Finding my own wave
First published March 21 2011 on The Other Baby Blog
In pre-industrial societies, women typically did not leave their babies to go to work, but neither did they leave their work to be with their babies. . . . . For me, neither choice felt natural.
In second grade, I brought in a newspaper story about my mother’s appointment to a government post that started with, “She’s a feminist – yet very feminine.”(!) I remember my mother and grandmother pinning an ERA banner on me when I was small, and explaining what it meant. I understood by then that my mother was a pioneer – the first female lawyer at her large law firm, and one of the first few women to make partner at any law firm in our city. On the radio, I heard debates on the “controversy” of mothers working. It seemed odd to me – though most moms in the neighborhood did not work, mine did, and it was simply a fact of life. What else would she do? But I understood that she was unusual, and courageous, and I was proud of her. So the feminism of the ambitious professional woman entering a male-dominated milieu was mine at an early age.
This feminism served me well as a student and later as a scientist. I sought out female teachers and mentors, and built my own confidence and savvy with their help. I watched how they handled the pressures of career and mothering, expecting that I would follow their lead. My mom had been a leader of my girl scout troop and attended all my brother’s sports events while starting and building her own law firm. I fully intended to do likewise, and assumed that feminism required it.
When I first got pregnant at 28, I was a postdoctoral scientist working in genetic toxicology at MIT. I researched daycare centers and breastpumps, and assured my mentor I’d be back in 12 weeks. Then I had a baby.
Initially, I breastfed my son and wore him in a sling because it was the biologically correct thing to do. Soon it felt like the only thing to do. At three months, I had no interest in going back to work. I’d been assured by other women that I’d be bored on maternity leave, but that was far from true. Exhausted, yes, but never bored. My neighborhood was a good one for walking outside, and my son was happiest moving around, so we were always out and about. Also, I quickly learned to read or use the computer while nursing, so mental stimulation and conversation (of the online sort) were readily available. My husband was a fulltime student at the time, so quitting my job was not practical. But aside from practical concerns, it was unthinkable. I would be letting down the women who had trained and supported me directly, and the earlier generations who had worked so hard to eliminate barriers for women.
I started to realize that the question in my mind ran much deeper than the logistics of daycare, breastpumps, household chores, and time-management. In pre-industrial societies, women typically did not leave their babies to go to work, but neither did they leave their work to be with their babies. Whatever skilled work a woman was doing before childbearing she continued to do afterwards, with her baby on her hip or back. She usually was in the company of other women who could assist her with her baby and her work. Modern society mostly pushes women to chooses between two options – either be physically separated from their babies for most of the day, or forgo not only income but the sense of accomplishment and connection to the larger world that comes from skilled work. For me, neither choice felt natural.
Meanwhile, I was finding myself increasingly passionate about breastfeeding. I loved looking at my ever-growing son. I loved being able to make him so peaceful. I started volunteering with La Leche League. Becoming part of this chain of shared women’s wisdom, stretching back though all human history, connected me to a source of strength that transcended the societal and political struggles of the moment. I liked to open meetings by saying, “We are not designed to mother in isolation. For thousands of years, women have learned to mother and breastfeed from their own mothers and sisters, and the women of their community. What we want to offer is the support of experienced mothers, just as women have always offered each other.” This was my own thread of feminism. Gradually, I came to trust my own instincts, and to realize that I was drawn to a different kind of work. Work that would involve mothers and babies, and that would complement my own mothering, not compete with it. And that is when I found my true calling.