When I worked as a college counselor, my students would often get frustrated because they felt as if they weren’t in control of their college admissions process. “I don’t have any choices,” they would say. “The colleges are making the decision for me.” Whether the kid had a straight A average or whether the kid was at the very bottom of the class, my response was always the same. Namely, I told them that they were wrong. Actually, I would say, you have a lot of choices. For one thing, you’re choosing the colleges to which you’re applying. It’s not like a college is just going to up and reject you if you didn’t ask them to consider admitting you in the first place. And if you really want to get macro about it, I would say, you’re choosing to go to college. You don’t have to. There isn’t a law that requires it. Oh, Ms. Green, they would whine, sounding not unlike my five year-old. Of course we have to go to college. That’s not a choice. But it is, I always reminded them. It may not feel like it is because your parents are telling you that you have to, or because it would be hard to get a good job without doing so. And I never said that not going would be an easy choice to make, especially if your parents are threatening to cut you off and you have no other source of income. But nonetheless, it is a choice.
The reason I mention this is because lately, I’ve realized that the same principle applies to working mothers. Now, for the sake of this discussion, let’s all agree that I’m not talking about single working mothers who are living at or below the poverty line. I’m talking about middle to upper-middle class working moms who work full time because they feel like they have to in order to pay the bills every month. I’m also talking about myself. I don’t know about you, but I have often felt trapped by work, both before and after I had children. I’ve spent many nights feeling sorry for myself, wishing that my husband made more money so that I could just quit, and I’ve often found myself wondering what it must feel like to just live in peace, free of work-related pressures, deadlines and anxieties. I’d be happier, I tell myself. I’d be less stressed, I’d be nicer to my kids, and to my husband. I’d be thinner, that’s for sure. And yeah, yeah, I know I’d be bored, and unsatisfied, and it would get old after three days, but still…sometimes work is down right suffocating, and sometimes I have fantasies about getting into a car accident that is not quite bad enough to cause any permanent damage, but just bad enough to land me in the hospital for four weeks with strict orders to do NO WORK WHATSOEVER, and sometimes I just wish that I could forget the whole damn thing and give up on this stupid book I’m writing and give up on this column and just QUIT. But I can’t, because even though I don’t make that much money, I make enough for us to need it, and so therefore working is not a choice, it’s something I have to do, and quitting is not an option.
Which is where the college counseling analogy comes in. Because the truth is, when I dig really deep, I know that I could quit, if I really wanted to. We could sell our house and buy something smaller, and my kids could share a room. We could move to a city that isn’t as expensive as Los Angeles. We could buy cheaper cars, we could cut back on the kids’ activities, we could pull Davis out of his expensive, private preschool and keep him home until he starts kindergarten. With all of that extra time, I could probably even learn to cook and save the small fortune that we spend on takeout every month. But Ms. Green, I hear myself whining. Our families are in LA, and all of our friends. And our kids would kill each other if they had to share a room, and Harper loves her art classes and ballet classes, and studies show that kids who go to preschool do better in school in the long term, and in case you forgot, you are a really, really, really bad cook, and so of course I have to work, it’s not a choice. And I hear the college counselor in me telling the whiny me that I never said it would be an easy choice to make, but it is a choice, nonetheless.
And so I step back, and I think about this for a moment. And what’s amazing is that I do not find myself rolling my eyes at college counselor me, which my students usually did when presented with this very same answer. But what is also amazing is that I feel a sense of empowerment. It is empowering to acknowledge that I am not an indentured servant. It is empowering to realize that I, in fact, am choosing to work in order to maintain the lifestyle to which I and my children have become accustomed. It is empowering to understand that my work is in my control, and that if, at any time, I decide that my work is no longer enjoyable, no longer a source of pride, no longer something that gives me satisfaction, then I can simply stop doing it. Now, that doesn’t mean that I won’t have to find another way to make money some day, and it doesn’t mean that there won’t have to be sacrifices, and it doesn’t even necessarily mean that I will be any happier. But it’s my choice if I want it.
For the record, I never had a kid decide not to go to college after I gave them my speech about choices. But if even one of them felt just a little bit more in control of their lives, then I think I did a good job. Granted, it was a job that I ultimately quit, but hey, that was my choice.