Tuesday, January 08, 2008

Women Drivers

A friend of mine from college is worried that she is being a bad role model for her preschool-aged daughter because her daughter thinks that women are ‘just’ moms and don’t typically work. Her daughter has already decided not to have a career when she grows up. My friend plans to resume her career after her daughter starts school, but for now is a so-called stay-at-home mom.

I wish she wouldn't worry about this. Over the years, her daughter will see many women doing many different jobs, and will come to understand her options and choices.

This conversation reminded me of an incident from when my daughter was in preschool years ago. One day as I dropped her off at preschool, one of her friends said to me “You drove a car here.” I replied “No, actually we came by helicopter today. We always take the helicopter on Thursdays.” The little girl was not to be deterred from what she knew to be a fact, and she said again “You drove. In a car. I saw you driving.” Having little choice, I admitted to this, and, since it was not particularly interesting, tried to change the subject.

But the little girl persisted. “You drove.” Yes, I drove. “You drove a car.” Yes, I drove a car. I asked her why she kept talking about my driving. Lots of parents drove their kids to preschool. It would be a very long walk from our home. The little girl said “But moms don’t drive.”

Aha. Her mother didn’t drive, a fact of which I had been unaware, so in her universe, moms didn’t drive. Until she happened to see me driving that day, she had never noticed that some (in fact, most) moms drive cars. It had not occurred to her that any moms drive. I was stunned and she was stunned and my daughter seized the opportunity to try to convince her friend that her cats also drove cars.

Today, this little girl would probably be very surprised if I reminded her of this story. Of course women drive! Her universe has expanded, as will that of my friend’s daughter.


Jay said...

It's the "just" in your first sentence that would concern me. You put it in quotes, which tells me that you don't believe that women who are not working for pay are less-than, but I imagine you're quoting your friend. It sounds as if she thinks not working for pay is less-than.

You're right, of course, that her daughter's perspective will shift as her experiences broaden, but it seems that your friend has some issues of her own with her current situation.

Anonymous said...

'cats also drive cars...'

hehe! I love your daughter!

I once took a cruise and was seated with a family with young children. The little boy mentioned he wanted to be an astronaut, and DH and I suggested they stop in at the space center when they got back into town. The little girl (maybe 7?) piped up with, "I'm going to be a waitress like mommy when I grow up!"

Not wanting to miff the parents, who seemed to think this was an acceptable goal, I merely said something like, "I bet a girl like you will find dozens of cool things to do when you finish school."

I've thought about that girl a hundred times since then, and wondered if I responded appropriately. I'm glad you posted this, it reassures me that the poor little girl won't grow up thinking the best she can hope for is serving in a *nice* restaurant.

Anonymous said...

opps, didn't see that comment before posting before -

re: Jay - I hardly think that women (or men!) are somehow inferior for wanting to work for the family and community rather than being a worker cog or anything else.

At the same time, I don't think I'd be thrilled with the idea of a youngster thinking that what she's supposed to aspire to is limited to the home sphere. A grown person making the decision to forgo a career in favor of family is one thing - a respectable and often responsible decision. It's a little different (and heart wrenching) to think that you might be failing to teach your kids that there is no door in the world closed to them.

Clever Monkey said...

True story: A FOAF knew it was time to come home after following her engineer husband to Saudi Arabia for a contract when her child remarked with disbelief on a visit back to Canada, "you can drive?"

See, women can't actually drive in Saudi Arabia. He'd never noticed a woman behind the wheel, and he was nearly 7 years old.

sandy shoes said...

I'm "at home" while my girls are little. Someday, I'll probably get into something else, professionally -- my career isn't worth resuming, so it'll be Something Completely Different.

In the meantime, I can understand how your friend feels. But when my daughters tell me they want to be "just" mommies when they grow up, I try to see it as a compliment... they want to be like me. For now, anyway ;).

I remember telling my own "stay-at-home" mother that I'd consider myself a failure if "all I did was stay home." Yikes! That must've made her feel good that day.

Global Girl said...

Clever Monkey: I don't know what a FOAF is, but Saudi Arabia is on my no-move list. Until they can get their heads out of their asses, I'm adding my productivity to some other country where I'm appreciated. And allowed to drive.

Åka said...

Hmm. I don't think that little kids are permanently decided about anything. Also, I was fairly convinced by The Nurture Assumption that kids get many of their ideas of how things are supposed to be from their peers. Surely parents don't need to blaim themselves for all things that get into the heads of their kids. When your friends daughter goes to school she will meet many other ideas of what women can do -- you will not like all of them, but a parent cannot control the kids completely anyway. You have to allow them to discover their own way.

This is the hardest thing about being a parent, sometimes.

Jennie said...

I've read that it's very important for both moms and dads to do the same things in the household. Children can get the idea that only moms know how to do the dishes or only dads know how to cook. And although kids ideas of how the world works will change over time I think it's parents duties to show their children that their gender doesn't define who they are. Why doesn't this child inspire to be like her dad?
I found this information difficult as my husband and I divide the chores, he likes to work on the cars although I know how to do this as well. I think I'm better at organization and so I therefor put away the groceries and dishes.
This topic reminds me of one of my favorite songs
The line I'm reminded of here is
"I was locked into being my mother's daughter, I was just eating bread and water thinking
nothing ever changes"

Anonymous said...

I think it is sad when kids do not see a variety of options as possibilities to grow up. Although I don't really thing the "you can be anything you want" is strictly true, it's bad when kids are not even exposed to the possibilities.

On the other hand, I think that devaluing a useful and productive activity such as waitressing is wrong.

I wish we didn't have a hierarchy of labor. Work is work, and anything productive, sontructive or creative is worth doing, regardless of how many other people might be able to do the same thing or not.

Anonymous said...

I agree there's little cause for worry-- women typically figure out that they want to be Nothing Like Mom by the time they're 13. :-)

Anonymous said...

(a new reader, a woman from the world of math)

My family is bicultural so when I was young we took a lot of international plane flights to visit one side and come back. After one of these I remarked to my grandpa that it might be cool to be a flight attendant someday. His reply surprised me (he's 83, so he's certainly of an older generation): "You have more important things to do when you grow up than clean up after messy old guys like me!!" It startled me on an emotional level -- it's not a very Midwestern polite kind of comment! -- and that I remember it might mean something. He's always been a big supporter of my explorations in math and science (got me Scientific American for Christmas when I was in high school) and I think it had had an impact.

Anonymous said...

I don't know -- I think we're kidding ourselves if we except that our kids will pick up other behaviors than the ones we model ourselves (including whether we work at home or elsewhere). There's a rabbi that Wendy Mogel quotes in her book: if you want your child to study the Torah, she must see you studying the Torah. If you just tell her to study the Torah, she will not study the Torah; she'll just tell her own children to study the Torah. (yeah, and I'm rewriting the rabbi to use "she").

I think that even more now, than when I was a kid (when ambitious women used their fathers as role models, and dismissed their mothers), our children will model themselves on us. Hopefully other women provide a role model, too (one of the reasons I'm counting on you FSP), but your friend _is_ being honest with herself about the role model she's providing (and worries about).

Modeling being a mother first and everything else second doesn't have to be a bad thing (I respect mothers, too). But it does propose a certain model of womanhood.

Unbalanced Reaction said...

I don't think this will affect her.

When I was four I wanted to be a mommy. By the time I was in kindergarten, I wanted to be a paleontologist. My mom stayed at home until I was 15, and the fact that she raised four kids full-time for all those years haven't deterred me from my career (now my waning desire to birth children...now that's another story). In fact, it is inspiring to know all that my mom gave up (a very lucrative banking career) for us kids, and watching her complete recreate her professionally in the last 10+ years has been amazing.

Anonymous said...

unbalanced reaction:

Yours is a hopeful story -- I think you're younger than me (in my world, most women were stay at home moms, and the few models we had were the pioneers -- the first woman at the company, or department, or university).

The career model of 15 years+ off (assuming you're not the oldest) and returning to science is pretty near impossible, though. What do you imagine your model to be?

I once had a conversation with another woman who also graduated from the same elite science undergraduate institution as I did (you can choose whether I'm talking about MIT or Caltech) and we both just didn't imagine that we would not work, and we thought everyone else would to. But, our models were not women who had left promising careers and returned; they were the men who had never left. We've both been surprised at how much harder it is to follow their model when you don't have a woman at home to run the family life.

Ms.PhD said...

Well, I would be worried!

I have at least one friend who really wants to be a mom, but hasn't been able to find a man to cooperate with that plan. So she's miserable, because while she likes her job well enough, she doesn't love it. And she can't bring herself to have a child alone. Maybe in a few more years, she will.

I agree most with the last commenter, who said the real problem is not working straight through like the male role models all did when we were coming up, but not having a wife to support you and clean up after you and feed you while you do it!

I never took either parent to be a role model, because my father's job sounded boring and my mother was miserably bored staying at home!

But I do think about how my mom has always had the ultimate luxury of staying home: being away from annoying people in an office or a lab! Unfortunately this tendency toward being antisocial did not give me the skills I need to navigate the social workplace.

Anonymous said...

Ms. Phd, yep, it is hard. I have a career husband and two kids, all while on a tenure-track position.
On the other hand, at some point I was supporting my husband who was still in grad school (the kind with hefty tuitions and no TA) and our first kid in daycare. Being the only provider was very stressful, and I must say I got some fleeting sympathy for the guys :-)
I never tried having a wife though, and I suppose that would have been different-- at least the comfort part.

Anonymous said...

What worked for me as a kid. My parents took me to meet all the different high-powered women they knew. (scientists mostly) As far as I know, they did this on purpose. So despite my mom being a stay-at-home-mom, I somehow got the idea that most women were peers of my engineer dad.
Got me to stressful grad school so far.