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