What My Conservative Grandmother Knew About Work-Life Balance

I was only twelve years old when the Space Shuttle Challenger tragically exploded in mid-air, twenty-six years ago, killing all seven crew members on board. For those of us old enough to remember that January day in 1986, it was a life-altering and tragic moment for our country.

But what I remember most about that day, if I’m being honest, is my paternal grandmother’s reaction to the death of teacher Christa McAuliffe. That day, after school, I was talking to my grandmother who, as usual, was at the sink washing dishes. She asked me if I had heard about the explosion in school; of course I had. I remember that I couldn’t wrap my twelve year old brain around the awful events. The images of those plumes of smoke were haunting. All those astronauts, their families. Especially the teacher, the first one in space, and her two children left behind…it was painful to think about.

“Well,” she said expectantly, “what do you think?” My grandmother did not give me time to answer. She had something to say. Shaking her head, she mused out loud, “If that woman, that teacher, had been in the kitchen taking care of her family, where she belonged, she would be alive today.” And back to scrubbing she went.

I was flabbergasted, appalled, and everything else a progressive, educated young girl should be. But, in my culture, respect for my grandmother demanded that I suffer in silence. What I didn’t realize at the time, however, was that my grandmother had given me my first (albeit insensitive) career counseling session. Later in life, after my education was completed and I was making tough choices around my work schedule and childcare, my grandmother’s words would haunt me.

It wasn’t that I was still outraged by her position that a woman’s (only) place was in the home; I had come to terms with her cultural and generational mindset years before. No, it was that she was the first – and one of the only – women ever to make it clear to me that such tough career and family choices existed, and with (sometimes dire) consequences, later in life.

I don’t ever remember being told in high school or college that I might, one day, have to make some difficult concessions as a professional woman and mother. Instead, I distinctly recall my educators and older relatives reminding me that I could be and do anything. But they failed to mention one detail: there might just be a time when I couldn’t do and be everything, all at the same time. And more importantly, that it would be OK.

Because my children are still young, I wonder whether career counseling today has changed for men and women in high school and college. Do the professors and clinicians of today – especially the women – honestly share with the students that their careers might veer off course for a while (or change completely) if they take maternity leave or “off-ramp” to stay at home with their children for a longer period of time?

Does anyone take these girls aside and say, “Hey, you know, you can be a neurosurgeon or a photographer, but you may not make it home every night to tuck the kids into bed. And that’s OK, you just need to be aware of the challenges every parent faces.” Would students, women especially, make different individual choices armed with more information?

We ask high school seniors – 17 year olds – to pick a college based on what they might major in, so theoretically, these kids have to choose a career path fairly early on in life. But do they also consider what it will be like to be married, have kids, and decide who will take the 3:00 am feeding? I certainly didn’t think about those things when I was seventeen. But that stuff matters. And my grandmother, on some level, knew that.

Now, anytime I am asked to speak with young women considering various career paths, I always bring to their attention the possibility that one day, it might not just be them they are making decisions for. One day, there may be a partner or children or even a sick parent involved. And while this is never intended to force women “into the kitchen,” as my grandmother so bluntly put it, it is intended to remind these young girls that they are going to be defined by more than what their professional title might one day be. And that their responsibilities in life will reflect that. They need, at least, to consider it all.

My grandmother worked most of her adult life outside the home, so I know she understood the difficulties women face functioning in multiple roles. But she also understood that we had choices, and that, perhaps, when exploring new frontiers, we needed the right tools to forge a new path. In a surprising twist, my grandmother turned out to be a pioneer, not just because she was aware that young women needed to embrace the full picture of what their future obligations might hold, but because she knew that without this information, it would be impossible to effectively choose anything.

This article originally appeared on The Mommy Vortex (www.rachelsimmons.com)

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