When my youngest nephew was 2 years old, my sister-in-law had the opportunity to spend a month studying architecture in Japan. She was halfway through obtaining her graduate degree from the Rhode Island School of Design, a program she started when he was just 4 months old. Brilliantly talented and incredibly driven, she had been working 60-hour weeks and rose quickly to the head of her class. One of the most respected professors in her program was organizing the trip, and she saw it as an opportunity on many levels. Professionally, she felt this trip was a potential stepping stone as well as a chance to spend a considerable amount of time learning from someone so esteemed in her field. And personally, she saw it as the last opportunity she would be presented in the foreseeable future to spend time in and experience another culture.
And every time I talked to anyone about this incredible thing she was doing, I could feel it. The (mostly, though not always) unspoken, “But how could she?” How could she leave her children? How could she, a mother, possibly put her herself and her own aspirations first?
I confess that I, too, grappled with these questions. Out of loyalty, my first instinct was always defensiveness. But in private moments, I thought more carefully about them. I wondered what I would have done.
For a myriad of reasons, my brother and sister-in-law decided to have children early. They married two months after college graduation, she became pregnant within a year, and they moved to the East Coast, where my brother grew up but my sister-in-law knew nobody. At 24 years old, with a music degree, an art history degree, and an infant, she became a stay-at-home mom. And for the next three years she snuggled babies, she crafted, she read story after story after story. She nursed both her babies well beyond their first year. She loved it.
And she wanted more.
It seems that much of society would say to her, “Sorry, this is your life now.” Everything must pause for the next 18 years. Then you may seek out your happiness. My sister-in-law rejected this narrative, and I admire her for it.
I can’t help but wonder how people would feel if we changed just a few details of her story. Actually, just one detail. Perhaps I am wrong, but when I imagine a different scenario, I can’t help but think the attitudes would differ. I imagine a mother, working to support her husband through graduate school. I imagine the husband being offered a research fellowship abroad. I imagine people saying, “What a great opportunity,” “It’s only a month,” “You’ll be just fine.”
This is certainly unfair to mothers, but it is equally unfair to fathers. Implied in the judgements that were cast was also an accusation that my brother could not possibly be enough. If a father goes away for a month, oh well, everyone will be fine. But a mother??? Apparently only one half of the parenting team really matters. It is as though a mother must be first and foremost a parent, her person-hood coming in a distant second, while the opposite is assumed of a father. The fathers I know are beyond loving, committed, and just as capable of parenting solo when need be. Mothers and fathers alike should enjoy a reality in which their parenthood and their personhood exist on the same plane.
While she was away my nephews missed their mother. But they were cared for and loved by their father, their grandparents, their aunts and uncles. While she was away my sister-in-law longed for her babies with every fiber of her being. But doors were opened to her, and she moved closer to becoming a fuller version of herself.
From where I stand, she made the right choice.