Something I had to start talking about – finally.
I recently had a conversation with a friend of mine – and somehow, I haven’t been able to get it out of my mind. It stuck with me because of what it signified to me in a broader context, so I decided to put it in writing. Mostly just to get it off my chest and to finally voice my thoughts on certain issues – but also because I’m curious to hear your thoughts and get to know more about your personal experiences.
To put this story into perspective, let me give some background information first (bear with me for a minute). My husband and I have been dating for almost 10 years now. We started going out in our first semester at university and that was that. Needless to say, most of our friends are mutual – many of whom we met during business school. While I love meeting people with different backgrounds and professions, our group in Zurich happens to be a rather homogenous set of bankers, consultants, lawyers or entrepreneurs – let’s just say business people. Everyone is career-driven, hard-working, and I don’t think there’s anyone with less than a Master’s degree. Most come in couples, married or engaged. We’re still really different in our own ways, and we don’t connect over our jobs or let ourselves be defined by them, but part of what makes it a good friendship is that we all kind of “tick” similarly. We understand each other’s struggles and challenges. And that goes for the boys and the girls equally. At dinner parties, we don’t have the ladies sitting together and the gents, separately. We always mingle. I love that about this group.
Anyways. The other day, I was talking to a friend during one of our hiking excursions that we love to do on weekends. We were a little behind the rest of the group. His wife wasn’t able to join because she was working on a pretty big deal (yes, on a Sunday). She’s smart, funny, has a Ph.D. and quit her previous job because she was unchallenged. I’d say they’re one of the “power couples” – I love spending time with both of them. They’ve been married for a while now and I knew that they want kids in the (nearer) future – so I was curious to get an update on whether they had made any plans yet. It was just an easy-going conversation – deeper than small talk, but nothing intense.
As we were talking, we arrived at the topic of how to rearrange life when there’s a new baby in the family. Since it’s becoming more and more common (at least in Switzerland) for people, men and women, to work on a 80% basis, even in management positions and even without kids, I suggested this concept as an idea of potentially lifting the load together (knowing that full-time daycare had already been crossed off their list). Even though this is certainly not something unheard-of, his reaction was not what I expected. In fact, he admitted he’s never even once thought about working less to spend more time with their child. Slightly surprised, I asked what this would mean for his wife’s career. Her current job basically doesn’t allow for anything other than work, so I was just curious as to how they’d make it work. If it all fell onto her, her hard-earned career would likely be over. His answer? “Well, to be honest, I hardly know any women who have a real career after having children” – implying that, indeed, the plan was to have his wife take care of the kids while he continued to work full-time.
I have to admit, I was shocked – not because I’ve never heard this kind of opinion before, but because I never thought one of my closest friends thought this way. I’m not talking about a macho here, someone who thinks he’s superior to women. He doesn’t. He’s kind, loving and very respectful. I don’t even think he presumes his own career to be worthier than hers. I believe he didn’t realize the meaning behind his words – so I don’t blame him personally at all. What led me to write this story is the realization that even people like us, modern and open-minded men (and women), are still so heavily influenced by society’s outdated standards. That’s what caught me off guard.
A million thoughts were coming to mind, none of which I was capable of articulating at that very moment, but most of all, I was thinking: WHAT A WASTE. What a waste of time spent at university, earning those grades, getting all those degrees and now working day and night to prove yourself, to succeed, to climb the ladder – only to exit your career at 30 without, it seemed, any option of re-entering, of reaping the return on investment. What a huge loss, too – a loss not only to your employer, but also to society as a whole – a loss of brainpower, knowledge and great ideas that bring us all forward.
His second phrase was: “And those few women who do have a career next to a family – they are way too tough. They’re hardcore. And they never see their kids.” I didn’t know how to respond to that either. Hadn’t he just told me that he wouldn’t even consider working slightly less in order to see his kids more? In the same breath, he was shaming mothers who made the exact same choice. Not consciously, deliberately shaming them – but still.
I want to make one thing very clear – I am not here to degrade anyone for choosing to be a stay-at-home mother, whether it’s for a certain period of time or forever. I am not saying every woman (or man, for that matter) must have a career, either. I respect everyone’s individual choice.
My point is – we should all have that choice. A choice between a multitude of options.
I’m 28 years old and I love working. I thrive on solving difficult problems, helping businesses grow, proving myself, pushing my limits and growing with them on an intellectual and personal level. While I’m not a workaholic in the true and negative sense of the word, I can’t imagine ever not working. I feel a responsibility not only towards my family, but also towards my company, my clients, my team.
But you know what? I can’t even recount how many times I’ve been asked why I’d ever want to have children if I wasn’t going to spend time with them anyways. Please note, I’m nowhere close to having kids right now. Nor have I ever said I don’t want to spend quality time with my potential future kids – I only ever said that I can’t imagine myself being a stay-at-home mom. So effectively, I’m being judged on a choice, an opinion, even before it’s a reality. Perhaps it’s a German thing, because in countries like France, it’s more socially acceptable for mothers to re-enter the work force rather quickly after having a child. Then there are also the countless studies that prove children thrive on social contact in day-care as well as on having a happy, fulfilled mother. But none of this is rationally explicable, so I’ll leave the scientific evidence be.
Similar to the situation I find myself in, my husband has felt the same negative energy towards him. People who have come to accept that I’m not planning on giving up my career (a first step, admittedly) somehow tend to conclude that the two of us have merely “switched roles” and that he is now destined to become the housewife of the family. This frustrates me on multiple levels. For one, because it is 2018 and still, society cannot seem to fathom the idea of a truly equal partnership. One where both partners have their own independent careers, and both pay their dues at home. Personally, the two of us are planning on one day sharing our parental duties same as we already share our household chores like cooking and the laundry. And you know the great thing about that? My husband not only respects my choice, but he truly wants to spend time with the kids. However, the sad reality is that he is subtly shamed by other men (and women, too) for articulating this desire. Basically, a man who is willing to clean and take care of the kids is still seen as “less of a man”, or even a wimp, by society.
Oh, how far we’ve come.
When I was a child, my mom and dad would tell me stories about the days when women weren’t allowed to vote. They’d tell me about distant countries where girls were still not allowed to go to school. All of this seemed so far away, and I felt lucky – here I was, able to study and become anything I wanted. When I was in university, with half of the students being female, I was certain that the fight for equality was a thing of the past, a war that other generations had fought for us. I felt that there was nothing left for us to do.
Sadly, I’ve had to reach my late twenties to realize that we still have a long, long way ahead of us. There are so many fights to still fight, and so many things we still have to put up with, it seems.
There are still too many of the brightest women with the highest levels of education who are dropping out of the work force once they have kids – and not because they want to and realize that motherhood is the one and only job they ever wanted. No. Some, maybe. But many, many do so simply because society still expects them to. Because their husbands are not willing to share the duty of child care. Because their government doesn’t provide them with affordable daycare and their employers won’t offer leadership positions with more flexible working models. Because they simply don’t have the energy to constantly defend themselves against critics declaring them bad mothers, merely because they’re not wanting to solely focus on their children – many of those critics being friends and family members, which makes it even worse. Because it is so hard for them to re-enter the work force successfully. Because we have too few women at the top, in our governments and in our economy, who can lead the way and change things for the ones who follow. Because we have so few role models to look up to.
And all I keep thinking is – what a waste. What a loss to society.
I dream of times when girls and boys can truly become whatever they want to be – without being judged or shamed for it. I’d love to see a time when it doesn’t matter if you’re a mother or a father – because you’re both parents.
I truly hope “the future has no gender”.
But I have come to realize that hoping doesn’t do much good. So I’ve decided to stop smiling, to stop swallowing my anger in fear of annoying someone with my “feminist thoughts”. I usually speak up when I see unfairness. I don’t see why I shouldn’t do so with this.
So the next time I’m in a similar situation, I will speak up. I will voice my opinion. I will call out those double-standards, whether they were intended or not. I will try to make people re-think – or at least think about the meaning behind their words. Our futures should not depend on which gender we are. I want my daughter and my son, if I’m ever lucky enough to have my own, have the exact same chances, options and bright futures. And I want to live to see it – so we better continue fighting.