My dear friend Molly and I recently reflected on our approaching graduations and the changes the coming years will bring. Would we go to graduate school? Marry our college boyfriends? Sell our souls to Wall Street? Navigate the city social scene? Ascend the corporate ladder? The unknowns seemed endless. Toward the end of our conversation, Molly lowered her voice, glanced from side to side, and leaned in closer to me. “Margaret,” she whispered, “there’s something I need to tell you.” Molly continued, “I don’t want to go to grad school. I don’t even know if I want a career. I want to get married, stay at home and raise my kids.” Then, clearly distraught, she added, “What’s wrong with me?”
Well, folks, there it is. We have a brilliant 21-year-old woman educated at our nation’s best college who could have a successful career as an investment banker at Goldman Sachs, or as a consultant at Bain, or as a professor at a university like our own. But she would rather be a stay-at-home mom. The question remains: Is something wrong with Molly?
Molly’s predicament is shameful. Not because she feels the urge to be a stay-at-home mom, but because she feels that her desire is wrong or unnatural. It is shameful that modern feminism has elevated professionalism at the expense of motherhood, particularly the stay-at-home variety. It is sad that some students feel the need to justify their education with a prestigious career.
To many, “stay-at-home mom” and “Princeton alumna” are contradictory terms. This stems from confusion about the purpose of our education. Princeton does not exist to churn out lawyers and bankers and doctors but to produce good, educated women and good, educated men. The development of the mind is valuable apart from any career to which it might lead. A liberal arts education trains us to participate in the marketplace of ideas as much as in the marketplace of employment.
The idea that education frees women from the shackles of motherhood is a recent and harmful phenomenon. The two need not conflict. Eighteenth- and 19th-century feminists understood motherhood to be a high calling — one critical to the prosperity of our nation — that would be better fulfilled with education. Parenting is, after all, important. A Princetonian who dedicates herself to her home and local community can fulfill Princeton’s unofficial motto — “In the nation’s service and in the service of all nations” — as well as a fellow alumnus or alumna on Wall Street.
As we rethink the values that higher education emphasizes, we also need more dialogue about motherhood and career. Professor Anne-Marie Slaughter ’80 led the way with her August 2012 Atlantic article, “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All.” For her, the hardest part about writing the article was admitting was the reason for her resignation: She wanted to spend more time with her son. That’s right, she wanted to. Conversations with friends have led me to realize that the average Princeton woman wants something different in terms of work-life balance than the average Princeton man. This is OK. A campus environment that prevents her from admitting it is not.
Slaughter legitimized the decision to turn down further career opportunities in favor of spending more time with children. We need to go a step further and legitimize the possibility of postponing or even ending a career in favor of raising children. Late 20th-century feminism helped women by opening educational and professional opportunities. However, the introduction of new choices should not render the traditional ones inferior. We must accept that many women — even Princeton women — do not want “it all.” As for young women who hope to have a successful career while raising children, they should hear realistic advice about the difficulty — perhaps the impossibility — of having both while minimizing the costs to either.
If some Princetonians are afraid to admit their aspirations because they fear the scorn of the campus orthodoxy, then our community is not truly open to alternative viewpoints. Our University can — and should — do more to validate the desires of students like Molly. Princeton’s Women’s Center and Career Services are natural places for the dialogue to continue. It is striking that an issue that will affect half of us — balancing or choosing between motherhood and work — is so seldom discussed.
Princeton is educating future doctors, lawyers, bankers and politicians. But it is also educating future mothers and fathers, Little League coaches and PTA members. We need to prepare ourselves for the latter positions as well as the former. Difficult choices regarding motherhood and careers need to be talked about openly, not just whispered in private conversations with our closest friends. Many of us hope to balance motherhood and a career, but others plan to choose one and forgo the other. Despite our best-laid plans, the unforeseen needs of our children and family will dictate many of our decisions. A prioritization of motherhood over career will be the right choice for some Princeton women. When chosen, it should be applauded as such.
Margaret Fortney is a computer science major from Winston-Salem, N.C. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.