At a recent meeting at our charter school, Abby was admiring the keyboard skin on our ES’s* laptop.
Abby has long had a fascination with technology. (Her running birthday request for the last three years has been a phone, and she was legitimately disappointed not to receive one when she turned five.) The skin was pretty pink, shiny and bright. What more could a girl ask for?
“Mama,” she said. “When I’m big enough to have my own computer, maybe you could buy one of these for me.”
Our ES laughed. “You’ll probably have your own job, then,” she said, “and you can buy one for yourself.”
Without missing a beat, Abby shook her head. “Nah. I’m not gonna have a job. I’ll just get money from my husband.”
*For those not up on California charter school lingo: ES=Education Supervisor, a.k.a. a teacher who supports homeschool families and ensures they’re meeting state requirements.
I’m in the middle of What About the Baby?: Some Thoughts on the Art of Fiction, by Alice McDermott. In an essay titled “Advice from Me to Me,” she remembers that, in the early days of her career, she wanted to “make the point that women can be more than wives and mothers.”
Alice McDermott came of age in the sixties and seventies, so I get what she means by those words, at least, as much as I can understand it without having lived through it myself. I know she’s speaking of agency, of choice, of opportunity, and not necessarily assigning comparative values to the different things women might do. I’m grateful for the work that has been done, for the opportunities I’ve had that I wouldn’t have had if I’d been born at a different time.
Still, I had to sit with that sentence awhile.
If adding a career makes a woman “more,” does giving one up somehow make her less?
Abby’s comment caught me off guard.
There was a moment there, sitting in the school, when I forgot that this second daughter of mine is the same one who tells me she wants to simultaneously be a doctor and a veterinarian and a mom and a dancer in the Nutcracker when she grows up, and I wondered what it is I’ve taught her, exactly. What have I modeled for her?
“Did you know I worked before you kids were born?” I asked. “I went to work every day, just like Daddy does now.”
“Your mom worked hard!” our ES added. “She had to work hard in school and at her job.”
It was Katie, though, who chimed in with what I maybe should have said, instead.
“You still work hard, Mom,” she said. “You work hard teaching and taking care of us.”
What am I teaching my kids? What am I modeling for them?
I want to teach them that work is good, that we were made to create and to labor and to do productive things for ourselves, for society, for the Kingdom of God. I want to instill in them the idea that they have specific gifts and talents, that they can and should pursue the things that interest them, that they have so much to offer to this world. I want them to know there are many good things they can choose to do. I want them to see the multitude of roles women play in their lives–accountants, nurses, teachers, doctors, engineers, musicians, writers, missionaries, single and married, with and without kids–and to be inspired and encouraged by them.
That’s what I want. Am I doing it?
“If somebody asked you what I do all day,” I asked the girls last night, curious, “what would you tell them?”
“You nurse Emmeline. And you change her diapers. And you help Miles use the potty.” She paused, and Abby jumped in. “And you help us, too. You teach us and help me with reading and stuff.” Katie nodded in agreement. “Yeah. You help us with school.”
She paused, thinking.
“Oh. And sometimes, during quiet time, you write.”
We women are all, of course, “more than” wives and mothers. Every one of us.
We are sisters and daughters and friends and community members. We are children of God. We are humans. Whether we command a large salary or none at all, whether we have a career outside of the home or not, we have an influence in the world. Our work matters.
Still, if I’m not careful, I can believe the lie that there’s a tension between what I want to teach my kids and what I live out in my own life.
I live the life of a parent who is home with her kids, who, in this stage of life, earns very little income of her own. My daily work is to cook and to clean and to care for the kids. We chose this, Jonathan and I together, because we believe it’s what works best for our family (and because we have the means and ability to do so, which isn’t true for everyone).
But also? I stay home because this is what I want to do. This is good and productive and creative work, where I’m using my gifts and talents, where I’m pursuing the things that interest me.
There are many good things I can choose to do with my life, and I am doing one of them.
Scratch that. I’m doing many of them, because we are, none of us, defined by a single role, a single thing we do.
That’s what I’m teaching my kids.