Over the summer, my favorite college professor was passing through Seattle and so I got to have a visit with her. She is a women’s studies professor, which means she is ridiculously underpaid and will never have tenure. It’s not that she’s not brilliant and extremely well respected in her field–she is one of the smartest people I know and gets flown to conferences around the world and invited to the White House because of her expertise. She doesn’t get tenure because she’s in a field that academia does not reward with tenure and high pay. Women’s Studies is often one of the first programs cut when a college has to make cutbacks–it’s seen as expendible in a way that, say, biology is not. So, unless they are also teaching in another department as well, women’s studies professors don’t tend to be eligible for tenure, which means they don’t tend to make much money. And so my favorite professor, who has published books that were literally best sellers, crashes on futons at her former students’ houses when she takes the few vacations she can afford.
We had a lovely brunch while she was here, during which we had a great conversation about careers. And she said that she has noticed that her east coast friends tend to say things like “What a pity you never got tenure” as if her life is not complete and her career is not a success because she didn’t get that label. But that her west coast friends don’t seem to care much about titles like that, so they tend not to think much of her non-tenured status.
That cultural difference between easterners and westerners resonated with me too. Professionally, I am doing work that I find interesting that I think is important, but I will never be rich or famous doing this work. And honestly, I am OK with that. I am proud of the work I do, even if I do it quietly and without big monetary rewards. Living on the west coast, it feels easy to stay in a job that I am comfortable with, and that gives me the flexibility I need as a parent of small children, without feeling pressure to climb a ladder. I think if I lived back east, I might feel more pressure to move up than I do living in the Pacific Northwest. I’ve had parents of my east coast friends ask me how much money I make and say point blank that they think I should take a more high-pressure, prestigious job. As in “You want to do public interest work? No no no, you should get a job at a big firm and just donate your money to legal clinics or do a little pro bono work on the side.” (That one actually came from my ex-boyfriend’s dad. Thank god he dumped me, because that would have been one awful father-in-law.) I have never had that experience on the West Coast.
So, I was thinking of that conversation the other day as I was thinking about people who see momming as a competition. Like, they brag about how much better their kids are turning out than their friends’ kids, or they look down their nose at other moms who aren’t putting their kids in piano lessons and all that at an early age, or whatever. And I realized that one of the reasons I find people who talk that way so grating is that there aren’t as many of them out here as in, say, Manhattan. We worry about our kids and we want the best for them, but we just don’t seem to put the same value on external measures of success that Easterners do. I joke about The Girl curing cancer and The Boy founding the next Microsoft and taking care of me financially in my old age, but it’s a joke, and it’s funny because I don’t really care if my kids are big shots someday. What I care about is that they are happy. If curing cancer and being a billionaire entrepreneur make them happy, then great, but if they find their joy in a quieter field, and if they aren’t rock stars, that’s great too.
I think if I lived back east, I would find more parents who do see prestigious careers and status labels as the pathway to happiness, and I would probably feel a lot of pressure to pour all my resources into producing the next Bill Gates and Marie Curie. I would worry about choosing the right daycare that will get them into the right school that will get them into the right college that will get them access to the right people, so they can climb into a prestigious career that I believe will bring them happiness. When I talk to many of my east coast friends, the accepted wisdom among most of them is that this is how you create a good life for your kids.
In the end, I don’t necessarily think either parenting style is right or better. I think it’s just a cultural difference. The Cult of Perfect Motherhood tries to tell us that if we’re not parenting perfectly, then we are horrible people and our children’s futures are doomed. But, if different cultures place different value on things like financial success and status and prestige, then clearly there isn’t one perfect way to parent, and we are not failures for parenting differently. And that’s why competing with each other to see who’s the best parent because of how their kids turned out is futile. Because, some of us aren’t trying to produce rock stars. Our goals are different.