What the what? (am I supposed to do with my future)

By Holly Hilgenberg

As I get older, I’ve been encountering questions of “the future,” specifically in regards to career and family more and more readily–be it through my mother’s unloading of her dream for me to be able to be a “stay at home mom” on my brother’s girlfriend (who she had just met), or through my increasing awareness of the number of facebook friend’s replacing their profile pictures with ones of their new babies, or my boyfriend and my discussions about this thing we call the “future.”

So, in encountering these questions, I’ve become more aware of the continued reliance on traditional gender roles as a way that many people understand how a woman makes choices. The idea of a woman in the United States often not having the choice of being a stay a home mom, but instead needing to both work and be a full time mother, is not a new one, nor is the idea of the “super mom”–the mother who doesn’t only pursue some impressive career but also does all the things that white, middle and upper-class moms are supposed to do, like bake cookies for their kid’s Halloween parties and attend PTA meetings (hell, be the head of the PTA). (I label this classification as such mostly due to a common media portrayal of the Supermom). What is interesting to me, however, is that conversations around these choices and realities that women are often faced with are still seeped in some very old assumptions about women and their proper roles as such.

The first of which is that of course a woman wants to get married and have a baby! If you watch any number of television shows, go to the movies or peruse the magazine racks, there is, over and over a glaring message: That every woman has, from conception, been dreaming about her dream wedding (in which the man (and it is always a man, because in this world there is absolutely no room for anything that isn’t heterosexual) has no role, despite, from what I have been told, being half of the integral couple going into said marriage). After the dream wedding, it is time to procreate. And why wouldn’t you? Babies are cute, have cute clothes (personally I am a sucker for little baby shoes, despite how unbelievably impractical they are) and they are your opportunity to morph them into your own ideal, miniaturized self!

So there are many issues with the above perception of what women want: as I have already pointed out, it is incredibly heteronormative, it denies the real importance of marriage being two people, it denies the fact that people often have children and lifetime commitments to partners outside of this perfect linear fashion. Which isn’t to say that there aren’t women for which the above set of circumstances is exactly what they want.

What I want to argue, however, is that this assumption is still very latent in any discussion about a woman’s future. So much so that choices a woman makes are constrained with this idea of either having that, or having a career. I’ve seen this surface in a discussion recently among my classmates during which everyone was trying to figure out why there are fewer women than men in tenured professor positions. Though it is definitely worth considering how the historical trajectory has worked in terms of where women are in education, the conversation ended with the assumption that a lot of it has to do with wanting to have a family. Maybe I took issue with this because my plan does not include a furthering of my education after my program is over–and that has nothing to do with my consideration of a future family.

My point is, this sort of discussion is not even relevant when discussing a male’s future. Just like how the idea of the wedding being the “bride’s day” erases the male half of the equation, the idea of whether having a child impedes a man’s career is rarely discussed (or even seen as necessary). And if it is, it is in regards to whether or not he will be able to “provide” for that family–not whether or not he will choose his job over his children.

These ideas continually resurface, not just in media, but also in my experiences with my parents. I realize that my experience is not one that every one has, but I also think that my experience is not rare. In fact, I know many people that have had similar experiences. Sure my parents are a generation older than me, and are much more conservative than I am on pretty much every level, but it is a bit shocking when, after being praised for being a good student and for achieving various levels of education, it is not just acceptable, but even encouraged, for me to go into teaching, while my brother, when expressing an interest in the field, receives an email from our father outlining how he would never be able to support a family off of a teaching salary. The bogusness of the last statement aside, there are many disturbing things about that situation: first, it is implicit that it is the man’s position to provide for the family, and secondly, that what is expected for a woman to do in terms of a career is different than what is expected of a man.

This discussion was then compounded by the situation I had previously touched on: my mother’s unloading of her hopes and dreams for me to be able to be a stay at home mother. Here again, we have the assumption that of course I want to have children (one time I told her I didn’t, somewhat as an act of rebellion, and she cried), and not just that, but that despite being highly educated and having impressive work experience, it is my role to stay at home with the kids–regardless of the position of my partner. In fact, what she was basically saying is that if my partner (for her, this would have to be a husband) doesn’t provide for me and our imaginary children, then he is useless.

It baffles my mind that despite all the strides the women have made in our country, how concretely these assumptions continue to hold. In particular how despite more women being in institutions of higher education than men, many still believe that it is the role of the man to be not only the breadwinner, but more educated (logic in this situation would make the leap that more education for women doesn’t make much sense if they are to stay at home). Once I was discussing one of my friend’s relationships with my mother, saying how there are studies that argue that a woman being more educated in a relationship with is an indicator that the relationship won’t “last.” I was pondering these studies in relation to my friend’s relationship and my mom stated matter-of-factly “yes, if she has more schooling, it probably won’t work” (she has yet to mention my relationship in this light, though my bet is that she has thought about it on more than one occasion).

These ideas that I have outlined are definitely not new, and nor are they universal. Maybe this is a broken record, but I do think that it is worth acknowledging that these are assumptions that have not disappeared, and that still have a very real impact on how people conceive of themselves, others and gender roles.


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