I’ve been thinking about the place of privilege in the career success formula.
My parents were first and second generation Americans. My father’s father had emigrated to the land of golden opportunity with not much more than a Catholic prayer book (now in the Ellis Island Museum) and a pocket full of dreams. They believed that if you worked hard enough in America, good things would come to them. My grandfather had worked in the steel mills of Johnstown, PA and farmed to keep his family fed. Having left abject poverty in rural Croatia, it was relative prosperity: steady income and good soil produced adequate nutrition and shelter for his family. He left seven children when he died. My father, the youngest, was twelve.
When his brother, my Uncle Jim returned home after WWII, he moved his mother and younger siblings to the New Jersey Shore where my widowed grandma could run a boarding house. My dad was a hard worker too and even at a young age, he found work on the boardwalk, sewing names on hats for tourists, and flipping burgers at a hamburger stand. He married his high school sweetheart a few years after graduation.
Mom had wanted to be a nurse, but in those days, once she married, a woman was no longer permitted to be a nursing student. She left school to became a full-time wife and started right away making babies in true Catholic fashion. I was born ten months after the wedding, thirteen months later came my first brother and 11 months later a second brother . . . and we kept coming until there were six of us.
My dad continued to work; one job to feed the family and pay the bills and the second job to pay his tuition. At the same time, he attend night school, finally graduating with a degree in accounting when I was in third grade. We were never rich but he managed to build a successful practice despite some changeover in partners and a couple of bad business decisions. Despite setbacks that would have discouraged lesser men, he kept going, one step at a time, weaving the growth of a business and a family with his personal growth, pursuing the American dream. He finished his master’s degree after I (taking a more traditional college route) had already finished mine.
My dad was, I believe unique for his time. When I was in seventh grade, the leading partner in his firm died. In order to keep the business afloat, he sunk his limited personal assets into the practice. He told me this meant that he would not be able to help me with any money but that I must go to college. In order to do so, I would have to work hard and start my own savings for college. I would also need to remain academically strong so that I might qualify for scholarships. I worked part time from seventh grade onward. In the summers, I worked two or three jobs. I saved nearly every cent. In high school I took all the “hardest courses” and did not “waste time” taking study hall and maintained a B+ average despite working after school and on weekends. I also rose to the highest rank of Girl Scouts; First Class. I was vice president of the council’s senior planning board, student representative on the board of directors and a representative of the council at two national events. Though I won several other small scholarships because of this activity, I was dismayed in senior year that I had worked so hard–far harder than a lot of my classmates and had not earned a national merit scholarship. True, I didn’t have a straight A average as all of these students did. I could have lived with that realization until I discovered that one person I knew, who took all the “easiest courses” including typing (which my dad considered a waste of time and talent) and was in no school clubs or after school community service organizations had gained a national merit scholarship! Clearly this scholarship was not about hard work. It occurred to me that winning was all about knowing the rules of the game. And, I had not known the rules of this game. If I had taken all the easiest courses, perhaps I would have maintained an A average, but I wouldn’t have gotten the most learning possible out of High School. And, in my father’s rule of life, that was the most important thing. That’s why, in college when I was on a scholarship that allowed me up to 20 credits per semester, I always took all 20 credits. Some people consider that academic suicide. One can’t manage more than 16 credits a semester–12 if you are working! I always took twenty credits and I always worked. I wouldn’t have been able to finish two majors in four years if I hadn’t done that.
The messages I received as a child said that one should work hard, focus on the desired prize and delay all gratification until the goal had been reached. Once achieved a goal was celebrated briefly and then a new, higher goal was set. One did not spend money or time frivolously. For this reason, when I was twenty-one and presented with an offer by the Monmouth Council of Girl Scouts to chaperone a bicycle tour through Europe for the summer, I turned it down. To accept would have meant that I would have had to delay college for a year. If I didn’t earn my annual tuition each summer, I couldn’t afford to stay in school.
When I look back, I realize how little guidance I received from anyone who knew anything about higher education. My dad was my primary adviser and he was, in retrospect, more a graduate of the school of hard knocks than of Rutgers University. The career advice he gave me:
- Learn how to type but don’t take a typing class or stenography class and never put on a transcript or a job application that you know how to type. If they know you can type they’ll never let you out of the typing pool. You’re too smart to waste your life typing!
- You need to go to college to get a good job. I don’t want you to get married because you need a husband to support you.
- Accounting is a good career for a woman–except during tax season.
- Follow the money. If they offer you a scholarship go to that school. If they offer you a better job in a different city, move.
In looking back over my career life and my choices of colleges and grad schools, I could certainly have benefited from some mentoring or at least guidance from someone who knew the rules of this higher education and career game. There are rules, but I am only now beginning to understand them. I have made many career missteps because I didn’t have the advantage of someone who understood what I wanted to do with my life, or appreciated those goals or had an understanding of the ways in which my innate abilities could best translate into a career. There was no one who could offer solid advice on how to structure the steps of a career.
All colleges are not created equal. A scholarship does not guarantee a good or even an adequate education. As I reflect back on it, I think it might have been better to go into debt and come out of college having better career prospects and commanding a higher salary. I was accepted to Cornell and William and Mary but not offered scholarships, so I followed one scholarship after another, eventually completing my BA at St. Francis College in Loretto Pennsylvania and an M.Ed. in Counseling at James Madison University, Virginia.
I wonder sometimes how my life might have been different had I gone the more expensive route and attended Cornell or William and Mary without a scholarship. Would that have opened career doors I didn’t even know about? Would I have found a more informed mentor in one of these places?
I don’t think of this as anyone’s “fault.” I was part of a new generation of women raised to believe, unlike our mothers, that we could have a career after marriage. Just because it was possible didn’t mean anyone had figured out how to make it work. The career rules that had worked for men do not work as well for women–especially when there is not yet an established infrastructure for balancing child care and the demands of a professional career.
I once toured Carl Sandberg’s home. It was a foggy day and a pair of kittens played in the garden. I could envision, “The fog comes on little cat feet!” The guide showed us through his study to a high desk where he liked to stand to write. I like to stand when I write! She said that he also liked to write at night. I love to write in the deep silence of night! One of his wife’s chief duties, said the guide, was to keep the children quiet during the day so he could sleep. What I lacked in my writing career, I only half joked with my husband, was a wife to keep the children quiet while I slept!
Society, I believe, still needs to evolve in ways that better accommodates the needs of women in the career force. Girls need active mentoring that teaches them how to balance home and career worlds. This is far more complicated than the women’s activists of the 1960’s and ‘70’s might have led us to believe. The rules of this game are extremely complicated and often seem to contradict themselves. Working hard is not enough. Some women have concluded that there needs to be a choice between being a good mother and being a good employee. Many women have made the painful choice to be either a good wife or a good employee, sacrificing the joy of motherhood for the pursuit of a fulfilling career or choosing to devote themselves to a career over the satisfaction of raising a family. I believe this choice may be a real either/or reality for many women, but only because society has not yet provided the infrastructure to allow all women to be both–at least not simultaneously.
For myself, I opted for sequential achievement. I had a counseling career for ten years, then opted to redefine myself as a writer while I raised children. It felt like the only option that afforded me the flexibility to balance a career with involved mothering. Once the children were all back in school, though I continued to write, I also went back to a more traditional job.
Although women are no longer required to drop out of higher education if they marry or become pregnant, affordable child care still remains a barrier for many women. Live-in “help” remains a privilege of the most wealthy. Without adequate childcare, many working women, especially single mothers and those working entry level positions, end up trying to juggle at least three identities: career, wife and mother, housekeeper and cook, and all too often, especially for single moms, a second job to pay for the childcare. Flexible work schedules that accommodate family development need to be set in place so that parents of either gender who make use of this flexibility, do not feel singled out or deprived of promotions. Employer provided, on-site child care (including care for sick children) is a necessity if society is to equally value the contributions and honor the abilities of women as equal to those of men. Without this support, even the most skilled of women will remain trapped in unsatisfying, low wage positions. This seems to me a steep price to pay! It means that the contributions of only half of society are valued. The full career potential of half of society is discarded as a means to enhance the contributions of the other half.
This is especially true for women who come from less privileged backgrounds. They begin with fewer support systems, little accurate guidance and fewer opportunities for advancement. Without education, they lack the opportunity to advance even if they possess innate abilities. Without childcare, the addition of educational pursuits on top of the roles of mother, wife, worker, homemaker becomes unattainable except for the most determined of women. Affordable, reliable, convenient childcare remains one of the biggest career hurdles for mothers. It is really time that we, as a society provide the infrastructure to both empower women as workers and empower men as co-equal caregivers for their offspring.