A Twinkle In My Eye: an anthropology grad student reflects on babies

Me and my Mama

Since I was a pretty little girl, I imagined becoming a mom. Mostly it involved having a daughter to whom I could pass on many of the left-wing second wave spiritual feminist* rituals I got to do growing up. Go on, ask me about my maidenhood ceremony some time.

But I “knew better” than to have kids before my mid-twenties. My siblings warned me away from such things, but I hardly needed their advice. The discourse that having kids early interrupts all personal ambitions was one I had pretty completely internalized**. So by the time I thought about coming to grad school, I knew I had to take balancing babies and career seriously. Even before I came, I found as many grad students with kids as I could and interviewed them about their experiences.

What they said is stuff you can find in places like the Berkeley Parents Network, like reminders that there is no good time (but you still might want to get through comps first). Things sounded a lot better in our anthropology program than in Mary Ann Mason’s report on new mothers in science. Of course I still worried that I would face discrimination once I entered the job market (and still do), but if my foremothers could blaze a trail into academia, I would be damned before I’d let an unfair structure keep me from having both parts of my dream.

But the inequalities go far deeper than any single school environment. And, putting aside my belligerent yes-I-can-too attitude in favor of self-reflection, I wonder: Can I do the kind of research I want and still have kids? Can I immerse myself, heart, lungs, and bladder, into my fieldwork while I’m learning to parent? And if I can’t … what then?

—-
* Incidentally, if you like spiritual feminist stuff and aren’t second wave (like me) you, check out Bare Your Soul: The Thinking Girl’s Guide to Enlightenment – it ain’t anthropology, but it is very readable collection of essays by United Statesian women from a wide variety of religious and racial backgrounds.

** I’m not planning to talk much about my research here, but I must admit that my mind was blown when Mike Males presented statistical research showing that young parents (within class categories) were actually somewhat economically better off by becoming teen parents in his book Teenage Sex and Pregnancy: Modern Myths, Unsexy Realities. After writing my master’s thesis on pregnant and parenting youth, I often wonder if I would have been better off becoming a young mom and having 8 or 9 year old kids now.

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7 thoughts on “A Twinkle In My Eye: an anthropology grad student reflects on babies

  1. Thoughtful piece. I remember wanting children at a much younger age than when I ended up having mine. And I originally wanted more children than the one precious daughter that I raised and am so proud of. But I am glad I had the maturity I possessed becoming a first time mom at 33. I was glad I wasn’t beginning my career at the exact same time. I do feel like our country could do a whole lot more to support women in balancing motherhood. Excellent article, “Mothers Beware!” by Diane Johnson who raises somewhat related issues in recent NY Times Review of Books, June 21, reviewing several recent books including “The Conflict: How Modern Motherhood Undermines the Status of Women.”

  2. I think the more general question is “Can I be great at more than one thing?” and I think the answer is “no,” regardless of which things you’re talking about. I can be a musician and a scientist, but I can’t be a GREAT musician and a GREAT scientist because greatness takes single-minded focus. I think the suggestion that one could give up being a GREAT parent is taboo, but then ironically, I think few people *try* to be a great parent in the first place.

    • Hey Jason, I had to read that a few times before it really sunk in, but when it did … whew. I agree with you about the taboo against giving up being a great parent (especially for women, though increasingly for men). One of the ways I’ve thought about trying to get around that I learned from my informants – rope my family in to help! But even that doesn’t really resolve the issue. Thanks for your wisdom on this, I’m gonna be chewing on it for a while.

  3. I have not read Mr. Males’ book, but I would be interested in seeing how he factors teen parenting as economically beneficial. Is it because parenting can be the impetus to improve one’s job skills? Increased responsibility? Or, like me, are parents going back to school as their children age, thus setting themselves up for better paying jobs and careers (theoretically) that they won’t be interrupting later to have children? Or is it because there are resources available to young parents that may not be necessary for or available to adult parents? Interesting post, regardless. I can’t imagine being in graduate school with an infant or even up to a 7 or 8 year old. I know someone who has done it and I admire her perseverance. For myself, I would stress too much that something was getting short-changed. But then, I do that anyway. So, have kids before, during, or after graduate school- you’ll be stressed either way. Luckily, stress can actually benefit the human body. 🙂 In regards to your field research- a lot of parenting in that situation will depend on your partner. I still stress about going to out on a dig and leaving my family. I know everything will be fine. I know my relationship will be fine. It is still stressful. Though, of course, you will know more at the beginning of your parenting adventure than any 18 year old parent ever could hope too. I wish I could go back sometimes, and raise my children as the person I am now, rather than the person I was then. I think they would be a lot healthier and better off. But, I can’t. So, instead, I simply try to correct past mistakes; change and grow as the situation demands; and communicate. Just my $5 worth (inflation, it’s a killer).

    • The part that was most striking to me was his summary of economist V. Joseph Hotz’s 2005 findings:

      “Hotz and colleagues’ findings were surprising. Over time, former teen mothers actually earned more money, paid more taxes, and saved taxpayer costs compared to similarly situated young women who became mothers later. Further, teen mothers were just as likely to graduate from high school or obtain equivalent GED credentials and just as likely to wind up with male partners. Meanwhile, similarly situated young women who waited until their twenties to have babies were saddled with caring for young children into their late twenties and early thirties, reducing their earning potential at the very time they could have commanded higher wages.” (Males 2010:60)

      That said, he devotes basically all of chapter 3 (“Baby Pricing and the New Eugenics”) to refuting the myths (should that be in square quotes?) around the cost of early pregnancy. In addition to career interruption (in that quote). He also talks about resources available for young parents (eg, family support) that older parents often don’t have.

      And now that I’ve said all that (sorry it took me so long to respond, I wanted to find that quote!), thanks for your thoughts on the family. There’s so much to consider and think about, and yet at the end of the day, I suspect you are right – everything will be fine and I’ll be stressed no matter what!

  4. “The moment my baby was born I realized that I would inevitably screw her up. It’s all down hill from here.” -John Leguizamo. If we screw up together, then they cancel out, right?

    • Yeah, I’m pretty sure that’s how it works. Alternatively …

      This Be the Verse
      By Philip Larkin

      They fuck you up, your mum and dad.
      They may not mean to, but they do.
      They fill you with the faults they had
      And add some extra, just for you.

      But they were fucked up in their turn
      By fools in old-style hats and coats,
      Who half the time were soppy-stern
      And half at one another’s throats.

      Man hands on misery to man.
      It deepens like a coastal shelf.
      Get out as early as you can,
      And don’t have any kids yourself.

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