Let me explain: Imagine teenagers lining up to springboard, for the first time, into the deep end of the real world, aka, choosing a path to a profession. Their parents watch. Some of the kids are kitted out in flippers, goggles, day-glo swimhats. Some have been told exactly how to dive. Some have been trained for months by their parents, expert swimmers themselves. As a teenager, I stood among them.
I had been given a sandwich.
It was not a bad sandwich, as metaphoric sandwiches go, but I didn’t even have a waterproof bag for it. When it was time, I leapt! On my way down, I got EWE.
I didn’t get much career advice from my feminist, hippy parents, who raised the six of us artisan-style in Oman. My dad was in shipping, so he thought it would be way cool for me to be the captain of a ship one day. His other ambition was for all of us to be a Von Trapp Family-style singing ensemble... See?
Now, it is time to give my daughter career advice, and I have no confidence I will not fail miserably. In addition to EWE, several factors compound my fear. The competition! The economy! The obsolescence of some traditional occupations! The rise of new professions.
Most exciting and most daunting, I think, are the conversations about women, especially mothers, in the workplace. Somewhere between Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In and Marie Ann Slaughter’s “You Cannot Have it All,” there’s finally focus on the way your gender impacts your career. And this is where I still have EWE.
I don’t know if I should tell my daughter to choose a career path that will afford her flexibility later. I want to echo Sandberg and tell her that marriage itself can be a huge career decision. But what of the days when I am certain that a perfectly equal partnership is a unicorn? There is no way to emancipate out of the gendered reality that if a baby has to be had, the lady-person has to have it.
Should I tell her that I believe financial independence is liberating and empowering, but circumstances may change and there should be no guilt or shame if she has to take a break from paying work? How do I frame the joy in opening the door for your children coming home from school, against crying silently into your tea the next morning because you feel your brain is atrophying from the drudgery?
And then, what if she chooses not to have children? Or get married? Or has a baby with special needs? Or wants to work in Medicins Sans Frontieres? Or be the next Zaha Hadid or Beyoncé?
I have to get my act together, or she’s going to be on the springboard with not even a sandwich.
Sense of self-worth
My mother, a teacher before she got married, referred to herself as a "housewife" disparagingly. Yet, while she (and my dad) juggled household chores, she grabbed every opportunity to work from home, including doing administrative back-up jobs for my dad’s company. At 44, when her youngest started full day school, she interviewed at a local school. In a year, she was one of their most treasured English teachers. At home, she developed major swag.
I ask a couple of women I know what they think. One of them tells me of her "Baka", her grandmother, who believed “becoming your husband’s charge made you an unequal decision-maker in the marriage, which ultimately impacts the power dynamic in the relationship (and your sex life).” My friend paraphrased her grandmother’s advice in this way: “Bringing something to the table, even if it is peanuts,” maintains an equilibrium that in the long run is good for your sense of self-worth and ultimately good for your marriage.
Move over Sandberg and Slaughter. I think Baka’s got this one covered.
I watched my mum regain her confidence with a teaching career in our already very equitable household. When the family returned to India and she had to quit, her loss of identity was palpable to us all.
I look at my LinkedIn resume some days the way people look at old albums. There are some solid, excellent periods of productivity. And the gaps, from when I was doing "family stuff" – having a baby or three, moving to Scotland as my husband pursued an MSc, the Times The Asthma Was Bad … I can’t put that on my resume. Though I was probably working harder than ever, those years.
We now know telling your children they can "be whatever you want to be" is setting them up for incredible disappointment. Life is not one dive, one swim, but a series of jumping off, getting back up there.
Dignity of labour
So here’s the plan to avoid my daughter getting EWE: I’m going to outsource Baka’s wisdom, throw in the work experience of my mum and me, but add just one tiny thing. Believing in the Dignity of Labour.
I will tell my daughter to work, like the women I know, as hard and as intelligently as possible and to make sure those around her acknowledge not just the extent but also the range and complexity of her contribution. Unlike my self-deprecating mum, I will try to engender a sense of self-worth, even for work that is not paid.
Because you cannot predict what your work will be. You may choose to make art or a museum to hold it, to care for paying patients or impoverished disaster victims, to raise a family or awareness for a cause. But most of your life’s work – a woman’s work – will come as a rampage of delicious, individual opportunities, ensemble or in cycles. It will rarely be convenient. It may not always result in a paycheck.
And if your last dive in didn’t go as planned, get back up on the springboard. Maybe this time get yourself some goggles, an oxygen tank and flippers. (Whether you have the sandwich or not is irrelevant.)
This article was originally published on The Swaddle.
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