Way back in the Fifties my father quit his job and followed my mother to a small village in Portugal to become her research assistant for almost two years. She was doing her research for her Anthropology PhD. She was part of a new generation of women academics, nurtured by Margaret Mead and a few others her generation made in-roads into the social sciences well before the feminism of the 60s and 70s. They were innovators, but in the case of my mother this wasn’t some break from family tradition. While my mother worked on her PhD, my Grandma Rose was a Microbiologists, and at that point a single mother of a young teenager. All the women in my family have had careers. They have broken boundaries before most women were thinking about it.
The best story is about Grandma Rose and her work at Kings County Hospital, it was some time in the late sixties or early seventies. She was one of the two final candidates to become the head of the department. It was between her and a Harvard trained scientist. The final decision was going to be left to an exam since they just couldn’t decide. But Rose abdicated, she was in her mid sixties and was close to retirement. I can only imagine what the man who got the position thought when he found out that he was competing with woman who had only ever taken a few college classes here and there. These were the stories I grew up around. Of strong women besting everyone around them. Traveling and doing things unheard of for women.
Most of our family friends were Anthropologists or other academics (though my father was only honorary since he was a businessman, at least that was his job). We were a beautiful chosen family. Though I was an only child I grew up spending a lot of my time with the other kids, many of them are still my closest friends. We were an eclectic bunch, our parents were already in the world of academia when the sixties hit, not as students but as teachers. So we had neither “unenlightened” parents or ones who had been liberated and radicalized by the culture. We were brought up with our eyes wide open to the world. Our weekly “family dinners” often had visiting or returning researchers who had so many stories to tell of their most recent adventures.
Sure there was some deep rooted sexism within our parents, born of when they grew up, but they still introduced us to the world as one where any one of us could do anything. There was no limit, except a tacit understanding that we would only find worth in ourselves outside of the home, in real careers. And even when I was young I felt different. I remember being twelve or thirteen commenting that I wanted to be a secretary, because they could go home at the end of the day and not have their life filled with their job. No one, except my aunt, could understand this. These were people whose careers were so much more than jobs, they were lifestyles.
My early teen years were dark, filled with death, depression and a lot of feelings of abandonment. The person I was becoming was torn. Part of me was this radical independent young woman who wrote and painted and drew a star on her cheek before she went out on Friday nights. But the other part of her was searching painfully for a home, for a returning to that world I had grown up in. Either way very little of who I was had to do with learning in my classes or feeling motivated towards any dream….except happiness, which was completely elusive to me.
I’m not going to give you the drama that filled most of my teens and twenties but during all of it I knew I was looking for this image of a life I had, one that was a mix of my childhood and those I had only read of in books. I wanted to be…..it wasn’t something specific but an idea that it would be a mix of things, a collage of life, no career. I tried my hardest to leave my life of “training” for the career oriented world. I’ve done everything from framing houses to running a nonprofit. All this while I was listening to a different generation’s assumptions on what it meant to be a liberated woman. Except it didn’t fit with who I was. I was born to a feminist and supporter in a small world where that was the norm. No one stayed home, parents cooked, but they didn’t sew or knit or embrace the things that have always connected to me.
So here I am a woman who is choosing to stay home, choosing to put my energies not into a career. I am a woman doing what she wants, facilitating my son’s learning, making things and writing. This is the life I want the one that fits with who I am. I don’t see it as stepping backwards but as being part of a radically different idea of what a feminist can look like. I will bring up my son to respect all people, to be kind and conscious of those around him and kind and conscious to himself as well. This isn’t a glamorous life, but it is one that I can wake up to every morning and feel good about.
This is just the path I’ve taken, the narrative of what has brought me here. But it is only the narrow view, my individual story. I feel the need to take my life and my choices and put them in a larger context. To show that I am not just making excuses, that I am not just buying into some lie sold to me in bad packaging. That’s what comes next.