“Suzanne” posted a thoughtful response to last week’s column, objecting to my use of the term “victim bashing” to describe ridicule of women whose traditional career-related choices have backfired. I don’t want to put words into Suzanne’s mouth, but the argument, as I understand it, is that referring to such women as victims of their upbringing and our shared culture denies them agency and competence to make their own choices, and thus status as full human beings.
I have heard similar arguments made in regard to sex workers. There is a long history of middle-class reformers descending on “fallen women” and attempting to turn them toward more respectable, though less lucrative vocations without any consideration of the realities of these women’s lives or their own preferences. One response to this intrusion is to declare sex workers free, autonomous agents who would be fine if only the reformers would butt out.
Of course it is important to respect the dignity and agency of every human being. However, I think it’s also necessary to acknowledge that a choice between prostitution and indentured servitude, sweatshop work, or starvation is not much of a free choice, and framing it that way could have the unintended effect of shutting down discussion of economic and cultural forces that leave certain women with such limited options.
I am not equating marriage with prostitution, just using this example to illustrate ways that agency can be narrowed however strong or competent the individual may be to make rational choices.
I am also not speaking from the vantage point of someone who did everything right.
As recorded here earlier, I defended my dissertation two weeks before my son’s due date. I was working at a mental health clinic at the time. My plan was to return to work after three months’ maternity leave. My position had to be altered somewhat, due to regulations governing my new Ph.D. status, for reasons too boring and complex to go into here, but I intended to do basically the same work until I was fully licensed. Then I would go on to increasingly more responsible, interesting, and lucrative positions. We had engaged a highly recommended babysitter. We were all set.
But during those three months (okay, if I’m honest, on day one), everything shifted. I found the thought of being separated from my son unbearable. This was partly because Ben was enchanting, of course, and partly because the weight of his complete vulnerability and dependence sunk in, in a way it hadn’t when his presence was just theoretical. I was haunted by the idea that nobody would care for or attend to him the way I could, which led to the fear that something too horrible to contemplate would happen if I left him with Strangers. [The babysitter was actually perfectly nice, but she had her own set of requirements, which didn’t jibe with my hours, especially when I was dealing with a client emergency and couldn’t walk away at exactly quitting time. The daycare we could afford was not clean and didn’t seem safe.]
But another part had to do with cultural expectations, both current and retroactive from my childhood. I was brought up in a world where mommies stayed home and daddies went out to work. The rare working mother was an object of pity, and if she was married her husband was often held in contempt for not being “man enough” to support the family. This image of the nuclear family was reinforced in the popular films and TV shows of the time. I did not subscribe to this model in any way—but on some unacknowledged level, this arrangement felt “normal” to me, as it did to my otherwise enlightened husband. We hadn’t planned for me to put my career on hold to care for Ben while he toiled in an office. In fact, part of our long-term plan was for me to take over the role of major breadwinner while he kicked back a bit, having overextended himself in a job he didn’t particularly like while I completed graduate school and an internship.
But caring for an infant exhausted us. Ben was a sweet-tempered and witty baby, but he never slept for more than 90 minutes at a time. And although I pumped, so that my husband could feed him, Ben made his dissatisfaction with bottle feeding clear, so I was pretty much awake for at least an hour out of every three. Even when he slept, I worried that he wasn’t breathing right, or that he was too cold or too hot, or — well, you get the picture. I essentially didn’t sleep at all, and my husband didn’t fare much better, with all the activity.
When people are exhausted, they regress. They fall back on roles and beliefs that make them feel safe, that reassure them that the world is an orderly and dependable place. In our case, without meaning to or even really noticing it, we returned to the “Father Knows Best” scenario of our childhoods.
My husband began accepting any and every overtime assignment, in a panic that we would not be able to provide for Ben’s every need. I returned to work to find that my employers had shafted me in the design of my new, regulation-compliant position, believing that I had no choice but to comply, at least until I was licensed. In reality, they were basically right. What I probably should have done was allow myself to be exploited for a year or two in return for the supervised hours I needed to sit for the licensing exam. After that I would have had better choices. But, in my depleted and love-besotted state, this was exactly the push I needed to throw it all over — temporarily — and stay home with my beloved baby, who needed me. I spent the next two months terminating with clients and facilitating their transfer to new therapists. Then I spent the next three years pretending to myself that I was going back to work soon.
I wasn’t idle during that time, of course. I threw myself into my son’s daily routine. I was thrilled to be present when he took his first steps, said his first words, and made countless other, less dramatic advances. We developed a near-psychic bond that continues into his fifteenth year. I can’t say I regret a moment spent with him.
And yet, that time together came at a cost. My husband had to work twice as hard, and missed some of the important milestones it would have been nice to share. And the field moved on without me. The teachers and supervisors who were prepared to foster my career with introductions and recommendations began focusing on the next set of promising graduates. I lost touch with my mentors and peers. New techniques came into vogue; I didn’t keep up. When I finally pulled myself back into the arena, I was at a huge disadvantage.
And it didn’t end there. When I returned to work, and my son went to full-time preschool and then regular school, I was the one expected to show up for juice parties; to pick him up when he was sick; to take time off to meet with teachers when there was a problem or to bring him for medical and dental check-ups and, later, to the orthodontist; and to figure out what to do with him on school vacations and holidays. My husband did what he could, but his employers, like mine, were even less tolerant of a father’s need for time off to care for a child than they were of a mother’s (which is not saying a lot). Besides, I was the one who got the calls. Every time.
I didn’t, and don’t, resent this. I love him more than air, and he deserves more time and attention than I have been able to give him, not less. But every single one of those absences and distracted phone calls counted against me. I was expected to be the first responder, always, yet considered less serious and dedicated for doing so.
I’m lucky. Through a series of unpredictable circumstances, I have fallen into a career I love and which works for me, and for our family. But there was a long period when, if my husband had been a different sort of person, I could have been one of those wives in the article. Yes, I’m a responsible adult, and yes, I made choices. Chances are, I’d make the same ones again, given my background and the circumstances. But do I wish the range of choices had been broader, my background more egalitarian, and the circumstances more supportive of both motherhood and career? Of course. That’s all I’m saying.