It was a rare moment. With my parents and children around the dinner table, we hit on a topic to which my mother and daughter both responded passionately.
“You shouldn’t have children unless you are going to take care of them,” declared my mother.
My 16-year-old daughter shot back with a series of challenging questions: “What’s wrong with her choice? Can’t a woman have a career too? Why is it any different for a father to go away for his work?”
As background to this exchange, let me introduce my brother and his family. My brother is a state trooper. He is also a veteran of six years in the Coast Guard, and he has served for about 15 years in the Coast Guard Reserve. While a trooper and in the reserves, he volunteered for active duty in Desert Shield in Saudi Arabia, where he was stationed for three months. At the time, he was married to his first wife, with a toddler child.
Fast forward about eight years, to when my brother, by then father of two children and divorced, married another woman, who happens to be 13 years his junior, making her not yet 30. Together, they have two little tykes, about to turn 3 and 2.
My new sister-in-law had a busy 10 years following high school, during which she was married, divorced, married again (including becoming a step-mother to two kids), and had two children herself—not to mention professional training, the work that she did, and a business that she and my brother established.
Now with her domestic situation happily secure, and anticipating no more major life changes for a while, my brother’s wife seems to have taken time to take stock of her life. Part of this has been recognizing a missed opportunity from her younger years, when she had wanted to join the Air Force, but instead got into a bad marriage soon out of high school.
With his professional background, my brother is supportive of military service. Both he and his wife are very concerned for the safety and security of our country. So, at this writing, my sister-in-law is halfway across the continent from her home, in six weeks of training for the Air National Guard. She will have six more weeks of training away at the start of the new year. Then she will be in a routine like my brother, where she spends one weekend a month and a couple weeks every year on Guard duty.
There are several ways to look at this choice. Patriotism. Satisfying a dormant dream. Claiming some independence. Taking on a part-time job—with an intermittent schedule that works for some people.
Of course, in recent months, the stakes of being in the National Guard have become higher, as units are being deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan, and men and women from the Guard are being wounded and killed in the line of duty.
Suffice it to say that my parents are not supportive of my sister-in-law’s decision. Nor is my sister-in-law’s mother, even though she firmly believes that women can do any job men can do and that they should have the same opportunities. (She is on tap, however, to do plenty of childcare during her daughter’s time away.)
So, when the subject of my sister-in-law’s departure for training came up recently at the dinner table, I was not surprised to hear my mother express her disapproval. After all, she stayed home with three children, never working a day outside the home before her youngest reached high school age.
That’s not the same world my daughter knows. While I have “stayed home” for months and even years at a time, I have a professional degree that I have used working part-time in an office and from home. I have written books and magazine pieces. And I have worked full-time for several years.
As far as I know, my daughter has no desire for military service. But she bristled at the idea that a woman—even a mother—should not be free to choose such a path.
“You shouldn’t have children unless you are going to take care of them.” Tell that to professional women—doctors, lawyers, business people—with their nannies and demanding careers and travel schedules and social agendas. Tell that to women who have to work out of financial necessity.
But here is the kicker for me: Tell that to the fathers of our nation! My daughter wanted to know why things should be any different for mothers than for fathers. Are mothers to be held to a higher parental standard?
Although military service would never be a choice of mine, I expect my sister-in-law will make an excellent protector of our country. She is young, strong, bright, courageous, and good-hearted.
I have about all I can handle with my own immediate family to worry much about how other mothers juggle work and kids. Perhaps James’ admonition fits well here: “…be quick to hear, slow to speak…”
My conclusion is that there is infinite variety from family to family—different numbers and ages of children, different socioeconomics, different spousal dynamics, different needs and wants. No two mothers are alike. So let each choose as best she can. With God’s guidance—and possibly the support of family—do what seems best for you, and let others get on with their choices.
Karen Johnson Zurheide is chair of BCE’s board of directors