the rest.

    • Ana says:

      Well you said everything I wanted to, and more succinctly, too!

    • Laura says:

      @Cloud- I read so you don’t have to!

    • I guess well-researched articles using the real facts about discrimination or the complex costs and benefits of changing workplace law are neither as easy to write nor as sexy to click on and argue about. Sure, I read those articles and link to them (generally from Salon, Slate, or Jezebel…), but someone has to be reading the ubiquitous mommy war articles.
      *
      It reminds me of that onion article on Miley Cyrus’s twerking. http://www.theonion.com/articles/let-me-explain-why-miley-cyrus-vma-performance-was,33632/
      These articles must exist because they’re cheap to produce and people read them.
      *
      (Note, I also didn’t read the articles LV linked to… I’m just taking her word for what they say. Also as a disclaimer, I do think the Miley Cyrus thing should be discussed not because of her sexuality but because of her bestial objectification of black women. That’s seriously disturbing, but that didn’t appear in any CNN headlines, just the “little Miley is all grown up” and additional headlines asking “why do we care”.)

  6. nother Barb says:

    There is another choice. It is men and women who put their talent, motivation, and advanced degrees to work in philanthropic arenas. I don’t mean Muffy and Skippy simply pulling out the checkbook at a luncheon or being the “math mom” once a week at school. They actively use the same skills that brought them success in the professional world. And thank goodness for it. Paid or not, such people are going to change the world because they can.

    • Laura says:

      @nother Barb – this is an interesting point, because in the survey that Maginnis talks about at the beginning of her essay — the one that Princeton sends around to major reunion classes — there were questions getting at this idea of being a “professional volunteer.” People spending 20 hours a week or more on volunteer/philanthropic activities could certainly talk about that as what they’d been doing with themselves during some period of time since graduation. The woman who helped design the survey (if I remember correctly) fit in this category.

  7. Chelsea says:

    The other thing you touch on a little bit but I think is worth mentioning more is that a child can have (dare I say benefits from having) enriching experiences from other people besides his/her mother. Dads can do story time. Grandmas can play music for children. Daycare teachers can introduce songs and play from their family that mom doesn’t know.

    My view of daycare has only improved as my son has attended longer. I’d say he’s definitely benefited more from going there 3 days a week than from being home with his mom (not Ivy League, but pretty well educated) all day.

    • Absolutely! Our children also have 168 hours in a week. Mine learn all sorts of things when they’re away from me, even if not everyone they come into contact with is Ivy League educated (horrible, I know… but we may misguidedly think that there’s benefit to diversity… possible that elite SLAC/’tech/Ivy brainwashing we had). Heck, my son is learning to be careful with money because his private school is always in danger of going under(!) and the teachers are sadly low income.

  8. TG says:

    I find pieces that ignore the financial and logistical implications puzzling. It’s hard for me to look at such questions in a purely philosophical way.

  9. Laura, good point about how we generally consider “wasting” a degree through the lens of parenthood. We don’t often criticize someone who was a poli sci major who decides to go into banking, or a journalism major who goes to med school — both of whom took a different course than one may have expected. It seems like we’d all be better served accepting that we all set out on this journey of life making the best decisions we can at each point along the road. Sometimes it’s a straight-ish line. Other times, curvier. That said, I will admit that I occasionally feel guilty that I took a “spot” at one of those elite business schools and did not use it in the traditional way. I still loved the journey and so appreciated the opportunity. It was one of many important chapters in my life.

  10. oilandgarlic says:

    When I read the quotes about Little House on the Prairie and classical music, my first thought wasn’t time-based. I thought she meant that her Ivy League education made her uniquely qualified to read that book or help her child enjoy classical music. You can take high-quality literature and music classes at non-Ivy League universities.

    I’m with Cloud that education is important regardless of paid work. I feel that having an educated populace is important mostly for critical thinking skills and being an informed citizen (who votes!) Unfortunately the cost of schooling has changed the emphasis to paid work.

  11. Another thing about these taking a slot arguments is that they just don’t make sense in the general equilibrium.
    *
    There are too many lawyers right now. People who graduate from law schools can’t find jobs at wages that are considered “high enough”. If people didn’t quit being lawyers, wages would be driven down lower. If it’s elite lawyers dropping out, then that just means that the semi-elites are going to have higher wages or slightly better opportunities than they would without the dropouts. It’s not like there’s a dearth of lawyers. I’m not sure why we should be crying if salaries for lawyers are higher or lower because of changes in supply.
    *
    With doctors, the only reason that we don’t have “enough” (and some economists argue that we do have enough, just not enough generalists… a job that women are more likely to take) is because the medical schools are essentially one of the few remaining guilds. They could allow more medical schools to be built. They could let in more students. There’s nothing keeping that from happening, except that doctors have incentives to keep people from practicing medicine so that their wages can be higher. And, of course, doctors dropping out of medicine is another way to keep wages higher.
    *
    There might be an argument that people dropping out of the labor force is bad policy for state schools, where the taxpayer is footing some of the bill (less so now than in the past). Tax payers might want their subsidies back in terms of future tax revenue. But that argument makes zero sense when it’s tax-exempt elite private schools and not government footing any additional bill.

    • hush says:

      Well said, and so true about the nonsense of “taking a slot” arguments in the context of attorneys – by every measure we already have far too many of them.

      In the context of physicians, I’m reminded of that awful Dr. Karen Siebert opinion piece in the NYT about 2 years ago. The answer to the doctor shortage is to graduate both more doctors and physician’s assistants. We need to stop telling lies to those who want to serve where they are urgently needed that we can’t find ways for them to build fulfilling careers and responsibly care for their children – that’s utter bull.

      “It is a human tendency to see what we know as the correct state of affairs, the way that is right”

      Amen! Thanks again Mom & Dad, for showing me way before it was ever cool that paying for the help DH and I need with childcare is indeed the open secret to having two big careers and a wildly successful life.