Being a parent takes you by surprise. As much as you might love whatever you do for a living, that thing is going to seem less important when a child enters the picture. Ask anyone who has children what comes first. They’ll all say the same thing.
Of course coming first isn’t the same thing as being everything. But what if children do become everything, at least for a time? You are a lawyer on the fast-track, let’s say, but then during your 3-month maternity leave you decide you’d like to keep on being a full-time mother. Some people are going to think it’s a tragedy if you follow through, and some people are going to regard you as a saint. They’re going to think it’s a very beautiful thing that love and nurturing won out over ambition and competition. Tragic? Saintly? Both calls seem overblown. What should we think about accomplished people who leave their jobs to be full-time parents?
Perhaps we shouldn’t think anything. If somebody wants to devote every waking hour to her offspring, that’s her choice—let her do it, or spend her days grooming her dog or painting her toenails, for that matter. This is all very pleasant. But as an approach to value, “to each his own” isn’t really satisfactory. We don’t really believe all ways of living are equal. Besides, if you’ve got a choice to make yourself, or you need to give advice to someone making a work-family decision, you’ll need more than an attitude of tolerance. You’ll actually need to broach a classic question of philosophy: what is central to living a good life?
Ancient philosophy was the beginning of philosophical thinking about the good life. If you had to put it in the smallest possible nutshell, the answer all the ancients give is that a good life is dominated by reason. That’s the highest, best and most human part of us, and so we can’t flourish without putting it to full use.
Those who think a woman’s place is on the job are sometimes worried that reason must inevitably be squandered at home. That’s the theme of Linda Hirshman’s book Get to Work, which made a big media splash in the U.S. in 2006. She argues for a renaissance of the Greeks’ esteem for reason, and an end of the flight of professional women from work to home.
On the face of it, the move home is a move away from reason. When my children were born ten years ago, I fell in with a delightful group of women, all of them refugees from challenging occupations. Robyn had been a math major in college and did statistical work for a phone company before her daughter was born. Now at home full-time, her days were certainly spent in a less brainy fashion.
But what the ancients admire so much is not braininess. For both Plato and Aristotle, the consummate use of reason involves contemplation of timeless realities. Robyn did none of this at the phone company, and none at home. The ancients did regard reason as having practical application, but what aspects of practical reason are critical for the good life? Rea-son, in the relevant sense, is bound up with virtue. For Aristotle, reason makes us brave in-stead of overwrought or timid; truthful instead of boastful or self-effacing; liberal spenders, instead of spendthrifts or tight-wads. Generally, reason enables a person to find the virtuous middle road between extremes of feeling and behavior. In Plato, reason presides over the ap-petites and passions. keeping them in their place, but giving them their due—it keeps our souls (and our lives) in good order.
The ancients actually had nothing very nice to say about work like Robyn’s or about mothers, but looking past their complicated prejudices, this is what we see: reason had a chance to flower when Robyn worked—she had to interact temperately with managers and co-workers; but also at home. There too, there were plenty of chances to be courageous, truth-ful, liberal, and the rest; to find a rational middle course; to keep appetites and passions in their place.
An esteem for reason won’t necessarily argue for staying on the job. But let’s look more deeply at the matter. Despite my fondness for the Greeks and for reason, I can’t make myself believe that the good life is simply, entirely, exclusively, in essence, the life of reason. There is, however, a thought underlying all the exaltation of reason that has real power and persuasiveness.
In Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, reason at first gets its pre-eminent position from a supposed difference between humans and animals. Humans have reason, animals don’t. This isn’t the idea I’m drawing attention to. In fact, it seems silly: should I really spend my life trying to be especially human and not too animal? For a new mother that would mean avoiding the animalistic act of breastfeeding; in the name of my humanity, I’m certainly not going to employ a wet-nurse or buy a crate of formula!
Later on in the Ethics, Aristotle acknowledges that the things we strive for needn’t be unique to human beings. The gods, he admits, have reason too. He writes,“We ought not to follow the makers of proverbs and ‘Think human, since you are human’ …Rather as far as we can, we ought to be pro-immortal, and go to all lengths to live a life in accord with our supreme element…” The very good idea here is that we should live our lives in accord with what is best in ourselves, whatever that may be.
I can understand the reaction of someone who thinks women give up what’s best in themselves when they settle into full time mothering. Another one of my friends, in the early days of motherhood, was Ellen. She was a Harvard graduate and had nearly completed a PhD in anthropology. She had done field work in Africa, but hadn’t yet written her dissertation. Now her enchanting little boy took up all her time. Despite periodic efforts, the work never got done. To some, I’m sure, this is a classic case of “how the mighty have fallen,” but is it really?
The question is what the best in ourselves really amounts to. When we have worked extremely hard, over many years, to acquire a skill or a body of knowledge, it’s natural for this to seem like the best thing in us. Looked at in this manner, the best thing in Ellen is her extensive knowledge of African cultures. The things that occupy our effort and attention and make us different from each other loom large, and everything else seems to recede into the background.
But suppose a wicked witch demands just one of your capacities. What are you going to give up? I’d give up my in depth knowledge of philosophy long before I’d give up my fundamental ability to feel happy. Equally important (though further in the background) is my ability to reflect on my own decisions and shape my own life. I value the fact that I’m a person with a specific identity—I’m Jean, not an amorphous blob soaking up the viewpoints of everyone around me. I’m glad I have an inner make up that enables me to change for the better over time, instead of stagnating. I wouldn’t give that up either. And then, very importantly, I’m a person who can care about other people in a way that approaches the way I care about myself.
I like the motto of the United Negro College Fund: a mind is a terrible thing to waste; but I think the terrible things to waste are really multiple. Among them are the capacities for: happiness, autonomy, self, progress, and morality. Some of these capacities presuppose reason, but not all of them. To make use of them all is to have something much richer than “the life of reason.” Compared to these fundamentals, my in depth knowledge of philosophy is icing on the cake. I sure wouldn’t want to give it up; it contributes something valuable to my life; but it’s not one of the make-or-break parts of me that determine whether my life is going well or not well. If it’s a pity to squander my education, it’s a much greater pity to squander any of these basics.
Sandi was another woman in my circle of Mommy friends. Before her second baby was born, she had worked for a plumbers’ association where she organized and ran conventions. As long as she had just one child, Sandi was able to keep going full-time, with a nanny helping out. She found pleasure and growth in her job, and enjoyed the autonomy she had as the head honcho in her office and as a breadwinner at home. But once her second child came along, the stresses of juggling work and childcare became unbearable. The nanny had made a few scary mistakes with the kids, and she felt an obligation to provide them with better care.
As much as Sandi had enjoyed work, there were new pleasures at home, and they were deep ones. Not everyone can relish these pleasures all day long, but taking care of one’s offspring is one of the delights life has to offer. (Maybe that’s because it’s something that so unquestionably needs to be done. Yes, baby needs to be fed; there are very few things in life that are so certain.)
Sandi lost some kinds of autonomy when she quit working, but there was also a gain. Instead of spending her day doing someone else’s bidding, she was spending her time as queen of her own castle. She was also discovering new things about her own identity; not that character traits reinforced at work were not her own; there were new ones that were revealed at home, so that she came into a more complete sense of self. There had been growth at work, but also, in new ways, at home: she was discovering all sorts of new abilities in herself and becoming an expert on her children’s medical and educational needs (which were sometimes complex). In short, the supreme elements she had once found at work were now available in greater abundance at home.
These are some of the things that women feel, I think, whether they’ve exited jobs in academia or law or business, or anything else. They also feel pulled by the benefits quitting has for their children. Sandi’s children weren’t getting adequate care. No doubt Sandi could have found alternative childcare. She might have been able to reduce her hours. But she decided to step in and be her nanny’s replacement.
An honorable choice, I think, but that’s not to say mandatory. Staying home is seldom an obligation. There are some parents who really should be at home: their children have special needs, they’re great at parenting, and there’s a second breadwinner. There are some parents who should continue to work: they’re irreplaceable, they have great childcare options, and would go out of their minds at home. Most cases fall in between.
When my own twins were born ten years ago, I decided to leave a full-time job for a variety of reasons. It wasn’t what I had to do, for my children’s sake, but that doesn’t mean their well-being wasn’t part of the picture. Staying home was the way of meeting their needs that was all around best, best in every respect, under the circumstances.
I’ve noticed, since my kids were born, that children have a tendency to grow up. They eventually go off to school, leaving a non-working mother in an empty house.
Ellen moved away several years ago, so I don’t know if she ever finished her dissertation. Her work was an important part of herself for many years; I can imagine that it became central again when her child grew older. But if she is now spending her time arranging flowers or (worst case scenario) in a deep depression, that may not be for lack of wanting to resume her career. I know mothers who are no longer content as full-time mothers, but can’t find their way back to employment. Their skills have rusted; they don’t think they could survive in a competitive workplace that rewards long hours; they feel like the years they spent at home would be time unaccounted for on their resumes—like a few years in prison or a psychiatric hospital, perhaps.
It’s on this basis that a pro-work argument can be made most persuasively. If there isn’t a road back to work, then a woman really had better not stay home to begin with. Even if the first few years are satisfying, eventually this choice may cost her in all of the important areas. She may wind up less happy; if marital winds shift direction, she may wind up in dire straits, with little autonomy; and she may find herself stagnating, not growing. The bored housewives Betty Friedan talked about in the late 50’s classic The Feminine Mystique were not caring for small children, but mothers trying to fill time while their husbands and children were away all day.
I’m not ready to pronounce that all parents need to go back to work; they certainly don’t need to go back to what they did before. A person can acquire a skill or a body of knowledge and then realize that for the sake of something more important, it’s going to have to be squandered. It turned out that teaching chemistry (or whatever), just was not you, did not make you happy, left you feeling like external expectations were determining your future…or whatever. Having a family is just the kind of life-changing event that can bring about a “course correction.”
I’ve returned to full-time writing and teaching, but I no longer do the same sort of philosophy I learned to do in graduate school. That’s wasteful, but the topics and type of writing and teaching that interest me now are more “me” and more enjoyable. I’ve lost something, but I’ve gained much more.
Perhaps the best path for some is no official work. It seems absurd to worship employment itself, and to rule out the possibility of flourishing outside the framework of a career or a job. For some people, the ultimate things may be in greatest abundance in the home not just briefly, but forever.
Many do need to return to work for their own well-being. It benefits everyone if they’re able to do so, because the world needs women’s contributions. We’re also better off with women returning to work because we want women’s interests to be represented in all walks of life. Whatever we’d like for our own selves in the immediate future, we want our daughters to grow up with a sense of unlimited possibility.
The outlook for work-bound mothers is cause for concern. One study says that out of the 93% of American mothers who try to return to work, 74% will succeed. A large number, but not large enough. And the way in which women return is not always all that they want. Just 43% will return to full-time, traditional jobs.
Assistance is sometimes critical. Bonnie is a friend with kids in high school and college. A paleobotanist who studies climate change, she is constantly flying off to places like Iceland and Ethiopia. She spent many years mainly at home with her children, though teach-ing part-time. Finally, she got back to doing research, with the help of a National Science Foundation grant set aside for women like her. Just recently she earned tenure, academia’s coveted prize of a job for life. Good for her, but also for the rest of us—her data will add to our understanding of global warming, putting us in a better position to forecast a future catastrophe.
The assistance Bonnie received was unusual. That sort of help isn’t going to become more common as long as the initial decision to stay home is regarded as an irrational one. If someone foolishly jumps into a ditch instead of falling in, we’re just a little less motivated to make the effort to help her out.
It’s no tragedy when a woman leaves work to be a full-time mother. It only becomes a tragedy when that initial decision closes off meaningful future options. Were that initial decision better understood and respected there might be far more “on ramps” built into the work-place. We’d all stand to benefit if there were.
Jean Kazez is the author of The Weight of Things: Philosophy and the Good Life (Blackwell). She teaches philosophy at Southern Methodist University in Dallas.