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Work, life, choices, and so on (and on and on)

I read two interesting articles yesterday about education and motherhood and choices and the timetable of life. The first mentioned a proposal in the President’s new education bill:

Take, for example, the National Center on Education and the Economy’s plan to have eight states experiment with allowing public school students to graduate after tenth grade upon finishing clearly stated requirements, and to then go on to community college. . . . One of the most ironically damaging aspects of the GI Bill in the 1940s was the notion, now so deeply entrenched in the American soul as to seem not an opinion at all, that four years of a liberal arts education at a university is a default experience for people after high school, and that to not do this is opt for, or be saddled with, the lowlier fate of “Not Going To College.” In this era when we so often bemoan the plight of uneducated young men, it is high time we returned to championing vocational education as America used to – and once again the Obama Administration is on it, with its plan to put 12 billion dollars into community colleges.

This strikes me as a very good thing. My mother-in-law, who is a nurse, told me once that she was often looked down upon because she “just” went to nursing school and “just” got a nursing degree, instead of going to a four-year-college and then getting a degree. Myself, I fail to see why it should matter, so long as the training is adequate. What’s better, after all – for an 18-year-old to get two years of vocational training and be able to get a job at 20, without much educational debt, or for an 18-year-old to, as a random example, go to a 4-year liberal arts college, get a good degree and the advice that she should go get another degree, and end up at the age of 24 still without job prospects in her chosen field AND a whole lot of educational debt? (Not that I know anyone in that situation.) I think, in fact, that very few 18-year-olds have a firm grasp on what they want to do with their lives anyway; but consider – if someone with a vocational degree changes his or her mind at the age of 30, after 10 years of working, he or she may be a lot more likely to be able to afford retraining that the 30-year-old with only 6 years of work experience who is still paying off a student loan.

And I know that not everyone will fall into those two categories, obviously. Not everyone has to take out student loans. Not everyone dithers around about what they want to be when they grow up. And I think there is something to be said for the intrinsic value of a “liberal arts education,” in the sense that every learning experience is good for the mind, it’s good for the populace to be culturally literate, blah blah. However, considering the current state of things – astronomically high, and ever-increasing, college tuitions; many state university systems in financial crisis (see: California); students graduating with a ridiculous amount of debt before they even get started in life – I think it’s pretty clear that something about the system is broken, and needs to be fixed.

Which brings me to the second article I read. It started with a quote from Hilary Mantel (the author of one of my favorite books of 2009, Wolf Hall):

I think there is this breed of women for whom society’s timetable is completely wrong. We were being educated well into our twenties, an age when some of us wanted to become mothers, probably little bits of all of us. Some, like me… you know, I was perfectly capable of setting up a home when I was 14, and if, say, it had been ordered differently, I might have thought, “Now is the time to have a couple of children, and when I am 30 I will go back and I’ll get my PhD.” But society isn’t yet ordered with that kind of flexibility, and is incredibly hypocritical about teenage sex, teenage mothers and so on.

Mantel was immediately criticized for seemingly advocating for teen pregnancy and so forth, and honestly I don’t think that any 14-year-old girl is capable of “setting up house.” But it is true, I think, that the current, standard approach to life – go to school, go to college, get a job, then get married and have babies – has some obvious drawbacks – to wit, what happens to your job when the babies come? You either have to work (outside the home) while raising the babies, dependant on family or daycare to get you through the first five or so years, or you leave the workforce for five or so years and try to get back into once the kids go to school. Clearly neither of these choices is optimal. (And yes, I know – you can work part-time, you can work from home, you can bring the baby to work. I don’t think those choices are available to the majority of women, however.) It’s a very fragmented and difficult way to organize one’s life.

Now, the obvious problem with doing it the other way – marriage and babies first, then college and a job – is, who is really ready to start a family at 18? I know a few people who have married young and had children young and managed exceedingly well at both (hello, Mom and Aimee!), but I don’t think that’s the norm any more. (And anyway, I wonder what would happen to the women who wanted to get married before college, but had no immediate prospects? Would they just stay at home and hope to meet a man? That’s an old-fashioned, and kind of unpleasant, notion.) I could’ve married the guy I was dating at 18, but I doubt that we would’ve made it two years without splitting up. I also don’t think that I would’ve been a very good mother at 18, honestly. (Although, on the other hand, it’s conventional wisdom that my generation -- “helicopter parents” we are termed -- is raising a bunch of praise-junky wimps with no coping skills or self-sufficiency – is that because we waited too long to have kids, learned too much in the interim, rely too much on the things we’ve read rather than instinct?) But, it’s also the case that it was only after I had my kids that I discovered what field of study, what career path, I should have pursued (child psychology, speech pathology, or the like). So yes, in many ways it would’ve been better for me had I put off college and had the babies in my 20s. Then I could’ve gotten the education I now wish I had gotten in my early 30s and had a more satisfying career at 38 (theoretically). Instead, I went to school in my 20s, had babies in my early 30s, and now am kind of stuck.

(It goes without saying that of course I’m glad I did what I did, because if I hadn’t gone to Trinity then come to UNC I wouldn’t have met Chris and we wouldn’t have gotten married and we wouldn’t have the girls. Still. You know.)

Reading over this, I’m not sure what my point is. I seem to have used “I don’t think” and “but also” and “on the other hand” and “then again” in almost every sentence, so clearly I don’t have much of a point at all. I guess what I want to say is...I’m proud of the fact that although my daughters complain that I have to go to work, they also say that they want to be a mommy AND something else (a vet, a teacher, a rock star) when they grow up. I’d like to believe that in fifteen or twenty years, the choices about what to study and when to have children and whether to work will be clearer, less fraught – but without a massive change in the way society is structured, I don’t see how they can be. So maybe all I can do is hope that I’ll have some wisdom to impart to my daughters once they get there. Well, I guess I’ll also have to hope that they’ll listen to me.


aimee said…
I, as you said, married yound and had kids young and almost everyone I meet my age has either no kids or kids way younger than mine. Actually it took me until almost 30to meet those women with kids and around my age. So you are right, no one hardly does what I did anymore. Not that I wish I didn't do it because I really love being a young mom. I really don't want to do what I went to college to do though and have no idea where to go from here. So in one way or another I agree with you.
Karen said…
I also agree with you. I think that almost no one knows at 18 what he/she wants to do "when grown up" and is somehow forced to make a choice in order to finish a degree of some kind in a reasonable amount of time. Somehow, some part of society needs to be restructured in some way so that it is more acceptable to get some kind of vocational training before deciding on a life's work.

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