Eve Mason Ekman is co-author of Mothers on the Fast Track: How a New Generation Can Balance Family and Careers with her mother, Mary Ann Mason. Their book is a guide for young women facing the tough decision of when – and if – to start a family. Eve, a young woman herself, weighs in on the difficulty below.
At twenty-seven, with a newly minted degree in social work and a host of personal and professional projects that keep my free days full with trips to the dark room or editing in cafes, the idea of children seems like a black hole. A hole that is unfathomably large, un-navigable and unknowable. This is not because I do not want children. I do. It is not even because I have not found the person who I would consider to be a life partner. It is the of dozens of women I have spoken to with children, trying to balance their careers and families that have me spooked, these women seem to feel fried. Their stories are as effective as some sort of public advertising campaign to warn me away from drugs.
This is your life. (Picture of me Friday night in a mini dress and heels at one of my art exhibition openings fluttering around talking with groups of friends, flirting, joking, a plastic gallery cup of wine in hand.)
This is your life with kids. (Picture of me Friday night me exhausted, in worn out clothes, a child on my hip and lap top on the desk trying to check email with one hand the house around me in disarray, take out boxes and dirty baby clothes strewn.)
This is a dramatized vision, however I find many of my female friends defer from any form of this vision as long as possible. Put the blinders on and push ahead towards elusive career goals is the modus operandus. When I began interviewing women for the “Mother’s on the Fast Track” book with my mom over four years ago I had never seriously considered any vision of when or how kids would fit in my life, or if I wanted them at all. I figured it was best to defer until I was really sure and then figure it out, however over the course of interviewing women from all over the professional roadmap, academics, lawyers, doctors, entrepreneurs, writers and scientists I discovered two things: one, that kids was hands down the most important and rewarding part of these women’s lives and two, it was going to require serious strategies and balances.
In preparing to write this piece last week I did some further questioning. Over the course of one night, in my small office tucked inside ever-unpredictable Emergency Room at San Francisco General’s County hospital, I spoke with two fellow female social workers about stress. Our everyday profession consists of life and death counseling with patients and their families, however, both women identified themselves as most affected and concerned by their roles as mothers.
“I would stay at home all the time if I could financially. I would love to be that mom who volunteers in the preschool class,” states Stephanie Eckhaus, who covers the intensive care unit of up to twelve critically injured patient’s families on any given day. She lives in the east bay with her partner, also a social worker, and they have two children under six. They do not want to put their babies in childcare five days a week at three months, but arranging work schedules between them is a financial juggle. Eckhaus is dedicated to her work, but wishes hospital policy was more aligned to the European model where their paid maternity leave is six, not three months, the state helps parents with child care, and public education is excellent, rarely the case in cities.
In my own life I have realized that there is money and there is time, to be broke in one or the other has its benefits. Being broke in money but spare with time you can take advantage of life’s other enriching pursuits and, or, relaxation. To be broke in time, working and earning a lot of money, you can buy rewards and escapes. Balancing the two is hard enough as a single woman with a thirty-hour workweek on a swing shift from three to eleven to accommodate my arts and writing projects. Motherhood appears a more complicated bargain between being financially strapped versus over booked and not seeing your kids.
“To be a good mom I have to have a life. I have to. I stayed home for three years, it was not easy financially but we managed it but I was very ready to get back to my work, to my career, and my life,” explains Amy Furr one of my Emergency room co-workers who covers the night shift, seven to three am, in order to still be able to provide daily care to her two children under five. She tells me she feels her current situation is ideal for her. She is tired the days after she works but is happy she has been able to re-enter the field after three years out. Even for those who are able to arrange to stay home with the babies there is the potential unforeseen consequence of not being able to re-enter at the level you left.
This is the ‘life issues talk’ my mom did not have with me, maybe could not have with me, because there is no easy solution, and for many women staying home is an unreachable ideal and for others it is a begrudged compromise, a dream deferred. She told me: “Always do the numbers, make sure you can support yourself always without depending on anyone.” She told me “Find some one who enriches you life, broadens not shrinks your world and above all someone dependable for a partner.” But how disheartening would it be to say: “Get ready to be stressed out balancing your career and life, chose as best you can what you want.”
The birds and the bees is an awkward talk to have with your child, I think mine came in the form of a surreptitiously placed book in my room that was full of information and answers, like a kids encyclopedia for sex, it had no section on baby daycare as far as I can remember. The upshot is that despite all the challenges I still want a family, and like my mom, I also want a career. There was not an explicit explanation of how but I grew up with her successes mounting as she rose to full tenured professor publishing books and still hosted the whole jr girl scouts troop at home, and though the cupcakes were from Safeway I loved them as well as any home cooked creation. People want children, it is not a hard sell for those who are determined, and despite the stress that surrounds the early years, children still prove to be the most rewarding life experience from all accounts. If I wanted to stay at home with my children it would be another choice and set of strategies. The important part is that there is a choice, hard won but still there. There has never been a time in history when mothers were able to achieve as much in the world. Mothers have always been and will ever be heroes.