Things to Do - Rant

About two years ago I wrote a post on my decision to become a SAHM and up until now that is all I've wanted to say regarding the mommy wars. But lately I've come across a new line of argument that has gotten under my skin (even though I try SO HARD to never let such issues really bother me). Previously, the wars seem to have consisted of a monotonous ping pong game between the benefits of "working" and "not-working," and much like a mediocre ping pong game, they're far from interesting.

So perhaps in an effort to escalate the battle or in a desperate effort to gain attention for oneself*, lately, I keep coming across a new argument - that women who plan on staying home with their children DO NOT DESERVE AN EDUCATION, that their college or post-graduate spot would be better utilized by someone else ("[future-SAHMs] are taking away seats from other brilliant kids who might actually need a Princeton degree to achieve their dreams."). Basically, that educating nurturers is simply a waste of time for everyone involved. And I am angry. Yes, I admit it, Vivia Chen, you have made me angry (though oddly, you seem to be just another blogger, not sure why you need a fancy degree for that either, but I digress).

First of all, let's talk about dreams. In particular, let's talk about the dreams of twenty-something women. Some women dream of high profile careers, while others dream of homes filled with babies and baked goods. If there's one thing I've realized in my 37 years, often these dreams don't work out how you want them to. I know women who never wanted children, instead they wanted business suits and promotions (not that kids and success are mutually exclusive, but for some people they are), one beautiful accident later they're pushing a stroller home from preschool and telling me that they've been phoning in their part time job for the last four years. I know other women who have spent their whole life planning the perfect wedding, who never intended to work past the age of 30 - several of them are now 35 on Match.com. Life happens. Often life doesn't work out how we've planned it. So even if you're 22 and dreaming of muffin recipes - why not have a back-up plan?

Further, what is the point of college anyways? Is it really a trade school, where we learn a discrete set of things suited to a concrete career plan? If so, then why the emphasis on liberal arts? Surely it's not all just to seem clever at cocktail parties. While I find these issues interesting and debatable, it's unquestionable that most top colleges in America embrace the idea that knowledge brings growth, that learning has an intrinsic value. Computers wouldn't have multiple fonts if Steve Jobs hadn't stumbled into a college design class. To the best of my knowledge, Obama has never used his law degree to actually practice law, so does that mean his "spot" at Harvard would have been better served by someone else or do we think some benefit accrues from the fact that the most important man in the free world has a post graduate degree? After all, they don't offer degrees in "presidentialness". If college inspires one to think outside the box (or to think better from inside it) then why wouldn't such inspiration benefit you no matter what you choose to do with your life?

Perhaps Ms. Chen concludes that college degrees failed to enrich/teach/inspire SAHMs, because now we're basically daycare workers. (A judgy position, and suggestive of an inability to envision self-fulfillment outside of conventional a power/money paradigm - but let's leave aside Emily Dickinson, Thoreau, and Mother Teresa, and explore the position's merits.) If the point of attending college is to grow/learn/inspire oneself and if SAHMs have failed to seize the opportunity (presumably because all we do is deal with children all day), then what other career outcomes fail Ms. Chen's test? Daycare workers? Is education lost on them? How about elementary school teachers? Shouldn't we cut them off after high school? All those fancy ideas they heard surely confuse them, after all. Then we come to high school teachers. Obviously they should be allowed some higher education, but then again, they do work with children, best not to waste too many resources on them.

Does she think she can predict ex-ante who will benefit and who will not? By Ms. Chen's criteria, I probably can too. In my social circle of top-tier law school attendees, women have proven to be far more likely than men to compromise their careers for family. So women are more likely than men to not "benefit" from our educations, and the end result is clear. We really shouldn't have wasted everyone's time in the first place. And since our husbands are all quite literate, why not just embrace the idea that those likely to become caregivers should never learn how to read? What? There are countries were this occurs? How wonderful! How efficiently their societies must operate. Oh wait, but in these countries all women are denied an education. Oh, sorry Vivia Chen, now you're one of us.

Obviously Vivia Chen feels that she knows who deserves an education and who does not. She does not base her arguments on (though somewhat wiggly) ex-ante objective criteria like test scores, recommendations, grades, and a genuine love of knowledge. She bases it on ex-post judgments about who "NEEDS" a degree and she defines "needs" based on one's life choices compared to the ones she thinks should have been made. Obviously, any applicant could easily lie her way into school by insisting that she hates babies or that she would never ever stay home with her children. Why not make women sign a pledge? Let's write it in blood.

But I find this whole thing so slippery. By saying only some women deserve an education we seem be getting closer to the idea (already embraced in several cultures) that NO WOMEN DESERVE AN EDUCATION (and I say "women" because i have never seen this argument applied to men, we seem to assume as a culture that males' ambitions are legitimate - even if they use their Princeton education to smoke pot, teach elementary school, or climb Mt. Everest, as long as they don't "have babies on the brain"). All of which scares the hell out of me. I have two girls. And when I tell them they can be anything they want to be, I really mean ANYTHING. And all I ask the Ms. Chen's of the world is please please please don't take this away from them.

*By the way, I have no idea who Vivia Chen is, I randomly came across her blog post through a facebook link. She is quite likely jumping on her bed right now, glad that I have given her needless hits. Apparently she sees her blogger profession as important enough to insult other women's career choices, lord knows there aren't enough bloggers out there.

[Please click here for my follow-up post on this issue "A Kinder, Gentler Rant"]


  1. I have no words! Might as well put corsets on us and take away our right to vote too..

  2. You don't know who Vivia Chen is? I'll tell you... Vivia Chen is a NYU law grad!! Who is now a blogger.

    The argument that women who stay out of the workforce while their kids are younger don't deserve to be educated reminds me of what my mother was told in India in the 1960s when she tested into engineering school. Actually, what her father was told by the headmaster of the school -- that she should not be allowed to enroll because she would take the place of a man who would actually use the degree. My grandfather agreed. My mother defied them both and recently retired after working for decades as an electrical engineer.

  3. I am a SAHM and of course this bothers me. However I think there is a kernel of truth that we all, as a society, should think about (a vital point--it doesn't just apply to SAHMs). I guess it could be summed up as "to whom much is given, much is expected," and it's something that does worry me, to be honest (about my own case). I have a master's in int'l affairs from a prestigious school and as a student I had access to professors who have played important roles in foreign policy etc. And, I received some scholarship assistance. I am well aware of how lucky I was to have that chance and how many others would have loved to be in that position. Now I am at home with my kids and I have no doubt that my education informs the way I choose to raise them--so I truly hope it makes me a better parent than I would have been (though I also know there are plenty of better parents than I who don't have a college degree--I'm not saying you NEED it to be a good parent). Anyway my point is that I do feel a sense of responsibility to somehow use the gifts I have been given to improve our society. It doesn't have to be right now, when even keeping the fridge stocked and clothes washed is often beyond my abilities. There is a season to everything. You can take 5-10 years off to be a SAHM and still have a very substantive career. I also don't think that the mere fact that someone is "working" means they are doing something meaningful and worthwhile with their skills and talents. If you get really involved in improving your child's school you can make a more meaningful contribution than plenty of jobs, for example (obviously, remunerated work is the only option for most people! I'm just saying that the mere fact you are paid to do something doesn't mean it is good for society. Just think of the Wall Street bankers with "prestigious" careers who helped bring the global economy to its knees--do we want more of them? Whatever higher institution trained them clearly failed in several vital respects). By the way I don't think you should knock blogging--bloggers with any real following are providing a valuable service in the marketplace of ideas, just like paid writers. Although my family is the most important thing to me, and I consider raising two good citizens and kind people to be the most meaningful thing I can do on this earth, it's not the ONLY thing I want to do with my life. And I hope that in a couple years I can find a way to make another kind of contribution that draws directly on my education & professional experience--whether I am paid for it or not. At the moment I have no idea what this would be which is why I say it worries me. Bottom line, I think we need more education, not less, for everyone--and then we as individuals need to ask ourselves how we can best spend our most precious resource, our time, to benefit our families and also our society more broadly. The answer will be different for each person.

  4. Just to clarify, in my comment (Anonymous, above), when I was talking about blogging being worthwhile, I was thinking of the many non-professional bloggers such as yourself who keep the rest of us entertained, informed & inspired!

  5. Thanks everyone so much for all the comments!!



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