A 27-year-old, Ivy-League graduate’s New York Times missive about coming to terms with her decision to stay home after the birth of her son starts with a question: “I Wanted to Stay Home with My Son. So Why Would I Lie About It?”
The author, Jessica Levy, doesn’t explicitly answer that question, but I will: She’s been surrounded by a culture that glamourizes professional success and belittles the value of mothering. She’s also been encouraged to see herself as too talented to waste her time on such mundane matters as diaper changing and child rearing. As a typical member of the Selfie Generation, she cares deeply about how other people perceive her. She doesn’t want to disappoint her peers or her own vision of herself, so feels ambivalent—even a little ashamed—about her status as a stay-at-home mom.
Levy explains she’s already had a White House internship and immediately began work at the State Department after graduating from college. Now she’s taking at least a two year leave from her position as a Foreign Service Officer to raise her son, but watches with envy as her peers (three from her graduating class!) are listed in “Forbes 30 under 30” and quickly climb the career ladder.
Levy’s anxieties are understandable. Anyone blessed with multiple appealing options can’t help but ponder the possibilities of the path not taken. Yet her ruminations are more than just the result of a difficult choice. Rather, she speaks to the way that feminism shapes the psyche of many women—particularly highly-educated women—today.
Levy knew which path the smart woman, the one who is modern and values her independence, is supposed to take. The answer has been drummed into her head as a part of her formal education: She is supposed to be charging up the hill toward professional success and economic power, rather than pushing a stroller along the well-trodden trail of motherhood.
The problem for Levy is she doesn’t want to. She selfishly (in the best sense of the word) wants to spend time with her beloved son. Clichéd as it sounds, Levy’s struggle is between her feminist head and her womanly heart.
I’d bet that Levy’s been schooled in the feminist literature that tells women that children do just as well raised in full-time daycare as at home, so her son won’t be any better for her time spent with him. She’s undoubtedly fully versed in the data that suggests that taking time out from a career can result in a permanent loss of income. From this perspective, her leave of absence from her job is nothing but an incredibly costly, self-indulgent vacation, which she will sorely regret.
Yet this feminist lens misses much of the story. Levy could take a look at literature that suggests that her baby actually will benefit from her attentions and consider strategies for earning more after she returns to work, if that’s her primary goal. But she’d be better served by reconsidering the framework that she’s been taught for evaluating the value of her time and pursuits.
Levy craves the kind of feedback one gets from teachers and bosses: the report card filled with ‘A’s, the positive performance review. The sometimes-grueling monotony of mothering—the constant cycle of feeding, changing, soothing, which is anonymous and un-applauded—offers few such tangible accolades. She poignantly describes a precious first kiss from her son as a desperately needed sign of her success, her positive “performance review.” And indeed, such moments should be savored. But ideally, our culture ought to encourage people to enjoy those moments not because they are accomplishments or serve a larger purpose, but simply because holding your loving baby, actually living that moment, is satisfying in itself.
It’s ironic that feminism pushes women in the other direction. One might assume that feminists would reject society’s obsession with money and power as the end-all, be-all of life. Feminists could celebrate women’s instinct to want to care for others—to prioritize loving another over other endeavors—as a tremendous strength and virtue. Yet instead, the feminism Levy absorbed makes her feel ashamed of those instincts and fixated on attaining power that will be publicly recognized and celebrated.
This brand of feminism does a disservice to Levy and her peers. The good news is that Levy will likely soon begin to recognize this on her own. Part of Levy’s current conundrum is the result of her age. At 26, she’s just a few years beyond the women’s studies seminars that pushed this feminist message. In another decade, she’ll recognize that two years goes by very quickly. She’ll be accustomed to seeing friends with spectacular careers, and know that they too have their ups and downs and insecurities, and ponder the possibilities of the path not taken.
And Levy can still have the career of her dreams, even with a small delay. But if she does find that her career is permanently limited because of the time off she’s taken, I hope she can embrace her decision not as a mistake, but as a legitimate reflection of her preferences. This is what being an adult is all about: making choices and setting priorities. Levy decided at age 26 to prioritize spending time with her first-born son while he was a baby. How can that possibly be something to be ashamed of?