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So You Want to Be a Housewife?

Vivia Chen

January 10, 2013

Betty_White_CB-TelevisionLast night, my high school pal Joyce emailed me an article from The Daily Princetonian, and it totally wrecked my evening. So much so that I got out my corkscrew, opened a much too expensive bottle of Barolo, and downed a couple of glasses. I was so upset that I even missed Jon Stewart on TV.

"What Princeton Women Want" recounts a conversation between the author and her friend Molly about their impending graduation. Wistfully questioning their futures ("Would we go to graduate school? Marry our college boyfriends? Sell our souls to Wall Street?"), the author then describes her friend's answer:

Molly lowered her voice, glanced from side to side, and leaned in closer to me. “Margaret,” she whispered, “there’s something I need to tell you.” Molly continued, “I don’t want to go to grad school. I don’t even know if I want a career. I want to get married, stay at home, and raise my kids.” Then, clearly distraught, she added, “What’s wrong with me?”

The article is largely a defense of Molly’s choice. And—guess what?—feminism is the designated villain:

Molly's predicament is shameful. Not because she feels the urge to be a stay-at-home mom, but because she feels that her desire is wrong or unnatural. It is shameful that modern feminism has elevated professionalism at the expense of motherhood, particularly the stay-at-home variety. It is sad that some students feel the need to justify their education with a prestigious career.

By this point, the sanctimonious tone is getting under my skin. I know the author is defending her friend, but why pick on "modern" feminism? Was it not feminism that opened those ivy-covered gates to them at Princeton? And yes, if you must ask, I do think the Mollys of the world are squandering their privileged education. In fact, they are taking away seats from other brilliant kids who might actually need a Princeton degree to achieve their dreams.

There, I said it. I got the politically incorrect thesis off my chest.

The article then trots out the latest "It" girl for traditional womanhood: Anne-Marie Slaughter, who famously gave up her high-profile State Department job to spend more time with her sons. (Remember Slaughter's article, “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All,” in The Atlantic last summer?) Never mind that Slaughter is a tenured professor at Princeton—and that she really does kind of "have it all." To young women, unfortunately, she's now the wise, nagging voice of how motherhood and high-pressure jobs don't mix, and how traditional motherhood is really morally superior.

"Slaughter legitimized the decision to turn down further career opportunities in favor of spending more time with children," writes the Princetonian author. Okay. Then she adds:

We must accept that many women—even Princeton women—do not want “it all.” As for young women who hope to have a successful career while raising children, they should hear realistic advice about the difficulty—perhaps the impossibility—of having both while minimizing the costs to either.

By this time, I'm asking myself: Is this what some young women today are thinking—that they really can't have a high-flying career and family, and that "good" girls will ultimately chose motherhood? Or is this some kind of Princeton thing? (There must be something in the water there, because the whole "opt-out" thing started with Lisa Belkin's 2003 New York Times article that looked at a bunch of Princeton women who decided to chuck their careers to stay home.)

The author of the piece suggests that Princeton should be more supportive of women who want to take the traditional wife/mother route: "Our university can—and should—do more to validate the desires of students like Molly," adding that "Princeton’s Women’s Center and Career Services are natural places for the dialogue to continue."

Huh? Last time I checked, there was no shortage of jobs for women in the housewife sector. Do institutions of higher learning really need to devote more resources to help women ease into those roles? 

Now, before all you traditionalists out there start sending me angry emails, let me say that I'm not antimotherhood (and, believe it or not, I have kids!). What I find sad and depressing is that these bright young women seem to be limiting themselves so early on. Why not be idealistic and think you can have it all, at least at the starting gate? Why not dream big when you are young?

Believe me, real life will catch up with everyone soon enough.


Related posts: Harvard Law Women Opt Out, Really, You Don't Want to Stay Home.

Do you have topics you'd like to discuss or tips to share? Email chief blogger Vivia Chen at vchen@alm.com. 

 Follow The Careerist on Twitter: twitter.com/lawcareerist


Photo: Betty White as the Happy Homemaker on Mary Tyler Moore show.


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The author is simply engaging in lazy writing, as it is tempting for journalists to do - using cliched ideas and phrases. That's too bad, as it indicates a lack of critical thinking She's also young, which doesn't necessarily indicate a lack of maturity, but in this case is reflected in her inexperienced views.

I think that young women are having this dialogue because it is a legitimate conversation. It acknowledges that life contains many components and family is a huge part of it. That being said, I tend to agree that deciding to be a homemaker at 21 with a Princeton education seems a bit like deciding to take a trip in time machine. We shouldn't ridicule young women like Molly. Instead we should support them and get them to think about all of their interests including motherhood. She may be afraid that she will wind up 40 with a great career but unable to have children. They should continue to have the conversation and we should listen. Perhaps in the end she will get a great job, marry her sweetheart, have those children and live happily ever after. (Even in this pragmatic world there should be room for fairytales...)

Might it be the the reason Molly is whispering is not to avoid judgment by the sisterhood, but so the Ivy-league educated "college boyfriends" don't hear her? Economic reality and social equality (not necessarily feminism) have molded the views of most men as well. How many young male 20-somethings (likely raised by working mothers) are interested in marrying early to a woman who has no aspirations but to stay home and "keep" house? It puts a tremendous burden on the man to be the sole source of any possible breadwinning, and it is a quantitatively different burden than it was two generations ago. Plus, the idea of missing out on a worldly, skilled and intellectually equal life partner doesn't seem like much of a bargain for college boyfriend, either. How many women would sign up for the reverse, where she was expected to do support the family single-handedly, while her unskilled hubby stayed home and nested with no prospects of a future career? Not many people want that division of labor anymore, and I'm sure Molly knows it.

Right on, Vivia! Let those stay-at-home-mom wannabees give up their spaces at Princeton and make room for young women like my daughter, who would love a Princeton education, and, would put it to good use. Maybe you can't "have it all," but you can have some of everything.

Having a job outside the home is not a choice; it is a necessity. There is no job security in being a "homemaker" (for either men or women). Once the marriage ends, it is very difficult for the homemaker to enter the workforce or find another spouse (that will provide the same level of financial support). If being a homemaker was a good choice, more men would be doing it.

Molly and Margaret are young, and really don't yet have any idea how complicated it all is. The problems of when to have kids, who should raise them, how to move ahead in your career at the same time are real problems. Molly and Margaret just don't yet understand that staying at home and raising kids straight out of college is not a good long term solution to those problems, because it derails your career prospects later. And they are going to want careers later because they are going to want and need to make money because it isn't smart to rely on one's spouse for that because, among other things, spouses can die or divorce you. On the other hand, delaying having kids until your career is established isn't great either, and leaving your kids at home with a nanny is certainly not ideal. Don't blame Anne Marie Slaughter for Molly and Margaret's confusion. There is no perfect solution to this problem, and I think that's what Anne Marie's article said.
BTW, I went to Princeton and was in the same class as Anne Marie. I went to law school, practiced law for 10 years then had kids, stayed home with them for 7 years and then went back to work. Not a perfect solution in that it hurt my career to leave for 7 years, and in an ideal world I would have preferred to have kids in my twenties when I was younger and stronger.

In this competitive world, more and more is required just to "make it" and "keep it". If women come to decide they don't want "it", I think it's ok if they step off that path. It's a shame that organizations and men/male culture/hierarchy still make it so difficult for women to be successful that taking this radically different , and often more rewarding, path is seen as the wiser choice.

Feminism is about choice, and whether that choice is a career inside or outside the home shouldn't matter. The point here is that this young woman doesn't feel that she has a choice. That is where feminism has failed us.

To take these concepts one step further, isn't part of "feminism" being able to make these choices and freely decide how to navigate real life?

It seems like time to pay attention to “The Bostonians” by Henry James. Self-fulfillment and marital love are presented as choices; both are impossible in the same life. Mated love wins. When seen as choices, I understand that choice.
I also am reminded of Barbara McClintock, the recipient of the 1983 Nobel Prize in Medicine. Ms. McClintock’s stunning autobiography, “A Feeling for the Organism”, describes her battles, over decades, with the scientific establishment, read male. Her ideas about genetics were challenging, especially from a woman. Dr. McClintock work and lived for years in Cold Spring Harbor, effectively a corner of the scientific world. She chose to be single and lived a happy life. The world caught up with her.
And finally, it is partially a Princeton thing. Just think about the people you know. With people, there are few axioms, but many patterns. (Dr. McClintock saw and studied some of them.)

Real life does catch up to all of us and would we not regret what we've done had we not chosen for ourselves what we love. This is not limiting, it's empowering.

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The Careerist takes an inside look at how lawyers shape their careers and manage their lives. The blog aims to dissect developments in the profession, provide useful information and advice, and give lawyers a platform to voice their views. The goal is to provide a fresh, provocative take on the state of lawyering.

About Vivia Chen

Vivia Chen

Vivia Chen, The Careerist's chief blogger, has been covering the business and culture of law firms for a decade. A former corporate lawyer, Chen is fascinated by those who thrive (as well as those who don't) in the legal profession. Her take: Success in the law (and life) doesn't always travel a linear path. If you have topics you'd like to discuss or information to share, contact her: VChen@alm.com

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