SINCE MOVING TO WITHIN A MILE of the college where my husband teaches, I’ve enjoyed getting to know a lot of college students, particularly the women: they’re smart, thoughtful, creative, and confident. They are forever leaving to or returning from study-service terms in places like Costa Rica or Northern Ireland, they speak multiple languages, they go rock-climbing, and they read books on the atonement just for fun.They have big plans and big questions and big hearts. In fact, they remind me a lot of myself when I was in college.
They also threaten the hell out of me.
Threatened” isn’t actually the right word for the vague anxiety I have when I’m with them. It’s more like one part nostalgia (they remind me of my former, more radical self); one part shame (I didn’t change the world, and now I’m now a mostly-at-home mother of three); and one part jealousy (I can’t play Frisbee every Sunday afternoon anymore). Basically, it’s a competitive instinct that I just can’t seem to put to rest. Adventure, success, activism, and travel win; motherhood loses.
Whatever the word is for my feeling when I’m with them, it’s certainly divine retribution. I spent much of my college career feeling pity and mild contempt for those sweet-natured education and nursing majors who wanted to have babies and live in split-levels—unlike me and my friends, the slightly transgressive and (we thought) brainy writers and activists. I’m not sure my friends and I ever imagined ourselves as mothers, or what we’d do about health insurance and childcare while we and our comrades-in-arms husbands continued with our slightly transgressive and brainy work. All I knew then is that women who were eager to stay home with children deserved pity for their vocational losses and anger for betraying the movement.
I’m proud of neither my former judgmentalism nor my current paranoia about being judged. Both my mommy-track classmates fifteen years ago and my Doppelgänger young friends at present have done nothing to earn my rancor. Plus, I’m schooled enough in feminism to know that animosity between women can be its undoing, and that the purported “mommy wars” are just one more way to pit women against each other in a game no one can win. So while I can forgive my twentysomething self for not having the wherewithal to befriend classmates I saw as threatening to women’s progress, you’d think I’d know by now that college students need thirtysomething women like me as mentors, not competitors.
You’d think. And I do so love to imagine myself in that mentor scenario: in it I take the college women out for coffee at a café, listen to their dreams for the future, then gently impart my “I’m-older-enough-than-you-to-be-wiser-but-not-so-old-as-to-be-uncool” advice. In my daydream, the young women always walk back to their dorm rooms feeling elated that such a successful and compassionate woman took an interest in them.
Giving fair warning
Maybe someday I’ll be mentor material. Right now, however, I’m still too worried that these young women are going to pass me in the next lane. Right now I’m too busy running kids to cello lessons and baseball practice, trying not to resent my husband for his professional successes, and figuring out how I’m going to eventually get a job with nine blank years in my resume. Right now I’m too tired to do much of anything.
But I still wonder if I should warn them. It’s not what mentors do—except perhaps deranged ones—but here’s my other daydream, sans hip café. In this fantasy we’re in my basement, strewn with couch pillows and toys and peopled by screaming children. I pull the college women aside, affix them with a steady gaze, and whisper in a conspiratorial voice: I was once like you. I baked bread in Germany and walked through streams in Nicaragua. I worked for a magazine and had a company credit card and wrote editorials that shocked people. I got married to a man willing to clean bathrooms, and we lived in a city and walked to market and protested the death penalty.
And then I had a baby. Here I pause, then raise my eyebrows.
And two years later another. Another significant pause.
And two years later, yet another.
I stop for awhile, until they think I’ve made my point and begin to sidle away. Then I begin again: Each child is an earthquake that hurls your identity off the shelf, I say. You will spend years picking yourself off the floor, along with everyone else’s socks and playdough. You will no longer know who really wins: the one who goes to the office all day, or the one who stays home with the kids. You will feel guilty about each choice that takes you away from your children, and resentful of each choice that takes you away from your calling. And here I grab them by their scrawny elbows and bring it home: And you will never, ever judge a housewife again!
Then I take a deep breath and walk away, perhaps tripping over a Lego but clothed with the strange dignity that comes with both speaking the truth and coming unhinged. The college women stumble wide-eyed back to their psychology textbooks and smart roommates, trying to figure out a diagnosis.
Changes to come?
Neither of my scenarios is accurate, I’m sure, despite how much I relish both of them. And neither scenario would do college women much good anyway.
Young women don’t need phony assurances about how easy it is to be both a mother and an individual, to maintain both a family and a career, to win in both the office and the house. Such platitudes can only lead to disillusionment and anger—unless the next decade brings about sane maternity leaves, affordable childcare, universal health insurance, and family-friendly work environments. (I’m not holding my breath.) Or maybe, if they have children, they and their partners will find better ways to navigate these days of early parenthood—some way to change the world, change gendered patterns, and still change diapers. I’ll be the first to cheer them on (provided I’m not too jealous).
On the other hand, maybe some college women will end up like me: bewildered, exhausted, not sure whether they’ve won or not or whether they even trust the society that’s keeping the score. Indeed, maybe college women need me a little bit like I need them: as a prompt to reexamine how we calibrate wins and losses, and as a reminder that when it comes to motherhood and work, winning and losing are categories that no longer make an iota of sense.
Valerie Weaver-Zercher is a writer and editor in Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania. Her writing receives special mention in the 2009 Pushcart Prize anthology, and she is a 2009 recipient of a fellowship in creative nonfiction from the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts. Her piece “Mentor or Mom” appeared in the September 2009 issue of Skirt! Charleston. We enjoyed it so much, we asked if we could reprint it.