Growing up in the 50's, I was told that girls were made of "sugar and spice and everything nice". Boys, on the other hand, were made of "snips and snails and puppy dog tails". While my sister and I played with dolls, or made pot holders out of colorful loops of fabric, boys climbed trees and made forts out of discarded pieces of wood.
When I was six, I decided I should be called Skip. I thought that if I had a boy's nickname, I too could play kickball on the dusty field at recess while all the other girls were banished to the church parking lot to jump rope. I quickly learned it didn't work that way. No matter what I called myself, my place was with the girls, giggling on the playground as we chose names for the babies we would surely someday have.
By the early 70's, feminism was beginning to change the rules. I was slow to catch on and believed that my career options were limited to nurse, teacher or secretary. The feminist movement continued to evolve, opening doors for young women who had never even considered changing their name to Skip or Bud. Women's college graduation rates began to exceed that of men and previously all-male professions begrudgingly included women in their ranks.
I raised two daughters who never had to learn their place on the playground or in the classroom. I cheered from the sidelines as they, and their friends, experienced the joy of team sports, learning the valuable lessons of competition and sportsmanship. At times I watched through misty eyes, thinking about what I had missed growing up female in the 50's, but thrilled that my girls could now experience it all. I was grateful that they had opportunities I had never imagined for myself and naively assumed that gender would never define their lives as it had mine.
Yet despite the opportunities their generation has enjoyed, and possibly taken for granted, there is still one door that separates women in ways that have not changed since the days of Father Knows Best. It is the door to the nursery. Motherhood still defines, and divides, women in ways that fathers never need to consider.
If a mother returns to work, she may feel guilty for abandoning her baby. If she quits her job to stay home, she may feel equally guilty for abandoning her career. And if a woman chooses to not become a mother at all... well, there is no end to the guilt possibilities in that scenario.
I'm a fine one to talk. As a part-time nurse/part-time mother, I lived and breathed guilt. At work, I never had the time to put in the hours required to climb the career ladder. I knew I would never win Nurse Of The Year. And when my daughters would march onto the school playground in the Halloween parade, surrounded by classmates in elaborate homemade costumes, I would cringe, knowing I would never earn Mother Of The Year. I felt that I was constantly being judged and constantly found lacking.
But that was the 80's. Women were just beginning to redefine ourselves. I assumed that by now, girls who had been raised to be independent would have grown into women who were far too confident to be saddled with age-old Mother Guilt. They would recognize that while some women are at their best staying home to raise their kids, other women thrive on the stimulation they derive at work. Others, like me, need a balance of the two. Motherhood will never be one-size-fits-all.
It's disheartening to learn that the door to the nursery remains such a formidable boundary for women. Possibly more daunting, and more challenging, than the proverbial glass ceiling. Mommy-war blogs abound and battle lines are still being drawn.
Mother Guilt was, unfortunately, inevitable in the 60's and 70's, when women had more rules than options. Just like those of us who lived through the those turbulent times, I learned many valuable lessons. But does any generation ever seek the advice of the ones who came before? Did I? Well... no. But when has that ever stopped me from sharing?
Nights may seem endless right now but the years will fly by. Before you know it, your little bundle of joy will be heading off to kindergarten/high school/college and I can practically guarantee that they will all be walking and talking and toilet trained. You still won't be sleeping through the night, you may never again, but they will be. You'll look around on their graduation day and you won't be able to tell who had that first grade teacher that everyone insisted was crucial to your child's academic success. You won't know whose mother had a career and whose mother stayed home. You certainly won't be able to tell whose home was cluttered with the latest, must-have stuff or who made do with a few well worn books and room to run.
You will, however, be able to tell who was raised with love and joy. Because they will be the ones with the confidence to leave their homes, and, sadly, even you, to follow their dreams. You have them for such a short time. Let go of the guilt and enjoy the ride, whichever road it takes.