I could, perhaps, have been a contender
Today I took in a part-time boarder, just as if I were a Victorian widow who had, through circumstances only whispered about, fallen on Difficult Times. She’s a professor at the college in town, and (it turns out) got her graduate degree from the same place I got mine. She’ll occupy my guest room two nights a week, teaching and holding office hours in between. When she arrived this evening, my children were (rather picturesquely) playing a board game in the living room; right now everyone is in his or her bed, asleep or reading or typing on a laptop.
Today I also got the page proofs for my first scholarly publication, a section of my dissertation I managed to turn into a chapter for an anthology. The book was co-edited by one of my advisers along with one of my friends (the latter, a colleague in grad school, is now an eminent professor), which is why I was asked to participate in the first place. I’m the only non-academic contributor to the book, which has me feeling slightly wistful. On the one hand, I’m thrilled to see any part of the dissertation I sweated blood over in print. On the other hand…well. I myself made the decision not to turn my graduate degree into anything but a feather in my cap, since I chose a specialty that interested me (but was wildly unmarketable) and refused even to consider going on the job market after graduation. My ex-husband’s career trajectory was much more impressive, and much more lucrative, than mine ever could have been. He is now tenured at his university, while I am…what? The only non-academic contributor to a volume of scholarly essays, which I guess is something.
Once upon a time, I was accepted as a grad student at several fine academic institutions, one of which boasted (as the chair of my putative department) an illustrious gentleman who happened to be my intellectual hero. I met him briefly when I visited the campus, but in the end I decided to go somewhere else for my degree. A few years ago, this very man was reading from his latest translation at a college nearby, and a friend of mine (an impressive, tenured scholar herself) asked me to go with her to hear him. It was a rainy night. The hall was packed, and the Great Man was witty, erudite, and altogether divine. After the reading, a huge line of fans clutching copies of his various books stretched around the margins of the hall; I was ready to leave, but my friend pushed me into the queue, where I stood stupidly for a while, waiting my turn. I had with me a lovely first edition of the Great Man’s translation of the Oresteia, which I’d bought for myself for my birthday the year before. When I got to the front of the line, my hero glanced at the book, surprised, and looked up.
“I haven’t seen this in a while,” he said. “I love these plays.”
“They’re what made me decide to learn Greek,” I said truthfully.
“Ah,” he said. Behind me, the line grew longer. He seemed in no hurry to sign the title page.
“We’ve actually met,” I ventured. “I almost came to grad school where you teach.” He asked my name. I told him.
“I remember that name,” he said. “What are you doing now?”
“I…um. Well. I went to graduate school,” I said, feeling my face get hot. “But now I don’t do anything. I mean, I have two children. I take care of them.”
He looked at me closely. “It’s the most important job there is,” he said. “What you’re doing is the most important job in the world.” And, with palsied hand, he signed his name to my book.
About a year later, he died. His stunning translation of the Oresteia is dedicated to his wife, and there’s no doubt he appreciated what she did for him–raising their children, running the household, and (one assumes) providing intellectual companionship–ballast for the great ship of his brilliance. He was an old-fashioned scholar, a magnificent polymath, and I would never malign the blessing he meant to bestow upon me. But with all due respect to late and lamented geniuses, raising my children–who are wonderful children, and whose company I have thoroughly enjoyed for thirteen years–is not seriously considered, by anyone besides Robert Fagles, the most important job in the world.
Listen to me, for I know what I am talking about: If you forego a career in favor of staying home with your children, I commend you. And I understand you, too, because I did the same thing, and it has been rewarding and challenging and intellectually stimulating and, actually, quite a lot of fun. However, do not go into the childrearing business if you expect the world to give you kudos. You may, if you are exceptionally lucky, get a kind word from an aged scholar flattered by your dedication to his work. But you will not get a great deal of respect from anyone else.
If you decide to stay home with your children, make damned sure you are doing it because you want to. Because if, say, you decide that your kids are now old enough and capable enough to fend for themselves a bit, and you appear for a job interview in the field you have specialized in with your resumé clutched in your fist, the person interviewing you will not nod understandingly and say, So, you took a decade off to raise your children, and now you’d like an entry-level position? Welcome to our team! Your career will probably not wait for you. The professional world does not consider childrearing to be the most important job in the world.
And if you are negotiating a divorce settlement with the very man whose children you stayed home to raise, while he finished his degree in record time and went on to score numerous prestigious fellowships and even more prestigious job offers, and then to become the youngest tenured member of the faculty at the medical school of his university, do not expect him to consider your contribution to the family’s welfare on a level with his. Brace yourself, for there is a chance he may actually say, in the presence of both of your lawyers, that you did nothing, really, while he was out supporting the family. However, he will generously allow for the possibility that you will, immediately, begin earning as much as if not more than he does, thus obviating the need for what’s now called “spousal support” instead of alimony. After all, you have identical degrees. It certainly isn’t HIS fault that you opted not to make better use of yours.
The fact that you could have done something other than tend them will not be particularly appreciated by your children, either, even if they are kind, devoted children, who both love and respect you. They will not care that you have an advanced degree. They will, when it’s time to fill out your occupation on a project for school, blithely write “Nothing” next to your name. They will speak reverently of their father’s career, as they fling their backpacks on the floor and devour the snack that magically appears every afternoon. I know what you are going to say. You are going to tell me that the difference I have made to my children’s lives by being at home when they were young is so profound it is immeasurable, and you are certain that my personal sacrifice (although let’s be honest–it’s not really a sacrifice, since I know exactly what I’m doing, and even enjoy it) will repay me many times over when my children grow up. You are going to tell me that even if they don’t “appreciate” me now, they will, someday. And I am going to tell you, politely but firmly, that there’s a pretty good chance you are wrong.
Human nature is egregiously flawed. We fail to appreciate what we have, and pine for what we don’t. A parent (or husband, for that matter) who is seldom available is longed for, even idealized, while the parent who is loyally present is often overlooked. Likewise, the way we spend our days–caring for children, let’s say–is sometimes not enough to satisfy. And if I myself habitually answer “Nothing” when asked what I do for a living, what, exactly, do I expect?
The answer eludes me. I’d like another chance at it, though. I’d like to think that I am still qualified for the type of job I might once have landed. (It’s not as if Ancient Greek has changed a whole lot in the decade since I finished school.) But I’m no longer qualified, if indeed I ever was.
It’s not so bleak; I can probably wring another chapter or two out of my dissertation, and I might even manage to weasel some kind of part time teaching gig. But I’ll never join the hallowed ranks of scholars I admire, and–even though I wanted to stay home with my children, and still want to, at least for the present–I am, on occasion, stung by regret.