Years ago, long before I became a mother, I was riding in my boss’s car along with several other co-workers on our way to an off-site department lunch.
“So, Cheryl, do you have any children?” one of my co-workers asked my boss.
“No,” replied my boss. “Children were never on my to-do list.”
I’ve always found that reply amusing, but it’s only been recently that I really understood that what she was saying was that she was prioritizing her career as a scientist over a potential role as a mother. This doesn’t mean that she couldn’t see value in a mother’s role, it just wasn’t her value for her life.
This, to me, is the essence of voluntary simplicity: Looking honestly at our values and aligning our lives with them, even if this means our lives don’t look like the brochure. This is a simple thing to say but it can be difficult to implement because often saying “yes” to one thing means saying “no” or at least “not now” to a slew of others.
Periodically I ask my husband if he’s happy with the amount of time he spends with our kids.
His answer is always yes.
“I like spending time with them, but I also like the work that I do,” he explains.
As a scientist engaged in biological research, he’s only recently been in a “job” job. After his bachelor’s degree, he went to more than ten years of school and postdoctoral training. He didn’t get his first post-post-doc job until he was solidly in his 30’s. He’s devoted much of his life and his time to his career. It’s something he values and that he finds enriching. Through science, he believes he can make his mark on the world and do the most good he can for humanity.
He values his children and his role as a father. He is very engaged in our children’s lives, devoting essentially every hour he’s home in the evenings and on the weekends to being present with them. He arranges his schedule at work so he gets in to lab before the kids wake up in the morning and comes home in time for dinner between 5:00 and 5:30 so he can see them and play with them and read to them before they go to bed.
He wants to make a mark on the world through his role as a father as well as through his role as a scientist.
On the other hand, I don’t have a career calling, at least not that I’ve discovered. I enjoy writing, and I can see how I could make a mark on the world through my writing. But being a parent is the primary way that I believe I can make my mark on the world. Parenting feeds and, I think, enhances my writing, so the two are intertwined, but I prioritize my parenting over my writing. As a result, I spend the majority of my time with my children and write in the evenings and on weekends.
My husband and I have arranged our lives around these values. The way this looks in our lives is that my primary occupation is at home with our children and his primary occupation is at lab with his scientific career. We’ve done this even during the lean postdoc days in the high-cost San Francisco Bay Area where we lived simply but just barely voluntarily. Even then, we didn’t feel like we were sacrificing because we were living our values.
Our roles are synergistic in a way that reflects and supports the priority we place on our values. My husband’s salary as a scientist is, for now, the sole source of income for our family. My caring for our children and teaching them at home allows him to work at a career he loves and bring home the money that supports our family’s needs. When he’s home and spends time with our children, he supports my writing.
When we decide to live by our values, we have to admit that we’re prioritizing many important things, which can be a difficult process. Our family is arranged in one of the couple of ways that are deemed acceptable by our culture, which I think makes it a little easier. The way my husband and I articulate our values vis-à-vis children and career is pretty darned traditional and therefore (besides the homeschooling) accepted by our culture, but if our values were switched, I think we’d end up with a little more difficulty.
Even if it accurately reflected my family’s values, it would be less acceptable for me as a woman to say, “You know, I love my kids and value my role as a mother, but I see my career as the way I’ll make my mark on the world. I’m comfortable leaving the daytime child-rearing to others and having my time with the children after work and on weekends.”
The answer a woman must give to be a “good mother,” the only acceptable answer, is that she’s torn up inside about leaving her children, but that she has to work to bring in more money. Even women whose spouses have very high-paying jobs express this “I need to work for the money” when they choose to continue their careers after birthing their children.
Even though my husband and tons of other men state clearly their priorities for career over child-rearing and it’s seen as normal and even admirable, if a mother makes a statement like this, she’s callous or unmotherly. I don’t know why this is.
Whatever the reason, any deviation from the cultural norm is viewed with suspicion. If he valued being with our children over having a career (and acted upon that value), my husband would be looked at with raised eyebrows and given less societal support than stay-at-home moms get (and that’s precious little to start with).
And if both my husband and I had careers that were central to our lives and our fulfillment and we chose not to have children, woe betide us for being so selfish as to recognize and live by our values. It would be more culturally acceptable if we had children anyway and then outsourced their upbringing, complaining all the while that it sucks but we both need to work to support the financial needs of our family and sacrifice time with our children to do it.
I don’t get why this is. Don’t all children deserve to be raised by people who value child-rearing over essentially everything else in their lives and who don’t feel acutely in every moment that they’d rather be somewhere else, doing something else?
Here’s the thing: when we live in line with our values, we don’t feel it as a sacrifice. We might feel pressure from family, friends, and society at large to make different choices, we might look wistfully into an imagined alternate future, but we’ll ultimately know that we’ve made the right choice based on our values.
A sense of sacrifice is a sure sign we’re not living our values.
I spend my days with my kids, and I don’t feel that I’ve sacrificed my career because I’m living my values. My husband works full-time outside the home and doesn’t feel that he’s sacrificed time with his kids because he’s living his values. Even though we each complain on the bad days, the way we’ve arranged things works for our family because it’s in line with our values. A feeling of sacrifice would signify that we’re not living in line with our values.
We don’t feel like we’re sacrificing. We feel like we’re simply living.