When you see the word “choice,” you might first think about the emphasis of the “pro-choice” proponents on free will, as opposed to the sanctity of life that its opponents emphasize or the privacy aspect that was the basis for Roe v. Wade. I think about that too. As a college writing teacher, I find it to be a powerful rhetorical choice, since we do value free will, particularly as Americans. The idea of free will is closely related to the American ideals of individual freedom and democratic government; at the same time, the vast majority of Americans self-define as Christians or Jews [see, for example, http://religions.pewforum.org/reports], and the concept of free will is central to those religions too.
Yet I have to wonder how much free will anyone can possibly have. How can one ever know if s/he has made a decision based on what s/he really wants, or in response to some external expectation? For instance, when I made the decision not to change my name after I got married, was that really what I wanted, or did I feel I had to make that choice because mainstream society expects otherwise, and as a feminist, I felt compelled to resist? Or when I made the decision not to have an abortion even though I was only 20 years old, unmarried, unemployed, broke, and on academic probation in college at the time – was it because I really wanted to have that child, or was it because I subconsciously felt I should, because mainstream society told me so?
Privileged mothers – privileged because they even have these choices – talk about whether to breast- or bottle-feed, whether to work or “stay at home,” whether to use a nanny or another kind of child care provider, whether to put their children in public school or private or to school them at home. I am privileged in some of those ways. I had to go back to work six weeks after delivery, but I had a borrowed medical-grade electric breast-pump from a government program and an indoor job with air conditioning, access to a freezer and a bathroom with an electric outlet behind a locking door, and primarily female co-workers with children of their own, so I was able to pump and freeze enough milk at work to keep my son exclusively on breast-milk for his first year. And now, even though I am in graduate school and have to be in the classroom or in office hours for some hours every week, my schedule is flexible enough to allow me to spend most days at home. That gave my husband and me the option of switching our son to an online charter school last year when we realized that he was learning little more than a negative attitude at the overcrowded, underfunded public elementary school he once attended in our rural Arizona town. Now, the curriculum is free, and we have an assigned teacher who keeps an eye on our son’s progress, but we are the ones who must teach him and work with him at home. It takes a lot of time and energy, especially since we must constantly fight with him to get him to stay on task and do his work. But he is learning, and he will tell anyone who asks that he much prefers this school to any other option that we have explored. That is particularly true because, through this school, he has been able to work ahead in Language Arts – a whole year ahead. He could not do that at any other school in our local area.
After that first year, however, I have increasingly begun to realize that allowing him to stay in this school – in other words, allowing him to continue learning, to not be labeled a problem child, and to be happy – I am making a choice between his interests and my career. It is undeniable that graduate students without children are more likely to move through their programs more quickly and successfully than those of us with children at home. That is especially true, I think, for those of us whose children are always at home. Except when I am in the car, I never get any time alone, anywhere. I am constantly getting interrupted, and even when I am not exactly getting interrupted, I am generally distracted by the noise of a little person, for whom I am responsible, in the house. And when the list of what I should be doing for my career is longer than what anyone could ever possibly finish, every moment counts. As long as my son is at home, I cannot be as successful as I could if I sent him back to school. There is even a distinct possibility that I may not succeed at all.
Part of me asks if I should even allow myself to complain. I am lucky to have these options!
But it is painful to realize – even though I always knew that we, as women, couldn’t really “have it all” – that I actually have to choose between my interests and my son’s. It is as simple as that: one or the other. Wow.
Of course, it is not quite as simple as that. Finishing my degree and getting a good job will give my family more financial security, and it might even mean a free or discounted education for my son someday, since some colleges offer lower tuition to the children of their faculty. My son cares about me and knows that my career is important to me, and so he would be sad if it did not work out. Likewise, I care about his education, and so I would not be happy either if I had to send him back to the local elementary school – especially after all the effort that our family has already put into this alternative arrangement..
I would be even more unhappy if I did not achieve my career goals, though. And I cannot tell myself that the time that I am spending on my son’s education is not worth more than that time would be if it were instead spent on my career. I certainly appreciate and respect my time much more, and there is sometimes more tangible evidence of the value of my time spent on my career than there is on my son. He is still unmotivated; he will still do anything to avoid doing his schoolwork; he still whines about everything that I ask him to do.
So I have to ask myself: Why am I making this choice? Is it because mainstream society has taught me to put my son’s interests before my own? Or is it because I really want to do it?
I do not – cannot – know.
Jessica B. Burstrem is currently a Ph.D. student in English Literature at the University of Arizona, where she is also a Graduate Associate, responsible for teaching undergraduate English courses. Her website is http://www.clinefelter.com/jessica/