“While they are young, the children come first.” Last week, cleaning out old files, I found a stack of priority worksheets I’d written in 1989, in one of my bursts of self-improvement. (Ironically, my taste for self-improvement books and schemes is one of the things my children find embarrassing and annoying.) So I was already reflecting on choices and their consequences when Jeremy posted “someday” and Shamus posted “how do you say no?” With a little luck, those of us born to relative affluence don’t face any really hard choices when we are young. Before I had children, I liked my life a lot: I had a good relationship, a good job, plenty of time to write, plenty of exercise, and a significant level of political involvement. Even the birth of my first child while untenured did not provoke crisis, as my spouse and I used half time day care and split the rest of the child care. I’m not saying it wasn’t stressful at times, but it was ok; I gave up politics, but that did not seem like a big deal. I thought having my second child would be ok, too, as I had tenure by then. But while I was pregnant, my spouse accepted a job that would require a lot of travel with unpredictable and constantly shifting schedules. He took the job because it was a dream job for him, a chance to do something exciting, fun and interesting. He was “owed” in our relationship because he had already moved twice for my job. His first choice would have been for him to have the good job without the travel, but that wasn’t an option. To be honest, I’m selfish enough that I would have preferred that he keep his bad job and make my life easier, but I cared about him, agreed he was owed, and knew why he really wanted to do it, so I signed off.
I spent a lot of those years exhausted and angry. We continued to have only part-time child care. Some nights I put the children to bed crying because I knew they were better off crying alone in bed than interacting with an angry sleep-deprived mother. I was furious that I had to make constrained choices and could not have the life I wanted. When he was home, my spouse was “superdad,” who did a lot of the work and played a lot with the children, so there was a big hole when he was gone. He was aware of how much he did when he was around, but not of what it was like when he was not around. I wanted him to confront the consequences of the work-home choice he was making and feel just as bad as I did. In retrospect, I probably should have used more paid child care and household help, as the children would probably have been better off with a saner mother, but I did not want to concede defeat to the constraints in my life. I preferred feeling angry to adjusting.
I said no to a lot of things in those years. Politics was, of course, out of the question. What hurt more was the constraint on my professional ambitions. I turned down invitations to international conferences and even domestic talks. Every time I planned a trip, I got prior approval from my husband’s boss for the dates, but neither my husband nor his boss could actually control his travel schedule, and my travel was always a crisis. We even had to have an overnight babysitter one time because we ended up both being gone at the same time. So I just gave it up. I also said no to a lot of committees, not only the annoying ones but also the ones that would have been good for my career. I said no to conference and book chapters – anything that would have a deadline. My teaching was not all that good then, either. My stress and negative affect implicitly said “no” to a lot of student requests before they even asked.
I remember once talking to a dad at a school outing. He was telling me about all the travel he did, and said that his wife did not want him to travel so much, but she should be happy about it because of all the extra money he earned. I told him what I did and that I was turning down trips. He said, “That must be hard.” I said, “Yeah, it is. But you have to know your priorities. You know what is number one, what is number two, what is number three, and then it is easy.” Partly I was trying to goad him on behalf of his wife. But I was also reminding myself why I was doing it.
Because I have never regretted putting my children first in those years. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve certainly regretted some of the ways I handled the situation, and I can feel as jealous and resentful as the next person when I compare my professional status with that of the men who “passed” me while I was on the mommy track. But not the core decision to put the children first. That decision had negative consequences for my career, but it had positive consequences, too. As they say, few people in the cancer wards say, “Boy, I wish I’d spent more time working.” Spending time with my children was, in fact, its own intrinsic reward, and my relationship with them now that they are adults continues to be rewarding. I do not mean it was always fun or inspiring. Children can be very selfish and annoying, and it is traumatic when they have problems you cannot fix. More than anything else, parenthood taught me that I am deeply imperfect, that I am capable of doing things that I disapprove of and that hurt other people. But I grew and deepened as a human being from these very struggles and disappointments. I became less self-centered, less self-righteous, and more open to and forgiving of the struggles and disappointments of other imperfect people. I feel good about my ability to sustain a rich relationship with my children despite all our imperfections. I also learned a lot from hanging out with stay-at-home moms about choosing priorities, having a sense of perspective about life, helping each other out in a pinch, and norms of reciprocity.
After about ten years on the mommy track, it was time for another shift in priorities. My spouse changed jobs and traveled less. The children were older. I was unhappy. I remember thinking “I need to think my own thoughts.” The children still stayed at the top of the list, but their ranking relative to work went down. It was time to ramp up my career. I signed up for four conferences in one year to give myself deadlines to get writing done. It was stressful, but it accomplished the goal. I published several major articles. I was still making choices with consequences for other people. I worked at home, so I was there in the background, but I ignored my children more. This both hurt their feelings and impacted their lives. In the summer, they’d come in to where I was working on the computer and say, “Mom, can we have lunch?” I’d mumble, “Sure, in a minute,” and go back to work. The more I worked, the less they did “constructive” activities. The summer I did all those conference papers, they watched television about 10 hours a day. I overheard my son once telling a friend that he had the world’s most inattentive mother. I pointed out to them that their father also ignored them when he worked, but they did not see him do it because he did it away from home. This did not change their perceptions. (Once, when my spouse was traveling and my daughter was griping about something I was not helping her with, I told her to call her father in Florida and complain to him about it. Despite such attempts at political education, my children would still talk about the effect of mothers’ work but not fathers’ on their children’s lives.)
Again in subsequent years I shifted priorities and made choices. I got involved in a public sociology issue and spent less time publishing research that would build my career. I decided that I was on a path to a morbid old age with all the weight I had gained while sitting at the computer all day, so I started spending time counting calories and exercising. I lost a lot of weight but I also lost bone mass, which may prove more harmful in the long run, I don’t know. Exercising more gives me less time to work and to hang out with my spouse, but I listen to audio books and so “read” a lot more fiction than I used to. Choices. Each choice that I make has consequences, some that I like, some that I don’t like. Not all my choices are constructive. I don’t think I get much value out of the time I’ve spent playing free cell or doing crossword puzzles. I don’t know whether taking the time to work on this essay is worth the time I’m spending on it. But I know I’m making those choices all the time.
In my freshman dorm in college, an extremely obnoxious guy said to me something that has proved to be a central truth of my life: “You become what you do.” You become what you do. Every day in every way we make choices that have consequences for ourselves and other people. Every time we say yes to some things we say no to countless other things. We make dozens of choices every day that are consequential for ourselves and others. We live embedded in opportunities and constraints created by other people’s choices, and we in our turn create constraints and opportunities for ourselves and others. This is a law of nature, this is how our finite and interdependent universe works. When we contemplate this reality, it can be overwhelming, even paralyzing. So we either deny the reality, or adopt simplifying rules for coping with it, attending to some connections and not others. We often act and theorize as if only one person at a time is real, and everyone else is just environment, not also choice-making consequence-bearing people. We think that if our choices are consequential that we must be able to control the outcomes of our choices. That is, we make the fundamental attribution error in social psychology, attributing outcomes to individual choices rather than systems. But even “system” is an attribution error, as we tend to treat it as if it were a single other individual not, itself, a product of uncountable choices by other people.
There is a great deal of sociology to be done in the social construction of choice and constraint, in the social patterning of denying and simplifying interdependence and consequence. (This leads us into relational sociology and other work I know too little about.) We perceive only some of our choices. We perceive only some of the constraints on our choices. We perceive only some of the ways our actions impact other people. We vary in how much we consider the impacts of our choices on other people. Feminists often note that only women and not men are perceived as making choices about work-home tradeoffs, and that better social systems could make it easier for everyone to balance work and child care. Affluent people often do not perceive that their comfortable lives are built on the low-wage labor of others. Privileged people do not perceive that their choices and opportunities are products of the luck of their birth. We often resent and complain about the very fact that we have to make choices, that we cannot have everything that we want, that other people’s actions impact our lives, or that we cannot do what some people want without hurting or disappointing others. Perhaps we can both make better choices for ourselves and do better sociology if we take the complex interdependency of our system as a starting point, and then attend specifically to the ways that we go about simplifying or schematizing our understanding of it.
Edit: A couple of points of clarification in response to the Crooked Timber threads. (1) Privilege. It does not seem clear enough to some that I knew at the time and I know now that this whole essay is written from a standpoint of privilege. I have thought a lot also about people who really have very few choices, but decided not to write about that. (2) Re men’s lives & choices. I probably was not clear enough here. I have a “man’s” job, and am judged by men’s standards. I had a full-time job and drew a full paycheck throughout the period described. When my husband was in town, I took advantage of the privilege of an academic job and worked nights and weekends while he watched the children. The problem was that I still had the job when he was out of town. I’m sympathetic to the view that I deserved to get fewer rewards if I was doing less work, but not to the view that men in the same job did not have the same choices I had. (3) For the record, I love my husband, to whom I have been married for 37 years; he is the center of my life. I also love my children and think they are interesting, creative, and funny. Although child rearing was not all fun and inspiration, a lot of it was. The blessings of these relationships are even greater than the economic privilege I have. The point is that I could feel stressed and unhappy despite this and also that I had to make choices about balancing these relationships with my work, which is also important to me.
Edit #2. Again a response to the comments elsewhere, not here. No, I’m not bitter. To the contrary, I feel incredibly happy with my life. No, I did not starve my children, nor actually neglect them. Their other choice in the summer I mention would have been group care, and they thought spending the summer hanging out in their own house and doing what they felt like was a lot of fun. What they missed out on was me trying to “improve” them with constructive activities. Yes, my husband is/was more or less the feminists’ dream spouse. The point is that even when you care a lot about other people, you can find yourself in the position where you have to make compromises and tradeoffs that you don’t like. Yes, many people find me difficult to deal with, although other people find my ability to own my own negative emotions and to be comfortable with theirs to be comforting in times of trouble. My children generally characterize me as the annoying parent and their father as the nice parent. However, they also love and appreciate me for what I am, grumpiness and all, and they know I love and appreciate them for what they are, not some ideal. As regards being a bad writer or having nothing original to say, meh: you do what you can do, and if it isn’t good enough, it isn’t good enough.