We all were in the kitchen making Margherita pizza, one of the family favorites, and as trains of thought meandered this way and that, discussions pinging off each mile post along the way, someone mentioned the unlimited career choices available to the youth of today. We agreed there is no doubt the children in this home will grow up believing they can accomplish whatever goals they set, and are willing to work diligently to achieve. That is how their parents were raised, and are now passing on to this next generation the same confidence to believe in themselves.
I mused over how easy the words flowed regarding what each child could or would become; and was especially pleased no one thought, much less spoke, a single limiting word over my granddaughters’ futures. And as often happens during family conversations, I pointed out the contrast between life for children today, and how things were for a girl growing up in a house like mine during the 1950’s and 1960’s.
When I was very small, I recall being asked by adults on a regular basis, “When are you going to get married?” My answer always was the same, “I don’t know, I don’t think I am allowed to right now”. It made the inquiring grown up laugh when I said that, and I never understood why; after all, I was a little kid who had not even gone to school, yet, and no one I knew could leave our block alone, so how did they expect me to get married? Besides, there was only one little boy my age in our neighborhood; a loathsome, mean tempered little skunk who smelled like dirty socks, and was afraid of everything interesting, including polliwogs, spiders, tree frogs, bees, and anything with fur. Not suitable husband material, in my estimation.
Marriage was the expectation impressed upon me from the beginning. That is what girls did. They got married, had children, and according to all the fairy tales in my books, in movies I was allowed to watch, and on television, lived happily ever after. I thought happily ever after sounded pretty good, and the idea of a handsome prince who rode a beautiful horse and provided me a castle to live in was even better, but I wondered and asked now and again if marriage meant I could not do anything else. The answer was a resounding, “No you cannot do anything else. When you are a housewife, you stay home and take care of your husband’s and children’s needs. That is what girls do, period.” End of discussion.
In spite of the emphatic marital expectations held for my future, I was drawn to vocations outside the traditional labors of hearth and home. It is difficult to remember exactly when these nudgings began, but I know reading the book The Nun’s Story, written in 1956, had a tremendous impact on me. I was nine years old, and was completely taken by Sister Luke, and the struggles she had with ambition versus obedience.
After reading this book, I was determined to go into medicine. The idea of becoming a doctor was out of the question, because at that time, we all knew only men were doctors. That was all right, I could be a nurse, and serve mankind nobly in that capacity. Unfortunately, my future nursing career was cut short when my brother was bitten by the neighbor’s German Shepherd, and we all went to the doctor’s office to get him treated.
I thought everything was fine as I watched them clean his wound, stitch his hand, and give him a shot. The doctor finished, and we were standing at the receptionist station to pay for the visit, when the room went dark and blurry, my hearing became hollow and buzzy, and the cold partition against which I was leaning scraped my cheek as I slithered down to the floor in a faint. Turned out, the sight of my brother’s trauma, and subsequent treatment were too much, and as a result, any further thoughts on medicine produced an extremely unpleasant response from my gag reflex. That was a career door I happily closed.
Not to be dissuaded by the realization I had loved the idea of medicine but could not handle the messiness of it, I decided I could still serve mankind, but this time I would be a missionary. The complications of this career choice presented themselves immediately. One problem was I discovered the only missionaries who served overseas from my particular denomination were married couples, where the husband was the primary missionary, and his wife was his support person. That defeated my plan for independent service, outside of a marital environment. The only other people I was aware of who were missionaries, and not married, were nuns. And not being Catholic was an impossible hurdle to overcome if one intended to serve mankind as a nun. There I was, thwarted again.
I still held hopes for a life of service, and in eighth grade I became aware of the social worker career. We had different professionals come to our class to speak about the details of their jobs, and when the social worker came and spoke, it was a pivotal moment for me. This was it. I knew what I wanted to be when I grew up. I was so excited, and could not think of or talk about much else.
It was to my parents’ dismay I would consider such a career. There was plenty of discussion about it, but I was immovable. My dad was so sincere in his attempt to make me see the foolishness of my thinking, he packed the family into our car one Sunday afternoon, and drove us down to the river that flowed through town, took the road that ran under the railroad trestle whose tracks paralleled the old 7th Street Lion Bridge, and showed me the homeless people living in tents and ramshackle huts along its banks. Rather than discourage me, I lit up like a Christmas tree, the sights before me confirming I indeed had made the right decision. He thought I would see the light, but after my hallelujah reaction to the river tour, he just shook his head, I am sure thinking at the time his daughter did not have good sense.
The last discussion I had with my parents regarding a career and a bright future was during my junior year in high school when I presented them with a well thought out plan for college. I had chosen a university in Oklahoma which fulfilled all the academic and social needs I believed would establish me firmly on my career path in social work. Unfortunately, they had not changed their way of thinking over the years, and my dad’s final word on the matter was simply, I could go to the local junior college, and find a husband there. After all, women only went to college to get a husband, and I could do that just as easily there in town, as I could in Oklahoma. End of discussion.
Years rolled by; I adjusted, set new goals, followed some old familiar paths and blazed a few new ones. I did eventually end up working off and on in social services, and as I expected, it was a perfect career fit for me. The off and on part? Just as my dad had predicted, I met my husband at our local junior college, got married, and embarked on the best career choice of my life: A mom of two children who were and are the most spectacular people I have ever known.
I worked for a few years in social services before they were born, and then again after they were grown, and started their own careers. But while they were at home, I had the privilege of being with them full-time. It was the hardest job I ever had, and the best job I ever did.
And it turned out all those “of course you want to get married and have a family” words spoken over me my entire life were correct. I realized in time it was not marriage and family that I found off-putting, it was the idea that I could not do anything else but that. The truth I found in all my trials and errors was we have choices, we establish priorities, and we move forward as we energize both. There is no need for limitations in any direction imposed by others or by ourselves.
We had a saying in our home as the kids grew up, and my daughter even used it in her high school class valedictorian speech: Reach high, reach far; your aim the sky, your goal the star. It takes imagination, confidence, and dedication to achieve our dreams, but it is all possible, and it is a promise we need to make to ourselves and to those who follow behind us. If you dream it, you can achieve it.
As I look at and listen to the little ones who surround me now, I am so grateful they know their lives will be filled with unique choices, which will be made freely, with unfettered hearts. And they will have a firm foundation underlying them along the way. They can confidently choose any career path they desire, which (and yes Dad, you were right) includes being married and parenting another generation of spectacular children who will reach high and reach far.