Her Bad Mother

Thursday, April 20, 2006

Bland Ambition, Part I

WARNING: another long, confused, confessional ramble ahead. It is a Classic Bad Mother rumination complete with big, possibly made-up, words and gratuitous baby photos. Provoked, variously, by mom101's forceful statement on feminism, GGC's forceful statement on masculism, Sweet Juniper's sweet love story, and Irina Derevko's claim, during last night's episode of Alias, that one cannot be both a successful spy and a successful mother. (Oh, God, no, say it isn't true! My one clear ambition, shattered!) Oh, and Blogher decision-making. Proceed with caution.

When I was nearing the end of my undergraduate degree, I met with one of my professors to discuss the decisions that I would be making about graduate school. The specific issue under discussion that day was a scholarship to Cambridge University. I told my professor, a woman, that I was not sure that I would seriously consider going overseas to Cambridge. I had just gotten married, and had my husband's future to consider as well as my own. He had just made the frightening leap from a soul-destroying career in business to the slightly less soul-destroying world of film and television, and was just beginning to make things work for himself in the Canadian film industry. Leaving Canada - or rather, relocating ourselves to any place where cameras and klieg lights are not regular features of the landscape - would set him back considerably. He would likely become an unemployed academic widower, and I did not want that.

What I didn't say to her that day, couldn't say to her that day, was that I simply didn't want a doctoral degree from Cambridge badly enough to risk compromising my husband's livelihood and/or happiness. He had made it clear that he would happily go wherever I wanted to go. But if I wasn't 110% committed to going (and I wasn't; far from it) was it really fair to ask him to give up what he had been working so hard for so that I could dapple in academia and decide if it was what really made me happy?

But I didn't say this to Ms. Professor. I didn't want to reveal any ambivalence about what everyone was insisting would be an academically star-blazing future. I said: 'Going to Cambridge would be very challenging for my husband.'

Oh, the scorn that was heaped upon me.

That professor - who I did and still do have enormous respect for as an academic - launched into a passionate speech about the tyranny of men over women and the institutionalization of this tyranny in marriage and the responsibility of young women like myself to demand more from the world and to not let ourselves be tyrannized by men and to rage, rage against any constraints that men might impose upon us. And then she said: 'I thought more of you. I am very, very disappointed that you would let your husband hold you back.'

Ouch. I thinked that I actually recoiled in my seat. I know that I turned beet-red, shamed.

But that femino-defensive ass-kicking didn't sway me. I didn't go to Cambridge. Nor did I go to any other World Famous Aren't We Special University that was located off the my-marital-happiness track. I opted for a slightly-less-famous-but-respected-in-my-field graduate program, in a department that was home to a number of renowned political philosophers that I yearned to study with, in a big city with a thriving film industry.

And my husband and I have been very, very happy here, both of us. I loved the program, and my teachers, and now they let me teach here. And Husband's career has thrived here and he really enjoys himself. We're happy as individuals, we're happy as a couple, and, now, since the arrival of WonderBaby, we're happy as a family. And that's what matters. Right?

My old professor, when I see her at conferences, still shakes her head at me over the fact that I opted to not go the World Famous U route. As does anybody who is not in my field, including my mother, who, although she respects and undertands my decisions, still wishes that she could march around wearing a 'My Kid Went to Harvard' t-shirt (because the 'My Kid Studied With Thomas Pangle' t-shirt means nothing to anybody who doesn't follow political philosophy or obsess over Straussian conspiracy theories.) And if I ever say that my husband's interests were a factor in those decisions, I can usually expect praise or scorn about my flouting of feminist principles, depending upon whether the listener hates or loves feminism.

I hate both of these reactions. I hate them because they imply that my decisions were political. Maybe they were, in the broader scheme of things: I am, end of the day, just one more woman who may have sacrificed somebody's definition of success in order to keep a man happy. But I was also keeping me happy, and, as it happens, my husband's happiness is bound up in my own and mine in his. I don't think that I compromise my sex, nor my feminist bona fides, by admitting that.

And I hate those reactions because they raise questions that I don't like: am I disgrace to my sex for factoring my husband's happiness so heavily into my decision-making? Am I a disgrace to feminism? I know that, for me at least, the answers to those questions are no, and no. But I hate that the questions are even there, lurking in the background. And I hate that it is even open to question whether considerations concerning my husband's happiness are relevant to my own, never mind whether such considerations amount to a sort of oppression.

I don't blame feminism for this; quite the contrary. I'm grateful that I live in a society in which I have choices, in which my happiness and fulfilment counts as much as my husband's. That women are in a position to debate questions concerning the ways and means to their happiness is tremendously important; that I am discomfited by such questions does not mean that they should not be asked.

But it remains that I am uncomfortable. And it remains that I am sometimes afraid to admit to my choices, let alone to celebrate them. And - here's the rub - in doing so, I think, I back myself into the very corner that I rail against. Yesterday I had a meeting with The Person Who Is Guiding My Career (a man!) to discuss what I would teach next year, and he wondered aloud about finding me a job that would better the arc of my career trajectory. Tenure-track. Well-paid. I hemmed and hawed and hedged. I said, for the second time in my life, this time as I bounced WonderBaby on my lap: 'The Husband's career limits my options.'

No hellfire and brimstone this time. TPWIGMC just nodded. But I could tell that he was thinking that such limitations might cost me a really successful career.

I don't have a point to make here about the difference between a man's and a woman's reactions to a woman stating that her husband's interests need to be considered in any career choice that she might make; I don't think that there's a point worth making. What I'm interested in is the truth, semi-truth or falsity of my statement and the implications of this for my discomfort around possible challenges to my choices. The statement was true, as it was the first time that I said it. But what is also true - but what remained unsaid - is the fact that I'm ambivalent about my professional future. I might - gasp - lack ambition.

I'm not 100% certain that I want to spend the rest of my life teaching, however much I might enjoy it. And now that WonderBaby is here, I'm not sure that I want to do much of anything at all beyond raising her (and writing. But just about WonderBaby? This is a whole other post.) But I can't bring myself to fully admit that, let alone celebrate it. So I hide behind certain exigencies of the household and my desire to secure my husband's happiness. All to avoid being identified as an Unambitious Woman, and so as some powerless throwback to a darker, pre-feminist time. The irony being - you've caught this already, haven't you? - that in so hiding I have invited that identity anyway.

Bad Mother, meet Traditionalist Rock. And over here, to your left, Feminist Hard Place.

What I want to know is, why can't I wholeheartedly claim my version of that identity - the fem-friendly, empowered mother who exercise her choice to devote her emotional, creative and intellectual energies to her family. Why am I still sheepish about it? Writing in this space is bringing me closer to understanding, and embracing. But I have miles to go, I think.

Tomorrow, or whenever WonderBaby decides to nap: Bland Ambition, Part II. Happiness as a worthy ambition, whether mothers can be philosophers, taking my husband's name, and - having just seen Kristen's post on sacrificial motherhood - whether I am a sacrificial mother. In 350 words or less!

...love's function is to fabricate unknownness...

Or: Look! Over there! Bulbous-headed Lilliputians!


Blogger gingajoy said...

I so hear you on this one, as I am going through a similar thing myself (except without the cambridge scholarship part--sadly!). i am still teaching at the place I graduated from, and in a job that is reasonably stable, enjoyable, and stress-free. having defended last year, it's time to think about that career trajectory and the tenure track and it similarly makes me shudder. i too lack ambition, or, at least, I am thinking "do i really CARE as much as some of these other people? do I want that kind of pressure?" i don't think i do--although i worry on my part that my ambivalence is borne of fear. If I don;t go for it, then I won;t fail right? (and I am in English--so options are shitty).

So my husband might be getting a job elsewhere, and I am saying to him "if you get it, we GO. I will find something, don't worry.." in some way it's easier to go with the flow, and then I normally land on my feet. Yes, I am being a bit sacrificial, but my husband deserves this. And I know if it was the other way around, he would be behind me. But I also know my committee members are going to give me a very hard time. They already consider that I have "given up..."

anyway, sorry to be convoluted! Great post, and exciting to read someone who is in a similar quagmuire to me. What reading this reassures me is that there is no way we can rate ourselves as lacking in *anything!!!*

3:14 PM  
Blogger chichimama said...

I gave up my career because hubby has a high powered work til midnight travel three weeks out of four job, and two careers just wouldn't fly. And once we added up the cost of childcare, we would have actually lost money with me working as he couldn't fill in at all in the babysitting department.

Does it make me bitter? Sometimes. Do I dream of going back? Frequently? Do I think I made the right decision? Most of the time. I think if I had gone back my research would have consumed me again, my children would have suffered and my marriage would probably be over.

That being said, I am very very lothe to tell anyone what I gave up and why because I get the looks of "You gave up what? You were WHERE??? But why???"

That's the catch 22 of the whole thing. If you give up your career you get slammed by one set of folks, and if you don't you get slammed by the other.

It sounds to me like you ahve struck a great balance for you and your family, and that's what counts.

3:42 PM  
Blogger kittenpie said...

Well, see the fact is that as a woman in modern times with an enlightened husband you do have those choices - and that's a great thing. And as I see it, that's the point of feminism. Comparing our status to men's, as many feminists do, not all men are ambitious either. There's a range. Comparing relationship dynamics, even if you happened to be married to a woman, would you not also expect to be considerate and respectful of how your choice would affect BOTH of you? I would. Because as I see it, in a couple, it's not that it's NOT about you, but it's not ALL about you, either. It's also about your coupledom.

4:05 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I gave up my career to follow my husband's dream. That has taken us across Canada and now to California. We discussed this decision at length, we weighed out our options and talked about both our dreams...In the end he wanted his career more than I wanted mine. I wanted to be a stay at home mom since we were engaged, somehow my husband's believe in me, empowered me to be a POWERFUL stay at home mom. Although this is the opposite to some degree that you experienced I too have to justify my decision to people and although not anymore, there were times I was embarrassed. It sounds like you have struck a balance and your marriage is a partnership. That is what really matters!

4:07 PM  
Blogger Baby in the City said...

Two general thoughts...

1) Do you really believe that EVERYONE who pursues a tenture-tracked academic career is fulfilling the dream of a lifetime? And if they are offered and accept it, that they sign away any right to change their mind?
Every industry, career, field of discipline, etc. has their own rah-rah, aren't-you-lucky-to-be-embraced-by-us, be-grateful-you-are-one-of-the-chosen-few propaganda hooie. Don't believe the hype. Just because you don't have a fire in your belly...does that mean its not worth doing/completing? I'm not so sure. That feels a bit ADD to me. I have to say, I think the pursue-your-passion-at-all-costs is hype too. Sometimes passion doesn't come around, or it only comes for a short visit. You can spend a lot of time chasing it, accomplishing very little along the way.


2) OK, this is more specific to your situation than my thoughts above. I think you might not want to offend your colleagues and advisors by rejecting what they hold in such high regard. But again, be suspect of the hype. Maybe they don't think their career is the most important thing either - you may never know...

The way I see it, there are measures of success and happiness that differ greatly between people, especially between those with and without kids. How you measure your life is completely different that in your pre-child life (at least it has been for me). Trying to measure your success and happiness using a ruler from that previous life may well make you seem lacking in ambition, even bland (I strongly disagree), in academic circles, but that is simply because you now evaulate your life differently these days. Nothing wrong with that.

4:24 PM  
Blogger Christina said...

I think part of the problem is the push of ambition in western society. We are pushed from the very beginning to aim for bigger and better things. Whatever you're doing, you should be aiming even higher.

But I don't think that's realistic for everyone. Sure, some people won't stop until they are the CEO or University Dean, but there are some of us that are happy a little lower down the scale. To admit to others that you're happy and not seeking more for yourself is to be met with bewildered looks and pity.

In my old job, when I submitted the paperwork to become a telecommuter, I had to go to a meeting with my manager. He looked at me and asked, "Are you sure you want to do this? As a telecommuter, you won't be able to advance your career by moving in team leader or management positions."

I replied, "Yes, I understand, and I'm OK with that. I don't really have any aspirations to management. I'm happy doing what I'm doing now and nothing more."

And when Aaron and I married, we knew that we would always be compromising when it comes to career choices. He's an actor and stage combat choreographer, but I didn't want to go to NYC. I wanted to stay close to family, my job was here, and I wanted to raise our kids here.

So we're here in Columbus, where there is little for him to do except small independent theatre and some teaching of stage combat. When our kids are older, it will be easier to move away from family, and I will probably be open to moving to a larger city.

So there's my long and rambling answer. When you got married, you accepted that you would have to take your partner into consideration for major decisions. You did nothing wrong. It's OK to aim at comfortable instead of the big-time.

(Oh, and it's confirmed that I'm going to BlogHer, so I hope you'll come and liven up that shy corner!)

4:54 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Damn those lilliputians. I always miss them.


I think of Good Will Hunting when I read this. Granted he was a HE, but still, his [Robin Williams' character] choosing love, family, and happiness over perceived "greatness" was so judged but you got the point. That "greatness" and happiness is relative.

Are you less of a woman or person for factoring in your spouse's work and your daughter? Absolutely not. You can always find another job - but a kindred spirit/soulmate and child, I think not.

I sense from you that your worth is guaged by way more than your career. And I (and many others) respect you for that. The key is finding the place at which you can feel satisified (at one level or another) in all areas of your life - if that's an adjunct job at a small school, so be it.

4:59 PM  
Blogger mamatulip said...

First, and most importantly (LOL), your daughter is freakin' adorable. Seriously.

I'm all for family first. I got into almost all of the colleges and universities that I applied for, including one out of town university that I really wanted to attend. At the time, however, my mom was on the list for an organ transplant and I just couldn't leave her. I gave it some serious thought but I ended up choosing a local community college so I could be near her, and I didn't regret it for a second.

You made the decision that was best for you and your family, which is a part of who you are. I applaud that.

5:57 PM  
Blogger Bad Grandma said...

Darling Daughter a.k.a Bad Mother,
your formidable years were in a family with a mother who delighted in being a mother, who revelled in the joy of re-discovering the marvels of nature with her children, who dragged her children, carrying picket signs, to protest marches, whose greatest joy was being witness to her children's self-discovery (I also really enjoyed embarrassing you) and whose father totally supported your mother's craziness and her attempts at exploring who she might be after motherhood. Please wholeheartedly embrace your choice to devote your emotional, creative and intellectual energies to your family. Love

6:15 PM  
Blogger Sandra said...

Thanks for sharing that honest post. I can relate so completely. When I had my son I walked away from a fairly glam career with lots of perks, power and bucks ... because I wanted to. I did it also because my husband's career had less flexibility and it was more important to him. I switched directions, reevaluated my priorities and focused my creative energies on motherhood and work in the charitable sector. At a femist organization. Because, despite putting my husband and my sons needs first sometimes, I am a feminist witha capital F.

I believe so steadfastly that you can absolutely, positively claim your own version of that identity. I think that us fem-friendly, empowered mothers are blazing the way for a new brand of women. It is about exercising our choices and being brave enough to make decisions that make us and our families happy.

I am clapping loudly for you over here.

6:32 PM  
Blogger Her Bad Mother said...

Dear Bad Grandma (my feminist role model) - I love that you refer to them as my formidable years. Because, oh, they were formidable.

Christina - I think that you're exactly right that our culture of competitiveness has everything to do with this. I was going to say something about that, but figured that I needed a whole other post to do it in. (And a whole lot of references to all the recent books on how this issue bears upon motherhood.)

Urban_Mommy - I'm not saying that it's all or nothing for me. I hope that I will always teach, and I intend to always do some academic writing. But for most academics in my field - which is very competitive, there being so few jobs for quote-unquote philosophers, that is, scholars of philosophy (possibly worse than English, gingajoy!) - a career in that field is something that you do fight tooth and nail for. And, in my particular corner of political philosophy, having a fire in your belly for it is the bare minimum expected, even before talent. Philosophy isn't something that you do in your spare time, according to this school of thought. Which puts it odds with my experience of motherhood. Which means that I'll probably just continue to do my teaching sessionally (which, at the big university that I'm at, isn't a bad gig), and very part-time, while I figure this mom-thing. Which, you're right, requires different measures...

I'm so glad that so many of you understand. It was sort of a difficult thing to come out with. Many (tho' certainly not all) of the women that I admire *are* ambitious, and many of my favorite bloggers are working moms with (I think) rewarding careers that they love. And I identify hugely with those women, so it felt weird to come out with my 'other side,' my jumping-off-the-professional-woman-track side.

And... I worried that it would come off as anti-feminist, or even only ambivalently feminist. But as My Bad Mom aid above, my formidable formative years were spent immersed in politics and feminism, and I firmly believe that my freedom to wring my hands over these thing is owed to feminism.

7:05 PM  
Blogger my3sons said...

I agree with kittenpie, We would expect our husbands to consider us and our needs in their career planning, why wouldn't we offer them the same courtesy? A sign of a healthy relationship if you ask me.

I had the big downtown, suit wearing, long-houred job until that first baby. It all didn't seem so important for awhile after that...but then, gradually I'm getting back to it. Once they're all in school I'll get back to it even more. The career stuff can go on the back burner for awhile, it doesn't have to mean forever.....

Lovely picture by the water...that baby gets cuter daily.

7:25 PM  
Blogger The City Gal said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

9:13 PM  
Blogger Chicky Chicky Baby said...

I'm not going to dole out any advice because, frankly, it would be me, hiding behind my blog, bullsh*t. Instead I'm going to read between the lines... It is good to hear that a woman like yourself, big words and all, is gutsy (yes, gutsy) enough to write about her insecurities. I think that in itself makes you a powerful woman, in control of her destiny. You had the nerve to say to someone you respected that your husband meant the world to you and, subsequently, you were worried about his happiness over your own. Subconsciously, perhaps you knew that your chosen path would still be out there when you were ready for it. Life has not ended... there are many years ahead of you and many paths to follow.

(Damn, was that advice?)

9:38 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

You know...a part of me feels really dumb for not having much to add to the feminist-ish discussions taking place everywhere.

While I find them fascinating to read, I think ultimately it's something each woman has to figure out for herself. No amount of discussion or debate can address every person equally.

That said, I do think, in the larger sense, that it all comes down to choices. And just like everything else in life, your choices can and will be judged. Honestly, I try to tune out all the other voices and listen closely to my own.

Some ambivalence is to be expected but you made choices that worked best for you, your marriage and your family.You appear to be happy with your life and I think that's everything.

Great post!

10:09 PM  
Blogger Baby in the City said...

I can't quite put my finger on it, but it just doesn't seem to describe you correctly to say that you are not ambitious or that you've jumped the track in any way. I think who you are today is consistent with - if not the same as - who you have been. You are the same intelligent, funny person, who happens to be a fantastic writer and now, a very good bad mother. I hope you see it as one interesting and unpredicatable tragectory, rather than a betrayal of what you once wanted, or of a set of feminist values. Like you said, its not all or nothing.

10:18 PM  
Blogger Mom101 said...

Yet another epic post from HBM.

I reread your statement four times that said that the negative reactions imply that your "decisions were political." That is just such a perfectly perfect way of summarizing this issue. Toyfoto has a great comment on my blog about this very thing but you just nailed it in a sentence.

In the end, we're just individuals. And our first priority is to ourselves and to our families. After that, it's just gravy. I live to make this world a better place for my daughter. I can't live to make it a better place for all womenkind - far too much pressure. If you focus on the micro, the macro sometimes takes care of itself.

And is the bulbous liliputian thing your new sign-off? I vote for it to be the tag line in your header! Of course, only you and Kristen and I will know what the hell it means, but still...

11:28 PM  
Blogger The City Gal said...

I think I felt a little overwhelmed by sharing too much on my last comment.

But as I said again, I look up to all you educated career-ladies out there that value "love" and work hard to keep it alive and raising the Wonderbabies in the best environment.

Kicking ass, going to the most important schools and having the most important jobs cannot make everyone happy. Having a loving partner, sure can.

I am happy that the new generation doesn't confuse "happiness" with "making it big".

12:05 AM  
Blogger ninepounddictator said...

I think all of us in our pasts have made decisions that maybe we've based on other people's happiness, or maybe completely based on our own happiness. That's what life is: It's one choice after another choice after another choice...and, I've learned, after some not-so-good choices, that every choice you make should bring you one step closer to being a happier/better person...Man, I sound like a front woman for Kabalah...But really, if you're happy, what do you have to regret? Sounds to me like, even if you didn't know it at the time, you have nothing to regret.

12:20 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

If you come to blogher, I will make you a shirt that says:

I heart bulbous headed lilliputians.

for free.

and I will wear one too.

for free.


12:38 AM  
Blogger Miguelita said...

I must keep returning for the gratuituous shots of (adorable) WonderBaby because you certainly make me feel like one shallow, dumb F. But in a good way.

Awesome post. Lots to think about. So much to say that I will blog it instead of taking up the space here.

11:13 AM  
Blogger ms blue said...

You must keep doing what is right for you. Of course the term "you" does include your family. To not think of them would be selfish. How is being a feminist an act of selfishness? I think not. You are a strong, intelligent and caring woman.

1:34 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

This is absolutely the best post I have EVER read on this topic. I struggle with this issue all the time...the new constraint of having a baby and a husband starting a company, and my own feelings that I SHOULD be more ambitious, wondering if I am squelshing said ambition because of my family, and worried that my TRUE ambitions are somehow not "enough" considering where I went to college, etc.

I need to think about this.

2:37 PM  
Blogger Jen aka Evilynmo said...

I had a very similar experience when I got married and changed my last name. My prof also said she was suprised and disappointed in me. And I just got mad. Why do we do this to ourselves all the time? It is so destructive and stupid. -

9:57 PM  

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