A few months ago, I sat at my husband’s white coat ceremony and was struck pretty hard by a lot of emotions. I knew I would feel so so proud of my husband and excited for what’s ahead of us. I knew I would feel so grateful for the opportunity he has for furthering his education and following his dream of becoming a doctor. But I didn’t expect to feel so dang jealous.
Right before they were white-coated, each student walked on stage and announced themselves ” Student doctor Tanner Staples. Salt Lake City, Utah. Brigham Young University.” One by one they got up and I didn’t expect to be surprised by all the women. Yes, it’s the 21st century. Women can become doctors! Women can become a lot of things. But in my circles, a lot of women become mothers. At a really young age. During or right after their ungrads when they’re in their low 20’s seems to be the cultural norm where I’m from. I know dozens and dozens of them. What I don’t know are a lot of women who are going to be doctors.
So I watched all of these intelligent, confident, ambitious women stand up and announce their intentions to become doctors and I felt. . . small. No, big. I felt really really big and acutely aware of how hugely pregnant I was. I felt really conscious of my needy restless toddler and my giant diaper bag full of things to meet her needs. I felt really unsexy in my loose bright colored blouse and big necklace, while they walked up there in sleek professional black dresses and received a round of applause for what the world recognizes as a fantastic accomplishment, a noble pursuit, an intellectual achievement. I felt simple and lame. Like if I sat down and had a conversation with one of these women-my age and notably with the same level of education as I- that they would think “oh isn’t it cute of her to just want to stay home and have babies?”
There’s a mormon.org video where Jane Clayson Johnson discusses her decision to leave her career in journalism to have and stay home with her children. I like the video, but there is a way her path differs from many women I know in a big important way: she proved herself before motherhood. She got the degrees and the high profile, high salary job before she quit, and that I think brings with it a huge amount of respect from others and a sense of accomplishment for herself. Even if they think she’s crazy for quitting, people saw her talent and skills.
The sense of jealousy I feel isn’t about recognition though. It’s not about pay, status, respect, or what anyone might think about me and my choices. It’s about the loss of something that would bring me great happiness to achieve. Some stay at home mom’s don’t miss work because they feel guilty not to bring home a paycheck, or because they miss the validation that comes with someone recognizing their work–for me, it’s because I miss the work. I love school and always have. I loved college and all the lectures, textbooks, papers, and studying that came with it. And I’m good at it. I’m smart, I test well, and I love to learn about pretty much anything. So every year since I graduated, when the first day of school rolls around I start wishing that I was going to get a stack of new books and syllabi. I know not everyone feels this way about school, but I do know a lot of women that get from work what I got from school–much of my sense of self, accomplishment, and progression was tied to it. Intellectual advancement and achievement gave me a high and a happiness that stay at home motherhood does not give me, even though it unquestionably has its own rewards. I want to go back to school and earn a couple more degrees. I want to have a career–probably in writing, editing, or publishing, possibly in engineering? I want to learn amazing things, expand my knowledge, develop my talents, show them to the world, improve the world, create beautiful things, advance a field.
The sacrifice of motherhood for me is not being able to do that right now. It’s a halting of my potential in certain areas while I devote all of myself to children that demand all of me. I could have been successful at anything I poured myself into, but I feel like I didn’t prove that before becoming a mother and I worry about whether I’ll have the chance in the future. Not to prove it to others, but to prove it to myself and experience the joy of becoming something that I want to become and accomplishing dreams I have. Instead, for now, I have chosen to pour myself into being a mother. All of my talents and intelligence, potential and skills, they’re all going there right now and I don’t want to feel like I need a subtitle to give myself value–a desperate grasp at validating myself– “I stay at home with my kids. . . but I used to be a lawyer!” “I’m a mom. . . but I want to be a writer someday! I’m going to go back to school!” “I’m a mother. . . but I’m really good at math–i’m smart! I could have been an engineer.” Nope. I am a mother. Just as much as saying “I’m a surgeon” or “I’m in medical school” doesn’t need a subtitle, “I am a mother” does not and should not need a subtitle. It doesn’t mean I didn’t have other dreams or anything else to do–it just means that for now I’ve decided to devote myself full time to motherhood instead.
Where I think I’m trying to get with all of this is to a recognition of the women with talents and skills that no one ever got to see. Ones that they never even developed, or won’t develop for another 20 or 30 years, because they made the choice to be a mother. And that is every single mother, because whether you work or not, or whether or not you ever will, motherhood will infringe upon your professional development to at least a small extent, and for some women, entirely. So, here’s to all the intelligent, confident, ambitious women I know who are mothers (which is most of the mothers I know). The ones who would have excelled in medical school and made incredible doctors. The ones who would have succeeded in any field they pursued. The ones who are talented and driven, well spoken and creative and spend their days nurturing, teaching, and raising children, supervising at the playground, reading to toddlers, and soothing crying babies. Here’s to you and your choice and your way of making the world a better place.