It’s Tuesday night at The Keg of Evanston. Absent are the throngs of freshmen: hot, sweaty swathes of people grinding on the dance floor; girls in corners, sipping their drinks and casting sultry looks about the room. Instead clean-cut men sit in booths and at tables, drinking bottle brews. It’s Kellogg night, prime picking grounds for any female.
Ping. Ping. Plunk. I look over as a streak of silver flashes into the flimsy cup. The girls hastily grab their beers and gulp them down, laughing. The laughs ring a little louder than normal, echoing into the air. Their eyes dart around, anxiously hoping to hook a guy or two.
“Mind if we join?” a 20-something guy inquires, with two biggie cups of brew and a few friends on his back. The girls smile winningly (only one of them is cute), but hey, there’s another round they don’t have to buy.
It is a truth universally acknowledged that a Northwestern woman, in want of a husband, will hunt for a Kellogg student. Despite our fancy diplomas and years of hard work, the typical girl will still look wistfully at the most successful men on campus in hopes of being whisked away. It’s a nice fantasy, but how many students are actually shooting for that life?
A 2008 MSN article states that a stay-at-home mom is worth $138,095 per year, according to a study by Salary.com in 2007. Additionally, women who work outside the home “would earn another $85,939 for their mothering work, beyond what they bring home in existing salary.” And with total undergraduate fees totaling $52,463 for the 2010-11 year (that’s $209,852 for four years), what Northwestern woman wouldn’t plan to put her degree to hard use?
In a 2003 New York Times Magazine piece, Lisa Belkin wrote about the opt-out revolution: waves of highly educated women who chose to stay at home or followed less intense career paths to raise a family. It arose only to be angrily scoffed and stomped into the ground, relegated to mythdom. The thought of women choosing not to work was preposterous. Women are marrying later than ever, earning more than ever, they say.
“The recent news studies, [that there are] supposedly more women in the workforce than men, that’s purely because of the economy, not gender equality,” says Cara Tuttle Bell, director of programs for the Northwestern Women’s Center. “It’s not as promising as it might seem.”
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, 5.1 million mothers stayed at home in 2009. Besides, plenty of intelligent, high-achieving women talk of these things, and what’s the shame in that? When did the scarlet letter come to stand for stay-at-home? Regardless of how you feel, it is impossible to regard these large life decisions as “female myths.”
“It’s not a myth because it has been documented among highly educated women,” says Bell. “It poses a financial risk to the individual woman, and it’s risky if your husband leaves you.”
As the daughter of the model stay-at-home mother, I had always assumed I would someday stop work to fully commit myself to a family. After three years at Northwestern, surrounded by high-achieving peers, I’m not so sure. Neither am I alone. Many students here are the products of highly educated, well-off families, which statistically lend themselves to stay-at-home parenting.
But in the end, life is a subjective experience. Raw statistics don’t always get to the heart of things, and numbers can’t explain it all.
A stay-at-home mother
Medill sophomore Jennifer Haderspeck is incredibly close to her mom; their relationship influenced her desire to be a stay-at-home mother. She smiles slightly, citing reasons for her decision. She wants to be there for her kids (she wants four to six), not missing any of those special firsts, and she wants to share that same relationship with her family.
Perhaps surprisingly, her mother has had more schooling than her father. But when Jennifer was born, she quit her job to stay at home and only returned to part-time work when circumstances demanded it. Jennifer looks back on that time fondly, and as the oldest of four, has had to take on more of the housework in her mother’s absence.
“[It's] purely financial, if she didn’t have to work right now she totally wouldn’t,” Jennifer explains, clasping her hands reassuringly. “She likes being at home, and we like having her at home.”
Jennifer continues to pursue higher education, even though she is aware that she could have easily gone to community college. Partially on her mom’s advice, who said that even if Jennifer wanted to stay at home, she would need degrees to keep options open. She’s found great support from professors, although answering honestly about her future goals has always been hard.
“Beth Bennett [her adviser] has even told me, you know you have this degree so you can be as intelligent as your husband, and you can have intelligent conversation with him,” says Jennifer. “That was a very supportive point of her to make.”
Harder than talking to advisers is talking to her peers. As a commuter student, Jennifer hasn’t met many people on-campus and even among those she has met, she has had difficulty talking about it.
“It’s hard to tell that to people because you feel like ‘I’m going to this awesome school, I should really do something more with my life and have these high aspirations,” Jennifer says. “Really, I just want to stay home with my kids, and it’s almost embarrassing to admit sometimes. [There are] people [here] who want to be this big CEO or world-famous, and I have such small dreams in comparison.”
At this point she stops and grabs a string of hair, pulling the strand through her fingers. She’s wearing a necklace; two layered hearts, silver and vintage-looking. It’s a present from her boyfriend.
Vincent Storelli and Haderspeck have only been dating since October, but they’ve known each other since grade school. And although it hasn’t been all that long, they have already discussed getting married and having kids.
“I feel like we’re so naive because it’s only been seven months,” Jennifer says with a half-smile. “I understand I might not marry this guy now, but I honestly hope for it.”
Not to say they’re rushing into things. Storelli, an aerospace engineering major at Purdue, wants to go to graduate school so that he can provide for them. Jennifer’s thinking of going to grad school as well, maybe the Medill five-year program. It all depends on where they are financially.
“He’s like, ‘If that’s what you want, I want to be able to give it to you,’” she says.
She seems happy, but not foolishly so. “He’s coming home this weekend, so I’m really excited.” She smiles, eyes crinkling.
In 1901, Daisy Myrtle Girton entered Northwestern at the age of 21; things haven’t changed as much as you’d think. In her diaries, Daisy writes about the pressures of academic life and her overwhelming desire to please her father. Most interestingly, she writes about social pressure.
“Sept. 28, 1902 — There are so many cultured faces here in Evanston, and I would love so to think things and do things in such a way that I could become more and more cultured,” Daisy writes.
To this day, women feel pressured to match up to their peers. According to Bell, the feminist position is not that being a stay-at-home mom is bad, but that it is not valued and risky.
“It’s not that I personally don’t want you to be a stay-at-home mom, but here’s what happens when you choose it,” explains Bell, a former adjunct professor in the University of South Carolina Upstate’s Center for Women’s and Gender Studies. “Every woman who chooses to be a stay-at-home mom is making the rest of us look bad. And it sounds harsh, but it’s sending a signal to employers that it’s more profitable to hire men because they don’t quit working.”
Bell cites Linda Hirshman as an author who has urged women not to opt-out.
“What Linda is arguing is if these best and brightest women, from schools like Northwestern, Harvard, Princeton, if they’re opting out — and they do tend to marry their peers and be well-off — then you’re reducing the pool of eligible candidates for highest-ranking women,” Bell says.
Bell would likely approve of Weinberg senior Emily Raymond then. Raymond has been involved with College Feminists since her freshman year and was president for two years. Raymond wants to practice law and sees herself working as long as she can. Although she definitely wants to get married and admits to “never say never,” Raymond doesn’t see any kids in the cards.
“I don’t have any problems with being a stay-at-home mom, I don’t think it’s unfeminist. My own mother stayed at home to raise my little brother and I, and I couldn’t have asked for a better mom,” Raymond says. “However, I think it is a little incongruous that people who don’t plan on working in the long term would put so much effort into an education at a highly competitive school like Northwestern if they didn’t plan on putting that education to work.”
In such a driven environment, voices like Jennifer’s get lost easily — a similar friend did not want to be interviewed. Determined women push their peers, and ambition arches over much of campus.
A Driven Engineer
McCormick senior Madison Fitzpatrick will be graduating in June after just three years. Tucking a strand of short brown hair behind her ears, her outfit is perfectly matched in shades of blue. She’s staying for the graduate program next year and is studying civil engineering, concentrating on transportation.
Madison was on the executive board for Society of Women Engineers, a group that seeks to provide support for women in a male-dominated field. The group gives women the resources to succeed, since a lot of women feel intimidated by the 70/30 split. But Madison has never experienced that sense of loss.
“It’s not in my personality to feel intimidated,” says Madison. “It was never really something I was consciously aware of, that I am a girl and I am different from everyone else in this classroom.” She straightens her back while adding that she’s usually better than the boys (only half-joking); she oozes confidence.
Until she was 6, Madison and her older sister had a live-in babysitter while their parents both worked. As far as she can remember, there was never a time when her mom wasn’t working.
Her mom married when she was 29 and is of the firm belief that the older you marry, the less likely you are to quickly divorce. Consequently, Madison isn’t considering marriage anytime soon.
“Her sort of whimsical but half-serious rule is she’s not paying for the wedding unless I’m 28 or older,” Madison laughs.
But that’s not to say she wants to work forever. Partially because of the fast-paced, high-stress workplace, Madison doesn’t want to commit to a long-term career in engineering. When I ask her if she would ever consider taking time off to raise a family, she hesitates for the first time, stumbling over the “I thinks.” She thinks she would take time off to stay home with young kids, but nothing permanent.
“I think being a working mom, you can still be a great role model,” says Madison, “I can’t see myself being a stay-at-home mom forever. I think I would die of boredom.”
Madison admits that students here tend to “feed off of each other” with ambition, pushed towards professions. She can’t recall ever talking to someone who did not want a career and looks a little bewildered at the thought of a Northwestern stay-at-home mom.
“It’s even a little bit taboo; like don’t you want to do something more with yourself?” says Madison.
Finding the balance
Northwestern women appear to have a strong tradition of success and long-term work. Alumni reports and magazines show that many women have maintained careers over the years or are too ashamed to admit otherwise. The Council of One Hundred, formed in 1993, is one form of female history we can rely on.
The council works as a vehicle for accomplished Northwestern alumnae to give back to the student community as mentors. Take Alexandra Levit (Weinberg ‘98) as an example. Nominated in 2008, Levit has a husband, a 2-year-old son and manages four paid jobs: columnist for the Wall Street Journal and Metro U.S., a speaker on workplace issues, a blogger for two companies (including Microsoft) and an author with five published books.
Levit picks her son up from the nanny-share at 5 p.m. and keeps the next three hours open to stay with him, as well as weekends. Because she worked so hard to build her career, staying at home was never a real option, but she is happy with the control she has over her schedule now.
“I knew that I would want to create a flexible type of job,” says Levit. “My original career was communications/marketing, and I would’ve been working 80 hours a week, and it would be very hard to have the work-life balance I have now.”
Medill junior Heather Waldron is starting down a similar path. She entered Northwestern as a broadcast journalism major, but realized that it wouldn’t give her the flexibility that she would need to raise a family, something Waldron has always known she wants.
“I want to work when I have kids, but I don’t want a job that’s going to keep me away from home all the time. That was actually one of my main considerations when I started shying away from broadcast,” explains Waldron. “That lifestyle didn’t lend itself well to having a family.”
Waldron plans to pursue a PhD in clinical psychology which will take at least six years. Waldron is putting her career first for now and figuring herself out. But when the time is right, her family will be just as important.
“Maybe I make marriage and family more of a priority for me than other people [here],” says Waldron. “I think it’s important to find the balance between them instead of picking one or the other.”
Engaged and unsure
A home-grown Texan, Weinberg sophomore Alison Watts’ romantic life is the stuff of fairy tales. Her boyfriend proposed over winter break during a family ski trip to Wyoming. In a snowy town square covered with white lights, he knelt down and gave her the ring they had picked out together; a bright silver band with three diamonds that flashes on her hand now.
Alison and McCormick junior Matthew Enthoven were moderators of an online teen forum. When they realized they lived 25 minutes away from each other, the pair arranged to meet and started dating a month later. Matthew is a year older than Ali, so when college time came around, they planned to make the decision together.
“At that point, we were pretty sure we were heading in that direction,” Ali says. “We at least wanted to go to school together.”
Matthew will be graduating next year, and Ali will be graduating two quarters early. They’ll begin planning the wedding soon after. He will spend their brief time apart looking for a job, and she will find a graduate school for psychology nearby.
Her phone rings on the table. Ali asks if she can take the call, her request punctuated by a polite smile. “Hey sweetie,” she answers, smiling into the phone. “I’m talking about us.” She blinks rapidly, as they run down dinner plans and talk of leftovers. “I’ll be back in a little while.”
Their marriage might be impending, but they don’t plan on having kids right away; not until after graduate school and they’ve settled into things. It will be difficult, though, since neither feels particularly inclined to be at home. Ali has always been someone who could see being at home, but she doesn’t think it’s what she really wants to do.
“It’s hard because I’m definitely very family-oriented, so there’s a part of me that would love to be at home. I do like taking care of a home and taking care of kids,” explains Ali. “But there’s another part of me that conflicts with that, and I just don’t think I could.”
Despite desperate entreaties to return, I’ve only been to Kellogg bar night once. An overwhelming schedule and flood of internship applications, among other things, have kept me away. Real life is looming, and it’s hard to think about what the future might hold.
Having my mother around was the greatest gift I never asked for, and I wouldn’t trade it for anything. But Northwestern’s high-pressure atmosphere clouds things. Jennifer’s like-minded friend did not want to talk to me — how many other girls are afraid to speak?
Our diplomas hang heavy over our heads, weighting our decisions. But paper is so light; it’s the frame that carries all the weight. It should be adjusted accordingly — each degree hangs on one wall only.
The lure of Kellogg bar night dangles seductively before me, a reflection of my mother’s life flashing in its silver hook. But my inbox flashes as well, signaling yet another assignment, and I know that it will have to wait.