Saturday, August 24, 2013

-----, M.St., Mom.

A month ago I officially graduated from the University of Cambridge with a master's degree.


Two days after returning from England we drove away from our home in Arizona for the last time, on our way to Utah where my husband was starting his new job. My days have been relatively idle since then, as I putter away in a house that is not mine, trying to figure out how to define myself in this new stage of life. Madelyn is mobile and mischievous, getting into potted plants, climbing stairs without being able to come back down, rolling all the toilet paper off the roll (again and again), playing the "take it out" game whenever she finds a box or a bag full of small items. So I spend my days following her around the house, trying to keep her safe and out of trouble, trying to figure out how to concede her very active need to learn about her world and still teach her boundaries. I suppose it should be activity enough for a new full-time stay-at-home mom. But I find myself watching the clock all day long. I wake up late because there's no reason to wake up early. I don't know how to measure my days as "successful" anymore. I kind of feel like I'm on an extended Christmas vacation, which is great in its own way, but in my relative inactivity I'm losing motivation to do even simple things, like go to the store or write a blog post. I'm in some sort of nebulous stage of life.

My wheels started turning the other day when I read a powerful and much-needed article. Many of you have probably seen it by now; it's making the social network rounds. But even as I was reading it I knew I wanted to bring it here - to my own blog - so that I could comment on it. It would help me sort out my own thoughts, I realized. It might even help me through this hazy time while I seek a new self-definition. The article is called "O, Alma Mater" and it was written by Anne-Marie Maginnis for Verily magazine. You can find it by clicking here.

The article is something that I wish I had written - I could have written it, since her experiences parallel mine almost exactly. Maginnis is a Princeton University graduate who has chosen to stay at home full-time and raise her two daughters. She starts by describing her university alumni survey. A few months ago I took the same survey from Cambridge and had the exact same experience. There was no place for me to account for Madelyn, for my time at home with her, for my current choice to put motherhood over a career. I wanted to feel proud of myself; I wanted Cambridge to feel proud of their graduate, but the survey didn't allow for either of those things. Maginnis described the survey experience this way:
As I sent off the survey and sat back, I felt suddenly disappointed—and disappointing. According to the survey, which was in fact comprehensive and sensitive to a broad range of life choices, I was either dead or sitting in a zombie-like stupor in front of the TV, stuffing my face with Cheetos.
Sadly, sometimes I wonder if I DO sit in a zombie-like stupor half the time. It's easy to look around and feel like I'm somehow living beneath my capacities. I spent last night with one of my closest friends (and flatmates from Cambridge) before she heads to Vancouver to start her PhD program. Most of my friends from Cambridge are on the same path - at Berkeley, Columbia, Cambridge. Even my amazing and extraordinarily capable Jewish friend with five adorable children of her own has found time to squeeze in a PhD program in Israel. Sometimes I can't help but ask myself, "Is it my time yet? Could I be doing that now too?"

And yet I know I don't actually want a PhD right now. My whole life I told people that when I grew up I wanted to be a mom. True, my doctors and teachers and peers usually looked at me strangely when I said that, so around 8th grade (when I really started to love school and realize that I could become seriously passionate about what I was learning) I started adding things like, "but anthropology really interests me too." I didn't know what making a career in anthropology reqiured, though; the first thing I wanted was to be a mom.

I was a senior in high school when I first found out what the world really felt about my dream. I was in an AP Biology class, soon to graduate as the valedictorian of my high school. The girl in the desk next to me asked me what I was going to do after college. I said what I always said - "stay at home with my children" - and I received the most explosive response I had ever gotten: "You're going to waste all your brains, when you could take what you have and make a real impact on the world??" She wasn't just incredulous, she was genuinely offended. She was offended on behalf of her gender. She was ready to rise up and show the world how powerful females can be, but here was this awful girl, top of her class, who was going to legitimize all the horrible stereotypes and waste her talents to stay at home. That was what she said to me, that was what she meant, that was how she felt.

Maginnis wrote her article in response to similar woman-power sentiments published in the UK:
Any Harvard Law School degree obtained by a woman who then chooses not to use it in any sort of professional capacity throughout most of her life is a wasted opportunity. That degree could have gone to a woman who does want to spend her entire life using it to advance the cause of women—or others in need of advancement—not simply advancing the lives of her own family at home, which is a noble cause, but not one requiring an elite degree.
To be fair, I understand this writer's point about limited slots for talented students, but my guess is that she would have said something similar about women graduating from Cambridge master's programs, so that's as far as I will concede her point. Maginnis writes a thorough and, like I've already said, powerful rebuttal. She wrote what I needed to read right now, while I'm trying to figure out what it means to be a stay-at-home mom and while I grapple with the part of me that finally did start formulating dim plans for advanced degrees and teaching or community careers (I assume that one day I will write a different post about co-working and parenting, since I dabbled in that for a while, but that is an entry that still requires much pre-production pondering).

Let me quote to you some of my favorite parts of Maginnis’s article:
This [woman-power] perspective completely disregards the inherent worthiness of educating a human mind to know the world, to think independently, to judge accurately, and to live confidently. For these reasons alone, an elite education should be available to the best and brightest minds. 

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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. This is a priceless preparation for a lifetime of learning. This gift is the transmission of culture.

****
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.

(That is where I cried. Read it again, will you? It’s that good).

I vividly remember the conversation David and I had when we were trying to decide what I should do next: advanced degree or children. Wow, that was a weighty conversation! It was late evening, after the sun had gone down, and we had settled onto a patch of public lawn. I don’t remember what we said, necessarily, but I do remember feeling strongly that my getting a master’s degree would bless my future family. David has also had strong feelings since then that, somehow, my degree would be meaningful for our children. We can’t see how yet, but I love Maginnis’s testimony from her own vision and experiences.

I also loved that Maginnis pointed out that stay-at-home mothers have a unique opportunity to serve in their communities. She argues - probably rightfully - that working mothers simply don't have time to make large volunteer contributions. One of the things I have wanted to do ever since I returned from Cambridge is to take a larger part in my community by participating in a community orchestra or band or by taking an active role in my local Inter-Religious Relations society. I LOVED participating in Cambridge Inter-Religious Relations events, such as Inter-Faith Scriptural Reasoning activities and Lunch-and-Learns with various religious communities. With my degree, I am qualified to be able to establish, organize, direct, or intelligently contribute to such Inter-Faith activities. There is a lot of work to be done there. 

I have two disclaimers before I close. The first is that I may actually get that PhD one day, and I would still love to teach and use my degree in more traditional ways if those doors feel right. But this post isn't about that - it's about what "mom" means to me right now. The second is that I don't think you have to have an advanced degree to be a fantastic mom. I can name many, many inspired mothers who never went to an Ivy League school and many who never graduated college. I guess my point is: I am a mom with an advanced degree. I have looked forward my entire life to being a stay-at-home mom but right now I need to figure out how that fits in. This stage of life overwhelms me. I don't know how to feel fully fulfilled in it yet. I am grateful to people like Anne-Marie Maginnis who have faith that the work of motherhood is vital, and who are confident that motherhood is literally one of the most important contributions an educated woman can make.