I read two online items recently, a Huffington Post article by writer Lisa Endlich Heffernan called “Why I Regret Being a Stay-at-Home Mom,” and a critique of that article by Michael Graham, a talk show host and a Boston Herald columnist.
The Heffernan article wasn’t political, but I think it’s fair to say that it would probably especially appeal to a liberal audience, and was indeed on the overwhelmingly liberal Huffington Post. Graham is generally thought of as a conservative, and his piece fits with some libertarian / conservative critiques that I’ve seen in recent years; indeed, I saw it linked on a libertarian blog.
But the initial article struck me as interesting and thoughtful, while the response struck me as mean-spirited and as profoundly missing the mark. And while Graham appears to have a pugnacious, even abrasive style that might make his rhetoric unsurprising, my worry is that many others may accept his arguments even if they wouldn’t use the rhetoric; I thought, then, that it might be helpful to focus on those arguments.
The Heffernan piece — which, true to its title, is a professional woman’s reflection on her decision to quit her job and stay home to raise her children — is not a political article (though it relates to a topic that has indeed yielded political debates). It’s an article about the basic choices most of us face in our life. We want to feel that we are fulfilling our true potential. We want to do right by those we love, and especially our children. Most of us want respect and social standing. Those of us who were raised in professional circles generally want jobs that stimulate us intellectually.
Because these desires are often partly (or largely) irreconcilable, we have to make choices. We quit our jobs to raise our children. We abandon our dreams of, say, an artistic or musical career to get a job that will give our children the lives we want for them. We let go of one passion and choose another. We quit a job we love in one city to live with the person we love in another. We choose one person we love for some reasons over another we love for others.
Some of these choices may tend to be more characteristic of men and some of women. But nearly all of us, men or women, have to make these choices. And sometimes, when much of our life has run, we realize that we might have made a mistake.
The Huffington Post article is one woman’s attempt to deal with the realization that she may have made such a mistake, and to offer her experience as a data point to twenty-years-younger versions of herself. It’s not a call for legislation or subsidies. It’s not an attack on supposed unfairness, whether from the government or her employees or her parents or her husband or society. It’s what seems to be a candid attempt at reflection and advice, for those who choose to accept it.
What happened to the article in Graham’s mind, I can’t know for certain. But my best guess is that it just got assigned some role in a tired conservative battle-of-the-sexes script (perhaps the role of being an outtake from a tired liberal battle-of-the-sexes script). The human problems at the heart of the Heffernan piece, in all their difficulty and seriousness — I see nothing in the response that seriously confronts them.
The opening and closing of the Graham response gives a flavor of the argument:
From “Dog Bites Man” File: Woman Gets What She Wanted, Bitches About It Afterwards
Lisa Endlich Heffernan was a Wall Street trader when she chose to get married, chose to have kids and then chose — with no pressure from her husband or society — to stay home and do the hard work of raising her own children.
And now, having had gotten exactly the life she wanted, she’s choosing….to bitch about it….
Oh, but here’s Mrs. “I Am Woman Hear Me Roar” whining about the consequences of her decisions, who has become a rallying point for women who got exactly the life [she] chose — “I want to stay home, not be financially responsible for my family and instead do the work of running the home and raising kids” — and now want everyone else to feel bad for them?
Really? Of course people have to make choices, and of course those choices have consequences. But that’s all the more reason why it’s helpful when someone publicly reflects on the costs of her past choices, as a way of alerting others who are facing the same choices today.
And, yes, why shouldn’t we feel bad for someone who reasonably concludes that she has lost some of her chance to achieve her true potential, or even some of the respect and intellectual stimulation she might have gotten by staying in her job? Most of us would feel bad if we felt this way about our lives. I’m happy that I don’t have the regrets that Heffernan is expressing, but I have enough imagination to put myself in her shoes, and have a sense of how she might be feeling.
Why shouldn’t we feel empathy for someone whose choices have cost her in this way? I’m not a fan of organizing government spending primarily around “empathy,” or using it as a basis for the welfare state. But as a human reaction to another human’s problems (even when they stem from that person’s well-intentioned but costly choices), empathy has much to recommend itself.
The response also particularly faults the author for part of her regrets:
I let down those [feminists] who went before me. In some cosmic way I feel that I let down a generation of women who made it possible to dream big,
I used my driver’s license far more than my degrees … I felt like I was shortchanging myself and those who educated, trained and believed in me by doing this.
My kids think I did nothing. They saw me cooking, cleaning, driving, volunteering and even writing, but they know what a “job” looks like and they don’t think I had one.
I slipped into a more traditional marriage. In every way, my husband sees me as his equal, but in the years that I have been home, our partnership has developed a faint 1950′s whiff.
She let down the sisterhood! She didn’t impress her kids! She had a (horrors!) traditional marriage! Oh, the humanity!
But the article author’s regrets here strike me as perfectly sensible, even honorable. It is quite right that today’s women feel a debt of gratitude to past women who helped women enter the professional workforce — the women who made it possible for today’s women to have the same kinds of rewarding jobs that I myself enjoy. I myself feel a debt of gratitude to those women, both because I think freeing women to become professionals is the right thing to do, and because it has made it possible for my women friends to get the satisfaction that they have gotten from their professional lives.
Now I think that most of those women of the past would have said that they want today’s women to be able to choose a professional life, as well as choosing to stay at home raising children. They might well have no objection to Heffernan’s decision to set aside her profession. But it hardly reflects badly on Heffernan, I think, that she feels that she should have taken more advantage of the doors that past women have, with such great effort, opened for her.
Likewise, it is quite normal that parents want to impress their children, and impress others. Don’t most of us feel that way? It’s our nature as a social animal to want respect and social status, and these days that respect and status generally comes from professional accomplishments. Perhaps we shouldn’t care so much about this. Perhaps the best among us don’t care to much about this. But again, have some empathy: How would you feel if you thought your children respect you and your life less (even if they love you a great deal) than if you had done something else?
And while a “traditional marriage,” in which the husband earns the daily bread and the wife stays at home with the children, may be perfectly rewarding for many, is it so reprehensible that someone with a professional education and a professional career — someone like me, but for one chromosome and all that it entails — would feel the loss of that professional life?
Then the critique turns to this:
Do you think her husband wanted her to go back to work, maybe help out with the bills? Or do you think he wanted her to stay home and be his partner caring for their family and home?
The Natural Truth [that’s the name of the responder’s blog –EV] is that it didn’t matter WHAT her husband wanted. As the saying goes “Women have choices. Men have responsibilities.”
Men are expected to stand quietly by and support whatever decision their wives make. If she wants to stay home, he’s supposed to get another job to pay the bills. She wants to work? He better step up his baby sitting skills or find a good day care.
And when the kids are grown and they’re folding up the last cap and gown, is any husband going to say ‘You know what–I really regret the fact that your decisions forced me to work two jobs?”
Across America, there are millions of American men who made the decision to get married and have kids, instead of just partying and playing their lives away. And I bet some of them could write a “gee, if I hadn’t had a family I could have worked harder, made more money and gotten laid a LOT MORE” columns. And if they did, you know what we’d call them?
OK, I get it: Life’s hard for men. I’m not being sarcastic; life’s hard for everyone, in various ways, and it’s in some ways especially hard for men, just as in other ways it’s especially hard for women.
And that means what? That the difficult choices and regrets that many women face don’t matter? That we as humans should ignore them — or ridicule them — because we feel that women are undervaluing the problems that men face? These could be the problems of your friends. If you don’t have women friends, they could be the problems of your sister or your daughter. If you don’t have a sister or daughter, they could be the problems of your sister-in-law. And even if you don’t care enough about your sister-in-law to care about her problems, maybe your son might.
More to the point, they are the problems of fellow humans, who like us have one life to live, who like us cannot turn back the clock, who like us have to make decisions and then take stock of how they went wrong. There’s a good deal to learn for us as humans by considering the problems, even the self-inflicted ones, of other humans. (Hence the value of much great literature.) And there’s very little to gain, I think, from treating reflections on these problems as if they were no more than just the latest item in an us vs. them confrontation.