“Get into groups of three and state your name, major and something fun you did over break,” instructed my professor to the class of heavy-eyed students. After a collective groan, I rolled my eyes back to the front of my head and scooted my desk toward the man and woman to my right, both of whom looked as uninterested in the exercise as I did.
I opted to go last in hopes that one of my colleagues would go on about their summer abroad in France and time would run out before it was my turn. Instead, both of my classmates quickly stated their names, majors and variations of the answer “umm nothing, just pretty much hung out with friends.”
My master plan had failed, and it was my turn to speak, though I knew I could give an answer as vague and lackluster as theirs without feeling like I wasn’t contributing.
“My name is Mia, I’m a double major in English and gender studies, and over break I basically was either at work or at home potty training my 3-year-old.” Both of my colleagues’ eyes widened. Did they somehow mistake “potty training my 3-year-old” for “discovering all of the top-secret oil mining locations in the United States”?
“Here come the questions about my age,” I thought to myself. My no-makeup face made me look even younger than my tender age of 23 — an age that is still considerably young to be a parent.
“You don’t look like a mom,” my male colleague stated. I quickly made a mental note to take the “Proud Parent of a Pre-Schooler” bumper sticker off of my CRV and place it on my forehead instead.
He followed his first flippant remark with, “Where’s your kid?”
Before I got to sarcastically reply with, “Oh, he goes to the strip club while I’m in class,” the professor drew the class’s attention back to the front of the room with, “I hope you got to learn a little more about each other.”
I did not learn my colleague’s name or major, or what he did over break, but rather that my business being a student while being a mother would always be challenged.
From childhood, men and women are conditioned to accept the prevalent definition of male and female gender roles, with women being held solely responsible for child-rearing. This definition is so engraved into our minds that even on a campus as liberal as UC Berkeley, the idea of other arrangements outside of that are unfathomable — so much so that my colleague felt concerned enough to ask me about the location of my child. If I was in class, where could my son possibly be if not with his mother?
Hypothetically speaking, since my son was not with me, he could have been with his father, at day care or in the care of a sitter. Why didn’t these obvious arrangements dawn on my colleague before he asked me where my son was? Why had I been asked this question while my partner, who works full time, had never been questioned where our son was while he was at work?
In almost all societies, different cultural expectations have been woven around male and female differences. Where men are competitive, women should be cooperative. Where men are impatient, women must display an abundance of patience and understanding. When men go out to work and earn wages to support their family, women must stay back at home to take care of the children and household affairs.
According to a 2016 report by State of the World’s Fathers, however, men and women are as “genetically hardwired” as each other to fulfill child-rearing roles. Women being the sole caretakers of their children is not something they are scientifically programmed to do, but rather a stereotype that has been instilled in society by schools, advertising and at home. Because of this, women continue to bear the scrutiny of bystanders when their choices as mothers diverge even slightly from the “June Cleaver” typecast.
Personally, there are days when I would love to stay home with my son and not miss a moment of his growing up. But realistically speaking, his father and I both need to work. I also want to pursue my education so that my son can see the value of a college degree and his mother’s resilience in pursuing it. I want to do so, however, without the underhanded remarks about my choices as a mother.
We need to stop making women feel like they are choosing between their children and their careers or education. There are women who cannot wait to get off of maternity leave, and there are mothers that never want it to end. There are women who feel the most empowered when at home with their kids, and there are women that feel the strongest when they are at work or school. We are all simply doing the best we can.