SALT LAKE CITY — A few months back, I was invited to speak to a group of high school girls considering their educational goals. Many of the questions were exactly what I expected:
How did you decide what college to attend?
What made you pick your major?
What were some of your favorite classes?
Then, I had a question that threw me completely off guard: Why did you go to college since you knew you wanted to be a stay-at-home mom?
The unspoken, but very implicit question really was, why bother if you didn't want to work?
I recovered enough to give the standard answer — I went to college in case I ever need to work. I was insuring myself against singledom, death and disability. But in reality, that pat answer barely scratches the surface of why I chose college, knowing full well that I did not want to enter the workforce full-time following graduation.
The education of women in America
In a 2003 New York Magazine article, Lisa Belkin first termed the phrase “opt-out movement” to explain the phenomenon of highly educated women choosing to leave behind high-profile careers in favor of staying home with their children. Supposedly, well-educated mothers were leaving the corporate rat race to return to their families and letting their similarly educated husbands take the reins as sole breadwinner.
Despite all the media hype surrounding this supposed “movement,” statistical data show a much different picture. The U.S. Census Bureau, in a report released in 2010, tells us that 31 percent of married stay-at-home mothers had a bachelor's degree or higher, compared with 42 percent of working, married mothers.
The census also found that, for the first time in history, women are earning more undergraduate and graduate degrees than men, all amid a drastic reduction in the number of stay-at-home mothers. As Hope Yen said in her 2010 article for NBC News, there is a “detailed connection between women's educational attainment and declines in traditional stay-at-home parenting.”
The topic has gotten even more attention recently as Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook, released her book on women in the workplace, titled "Lean In." With one of America's prominent female executives encouraging women to dedicate more time and energy into advancing their careers, it has left mothers like me, who don't want to be in the workforce at this point in our lives, wondering where we fit in. Are stay-at-home mothers really perpetuating America's gender inequality?
My case for educated mothers
The problem, at least in my eyes, is the assumption that motherhood should not be an option following schooling. It seems the current cultural perception is that, should you have the opportunity to go to college, the next logical step is to enter the workforce. But this mentality implies that motherhood is a job not worthy of educated women.
I feel incredibly blessed that I had the chance to attend college, and I recognize that not every person is lucky enough to have the chance for higher education.
I also take full ownership of my decision to stay at home with my children. I am married and my husband has both the desire and ability to provide for our family. There are many women who do not have the option to stay home, and others who do not have the desire. These are valid options, and we should be affirming all women in their choices.However, I do take issue with the presumption that my schooling is wasted because I chose to stay home.
Motherhood is the most noble, challenging and intellectually stimulating profession on the planet. Mothers have to be a teacher, counselor, mediator, organizer, financial planner and judge all the time, every day. It takes planning and creativity to manage a household, and it takes patience and perseverance to raise the next generation.
What I learned in school went far beyond what I learned in class. Participating in study groups helped me learn to teach and counsel with others. Juggling classes and my job and a husband taught me how to organize and manage my finances. My classes pushed me intellectually, which expanded my creativity and forced me to plan my time wisely. Beyond everything else, working four years toward a single goal taught me patience and perseverance which, hopefully, prepared me in my quest to raise the next generation.
If I had a chance to go back to that panel discussion with the group of high school young women, I now know what I would say:
I chose to go to college, knowing full well that I wanted to stay home with my children, because I understood that motherhood was going to be hard. Raising children is hard, whether or not you choose to stay home, and it is going to take every ounce of wisdom and perseverance you can muster. If you have the chance to pursue higher education, take it.
If college is not an option for you, read all you can, stay up to date with current events, pick up a newspaper, and seek information that will help you grow intellectually. Your children need you to be the very best you that you can be, because you will be the entire world to them. You have within you the power to inspire them to be the best they can be. And isn't that the goal of motherhood?
Heather Hale is a fourth-generation Montanan, mom to two crazy boys, and wife to one amazing husband. You can learn more about her eco-conscious lifestyle at moderatelycrunchy.blogspot.com.