It was huge for Elizabeth Gilbert, the author of Committed: A Skeptic Makes Peace with Marriage, to acknowledge the delight she and her sister had when her mom gave up her job at Planned Parenthood. It was the 1970’s, and her mom, involved in cutting edge work to empower women, had 2 kids with chicken pox and an important conference to attend out of town at the same time.
Elizabeth’s dad refused to take time off work for 2 days to make the situation work—so Mom Gilbert did what many women have done for centuries…made it work herself—she quit. While she would work again, she would never again have a career. “As she explained to me later, she came to feel she had a choice: She could either have a family or she could have a calling, but she couldn’t figure out how to do both without support and encouragement from her husband. So she quit.” (p. 181)
On her processing of her decision:
“Needless to say, it was a low point in her marriage. In the hands of a different woman, this incident could have spelled out the end of the marriage altogether…But my mother is not one for rash decisions…it appeared to my mother that [divorced] women had maybe only replaced their old troubles with a whole new set of troubles….she still happened to love my dad; even though she was angry at him and even though he had disappointed her deeply. So she made her decision, stuck with her vows, and this is how she framed it: “I chose my family”
On her own reaction:
Frankly, we were delighted when our mother gave up her dreams and came home to take care of us. Most of all, though, I believe that my sister and I benefited incalculably from Mom’s decision to stay married to our father. Divorce sucks for kids, and it can leave lingering psychological scars. We
were spared all that….a sense of constancy in the household allowed me to focus on my homework rather than on my family’s heartache…and therefore I prospered.
On her aknowledgement:
But I just want to say here—to lock it forever in print, if only to honor my mother—that an awful lot of my advantages as a child were built on the ashes of her personal sacrifice. The fact remains that while our family as a whole profited immensely from my mother’s quitting her career, her life as an individual did not necessarily benefit so immensely.
And Elizabeth Gilbert’s pleading conclusion:
If I—as a beneficiary of that exact formula [of a 2 parent household with a mother who sacrifices herself for the family] will concede that my own life was indeed enriched by that precise familial structure, will the social conservatives please (for once!) concede that this arrangement has always put a disproportionately cumbersome burden on women?….And might those same social conservatives—instead of just praising mothers as ‘sacred’ and ‘noble’—be willing to someday join a larger conversation about how we might work together as a society to construct a world where healthy children can be raised and healthy families can prosper without women having to scrape bare the walls of their own souls to do it? (p. 184-85)
To all the parents out there who have made costly personal choices to keep your family intact and provide your children with a stable two parent household, I salute you. Some of you have turned down job transfers, incredibly cool opportunities, chances to join clubs and teams that would have been good for you personally but incredibly stressful for your marriage and family. You have voted for your family, and you have voted for your children’s wellbeing. I suspect that while you see the benefits of that choice in your children and your household, there will be days where you measure the cost to your own soul and wonder if anyone else knows what you paid.
To vote for family over oneself is for some an oxymoron…as for many, doing something good for family is doing something good for oneself. When the wellbeing of family is so closely tied to one’s own wellbeing because of the sense of connectedness we have with our families, it’s not hard.
Sometimes, though, it involves breathing deep and slow, swallowing hard, and making tough choices. The easy choice is not always the optimal choice. Today, I honor those who have thoughtfully carefully and thoroughly and have made the choices that are wise and courageous. Choices that benefit the little ones in your lives, that give them the stable base that will set them up well in life to move confidently forward. That’s a big deal.
And I pray for a world where women won’t have to disproportionately makes so many of those decisions that are for many, so very difficult and painful to make.