By Anne-Marie Maginnis
It all started one quiet Tuesday morning. I’d dropped my daughter off at preschool, and the baby was sleeping. The dishes washed, I settled down with a cup of coffee to check my email. Upon seeing a Princeton Alumni Survey in my inbox, I felt the warm glow of affection that always flows over me when I see the name of my university. Since I can’t donate large sums of money to Princeton, I thought, the least I can do is fill out the survey.
Soon I was clicking my way through questions about whether I’d published any articles in journals (no), participated in any political campaigns (no), gotten a graduate degree (no), spent time traveling (no). By this time, my chipper spirit was beginning to dampen, but I pressed on. Donated time to service (no), started my own business (no), current salary range ($0). Only one question on the whole survey applied to me: Do you have children? (Yes).
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.
I knew my life as a stay-at-home mom was incredibly demanding, creative, and meaningful—not a narrow niche occupation, but a very real option for half of every class graduating from Princeton. And yet, my path was not even on this survey’s radar as a life choice. How was this possible?
As it turns out, a sizeable debate is raging regarding the growing numbers of Ivy League graduates choosing to stay home and raise their children. Several recent articles have questioned the value of this choice. One such thought-provoking piece was written by Kelly Goff of the U.K. Guardian, entitled “Female Ivy League Graduates Have a Duty to Stay in the Workforce.” In it she argues,
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.
This type of thinking is regressive for women for many reasons. First, while I agree that “to whom much is given, much is expected in return,” to state that “advancing the lives of her own family at home . . . does not require an elite degree” completely overlooks the value of that degree to the woman herself.
If a woman at home doesn’t need an elite degree, as Goff argues, one wonders, does she need a college degree? A high-school degree? At what point is a woman not worth educating at all?
This 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. To concede Goff’s point would be to reverse hundreds of years of progress in women’s rights.
Second, at the purely pragmatic level, insisting that elite degrees are pointless for women who want to stay home with their children overlooks the fact that many stay-at-home mothers resume their careers after their children are in school. In fact, this may be a more appealing solution than the insane juggling act of work and family that is normal life for many working mothers.
Princeton professor Anne-Marie Slaughter touched on this issue in last year’s much discussed Atlantic article, “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All.” Slaughter explains how she was forced to re-examine her long-held belief that women can do it all—in other words, reach the top of any professional field without sacrificing their role as a committed parent. When she took a sabbatical to spend two years in her dream job in the Obama administration, she experienced for the first time what it was to work outside the relatively flexible schedule of a university professor:
The minute I found myself in a job that is typical for the vast majority of working women (and men), working long hours on someone else’s schedule, I could no longer be both the parent and the professional I wanted to be. . . . I realized what should have perhaps been obvious: Having it all, at least for me, depended almost entirely on what type of job I had. The flip side is the harder truth: Having it all was not possible in many types of jobs, including high government office—at least not for very long.
Slaughter admits that there is no easy solution. Addressing mothers who choose to stay at home before embarking on a career, she points out that they do so at a cost. They give up momentum and forgo building a résumé optimal for competing in the workforce when they do re-enter it. Nonetheless, it appears that a growing number of women are choosing to sacrifice maximum career potential in order to stay home with their families. This does not mean they will never re-enter the workforce, but these women see something of equal or greater value in staying home to raise their children.
Third, it is simplistic to assume that mothers who spend part of their lives outside the workforce are not using their elite degrees in the service of society. These women contribute in myriad ways: fundraising, mentoring, volunteering, speaking, writing. And while it may appear that anyone can do these things, it is far more difficult for a working mother to add these into an already packed schedule than it is for a stay-at-home mother.
I worked full time after my first child was born, at a job I loved, with great hours, and with a dream child-care situation. Nonetheless, I found myself grocery shopping at ten o’clock at night, folding laundry while catching up with my child while making dinner. It is plain fact that juggling a full-time job, family, and the necessities of daily life leaves little time for a working mother to take on additional service and cultural activities. This is not a criticism, just a realistic analysis that working mothers and stay-at-home mothers serve their communities in different ways.
Lastly, 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.
What they are giving is time. Stay-at home mothers can use their own intellectual and personal formation to transform quantity time into quality time, and thereby greatly enrich their children’s lives.
For example, 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 its sense of history and appreciation for craft. We’ve read the original translation of Pinocchio, all 347 pages of it, with its masterful appreciation for human nature and the struggle to improve. As my daughter is only four, I anticipated that she would grasp the plot, but to my surprise she picked up deeper elements in the stories than I ever would have imagined.
And that’s the thing. 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. But before I ever went to Princeton, my love for reading was ignited by my own mother. She read to us every night. Once I could read for myself, I devoured a book a day for years—which helped when I took the SATs and earned a perfect verbal score, one of my stronger selling points when I applied to Princeton. Now I am repeating that cycle with my own daughter.
Another example is 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 learned it from her stay-at-home mother, a graduate of Radcliffe.
My point is, 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.
Having received the wonderful gift of an elite education, I didn’t leave it behind. I carry it with me in who I am today. It enriches my life in ways that no salary can measure. It is worthwhile in a way no measure of productivity is needed to justify. Passing on this education to my daughter, a human being whose worth I know intimately, I see even more clearly that broadening a girl’s mind, filling it with beauty, is never, to quote Goff, “a wasted opportunity.”
We call the schools from which we graduate “alma mater,” nourishing mother, and I have always been grateful to Princeton for being just that. Now that I am a mother myself, however, and as I nourish the bodies and minds of my own children, I find yet deeper meaning in those words.