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. . . and the universe smiled.

One night last week, I stayed late at the office, trying to finish up my syllabus for this year’s class on The Women’s Economy (reading list now available here:  2013WomensEconomyReadinglist). About 6.30, I went down to the cafeteria, a place I normally try to avoid because of the noise.

It was nearly deserted, so I got my tray and sat down with two books I was considering, Jessica Valenti’s Why Have Kids? A New Mom Explores the Truth about Parenting and Happiness and Elisabeth Badinter’s The Conflict:  How Modern Motherhood Undermines the Status of Women.  As it turned out, these are pretty good books, even though the topic is somewhat overtrodden.

Both books start with the premise that motherhood isn’t as great as we all act like it is. Both confront the sociological, economic, and psychological downsides of what is often represented as an “all upside” experience.  But the authors do their job mostly with facts rather than with personal whining, which makes them more compelling than the usual confessional or joke book on the topic.

While I had my nose stuck in Badminter’s book, I felt someone coming up behind me.  I looked up just as a young man picked up Why Have Kids? and asked if he could look at it for a minute.  I asked him why he was interested in it.  He answered that he had seen the book reviewed on a site for writers and the reception of it had been good.  Now, it does happen from time to time that I have students interested in writing–even if MBAs typically will not read more than two pages written in bullet points–but it is rare.  An excellent student in my first year here majored in rhetoric and about two years back, one of my students actually maintained a website for his own poetry.

But, again, it is not what you expect in the cold, grey cafeteria of the Said School at dinner time on a Monday night.

We began a tentative conversation, about the impossible choices young women (but also young men) face these days between working and family.  In an MBA program, the women can hardly wait to ask any visiting speaker who happens to be female (or their female professors) the Big Question:  “how do you do it?” (That is, balance work and children.)

My answer to the Big Question is always:  “Not very well.”  It gets a laugh, but opens the way for me to talk about the less-than-perfect conditions that working mothers must learn to tolerate, the heart-stopping near-miss timing that becomes your life’s pace, the blame game that occurs every time your child makes a bad grade or (it happens) gets arrested.  (I remember when Caitlin turned 18.  I told her my life was changing more than hers.  “Up to now,” I said, “If you got thrown in jail, it was my fault.  From today, it will be yours.” Caitlin was one of those kids, though she is now a model adult.)

I often point out to these young women that motherhood is not just about showing up for the Christmas pageant or making great Halloween costumes.  It’s also about paying for graduate school or medical treatments not covered by insurance–sometimes without a partner to help.  I caution them not to mortgage the long term commitments of parenting by focusing overly on the “being there for the first steps” question (really, the early years go so fast, the later years much less so–and, believe it or not, neither you nor your child will remember about the first steps).

But that isn’t the conversation I had with this young man.  Instead, I found myself sharing with him the dilemma I find myself in with my own daughters, who are both closing in on the age when they will start worrying about the “biological clock.”  I tell him that, of course, I want grandchildren.  But I worry that the society simply does not support mothers, of either the working or the stay-at-home variety.  I remember how hard it was for me (I was a single, working mom for most of their childhood).  I don’t want to see them go through that incredibly difficult trial.  And, yet, I can’t bear to see them denied what has been for me my most important life experience, nor cut out of what is, at least for me, the two most powerful relationships I have ever had.  This is not to say it was all puffy and happy (it wasn’t), nor that I was one of those moms who was always baking cookies and stuff (I wasn’t).  But, somehow, through it all, I became a real person, much more so than I ever had been, and bonded to two other people–people, not children– in a way I didn’t think possible.

Now, I didn’t go into that much detail in my chat with this young man.  But I said enough. So maybe that was why he responded in an equally candid way.  And we talked about the pressures on young men to behave like they are not interested in such things, like they would never consider giving up work to raise children, even if they wanted to.  He told me he was one of those young men who thought he might actually like to be the primary parent, but that he wasn’t sure he could really say that to anybody.  I laughed and told him it was probably the best pick-up line around.

I confessed that I was really proud of my daughter, who is going to medical school, when she picked an artist to marry, a partner who was willing to be the one to mind the home fires.  It showed that she knew herself in a way I would not have at her age.  I said I thought it was hard for young women to walk away from the idea of marrying some go-getter alpha male type.  That part of the gender system really cuts back the other way, hurting the men.

Anyway, we chatted then a little about my work and he told me he was one of the new crop of MBAs.  And then we said good-bye and promised to follow up at some point.

Like many people, I tend to think of male MBAs as a different breed–a kind of super-alpha, double y crowd.  This young man reminded me of my own prejudices.  In truth, some of the nicest, most genuine young men I have ever known have been in this program.  They have made such an impression on me–Jesse Moore, Richard Coryell, John Hucker, Michael Aiello, Eric Meissner, and many more–because they were ambitious and smart, but also emotionally engaged and socially responsible.

And it is also true that I have said, many times over the years, that the young men I see as students are getting better, cohort by cohort.  It maybe doesn’t seem like it, when you look at music videos and the like, but I do think it is true.  When you teach at the university level, you watch a succession of “waves” coming in, generations that do actually differ from each other in ways that suggest trends.  Much has been written about the “Millennials.”  In my experience, they are, indeed, different from what has preceded them, even just 10 years ago

The men of my generation were different from their fathers—head and shoulders above, if you ask me.  To this day, one of the distinguishing characteristics of the Baby Boomers, men and women, is their measurably more liberal ideas about gender–and, indeed, their overall tolerance as compared to their parents. Too often, we bemoan how little things have changed (especially feminists do this), but, in fact, the social landscape has changed dramatically since I was young, particularly where gender is concerned.

It is important to remember that hope and love must be maintained, especially in this particular social relationship, no matter how unequal it has historically been.  And much of that hope must necessarily rest in the changing attitudes of the young men.

So, as he walked away, I had both a sense of my own prejudices being knocked askew (again) and of the larger stretch of historical change (also a familiar feeling).  I imagined myself, as if watching from the ceiling.  There I was, all grey-haired and grumpy, hunched over my books in that forest of formica.  And this young man, walking away from me, had reminded me of my own limitations–and of the limitless possibilities before all of us. I sensed that, somewhere out there among the stars, the universe smiled.


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