MBA versus MRS

I get into the office around 7 a.m. I’ve already checked my emails during my subway commute. I turn on my computer, respond to any time-sensitive inquiries, and organize my day while sipping my morning latte. I review returns for U.S. and European indices, read a few sell-side research articles, and go over the Wall Street Journal for any news regarding our companies. I attend our daily morning meeting to discuss the markets with the team. Now informed for the day, I set to work on client presentations and fill out questionnaires from potentially interested clients.

It’s odd to think that only 60 years ago, when my grandmother was about my age, my career options would have been severely limited to “female appropriate” professions, to eventually be abandoned entirely at marriage or motherhood. And only 30 years ago, when my mother was about my age, I would have been “discouraged” from participating in male-dominated professions. Today, although I begrudgingly drag myself into the office at times, I am always grateful for the opportunity to do so. The thought of being restricted to certain work or having one’s professional career end at marriage seems so foreign now, but was the reality for my mother’s and grandmother’s generations.

What would it have meant for me to live in such a society? Growing up, my self-esteem was built entirely around my ability to succeed in school. My passion for learning was rivaled only by my desire to make snarky comments whenever I could. I’m thankful that this precocity (annoying as it must have been at times) was nurtured instead of chastised and that I was able to pursue my education. Now I have a great job in finance with growth prospects and travel opportunities, a few of which I’ve already pursued. In the five years I’ve been working, I’ve already been promoted and traveled twice to London to train new teammates there. Furthermore, my firm supports a women’s network that helps us make connections to advance our careers, as well as volunteer events with organizations aimed at helping young girls succeed through education. My possibilities in life feel pretty open.

But when my mother was my age, I likely would have been most encouraged to be a stay-at-home mother. If I came from an affluent family, maybe I would have been motivated to attend college as well, but more for an MRS. than an MBA. I’ve heard a lot of people, women and men, talk about how they’d love to be a stay-at-home mother. I think that comes from a misconception of the undertaking. It still seems to be viewed by society as a position where the children play quietly in the corner while the mother sits on the couch, eating bon-bons and watching her favorite soaps (or now I suppose binging on Netflix). In reality, that’s only a privilege that a well-paid working professional can afford with the help of a nanny. I think, for most women, it’s a much more difficult task to be a stay-at-home mother—to manage someone’s expectation of what your budget should be; to not have interaction with your own age group for conversation; to constantly be dealing with your children’s fighting and demands on you.

For an example, I only have to look to my own mother. She was completely financially dependent on my father, and he wasn’t always kind about it. He had an incredibly stressful job as a tractor trailer driver and could be very particular about things as a result. For instance, he demanded that his dinner always be hot and accompanied by an iced soda in his large green mug when he got home. It seems like a fairly benign request, but sometimes it’s hard to make it to the grocery store when you have two kids fighting. If the plate was not hot or the soda was not there, there would be a fight. It was the rigidity of his requests that made them so difficult to always meet. To my mother’s credit, she always stood up to him. But she was ultimately dependent on him, so she always came from a position of weakness. Had she had a profession and a salary of her own, she would have felt so much more secure. But she had been taught by my grandmother, and society at that time, that she just had to get married and then her husband would take care of her.

She sought to correct that notion with me. If some parents try to live vicariously through their children’s sports careers, my mother lives vicariously through my academic and professional achievements. My mother is a kinesthetic learner and on the whole disliked school (though I wonder if her performance anxiety might have been quelled by more emotional support from her family). However, she has a natural sense of financial acumen and loves when we discuss my job and what it’s like to work in the city. I think her passion could have driven her to succeed if a profession had been expected of her.

Although being a working mother is no easy task, at least it means maintaining a sense of independence and self. A working mother can interact with colleagues and utilize the professional talents she spent so much effort developing. As much as my friends love their children, they enjoy the stimulation of their adult interactions and professional challenges. In contrast, my mother spent years isolated home alone with us.

It’s hard for me to imagine being in that position: a stay-at-home wife or mother, totally financially dependent on a man. The only proximity I’ve had to it was the one time I left my wallet at my parents’ house. I had to ask my boyfriend for a loan to get through the week. It was such an awkward experience, especially when he questioned why I needed as much as I requested and what exactly
I would be using it for.

I know that the only reason I have the luxury of supporting myself, unlike the women of my family, is because I’ve received so many more opportunities. That’s partly because of when I was born and the societal constructs of the time, but also in large part because of my mother. She created the biggest opportunity by letting me know anything was possible for me.

Although I grew up in a generation where feminism was prevalent and girls weren’t outwardly discriminated against, today there are even more programs and opportunities for women’s professional development. I hope to see this trend continue until we reach global parity, and I hope that I can spur it along by making other girls and women aware of the opportunities that our mothers and grandmothers didn’t have.

Illustration by San Tsuki

This essay originally appeared in the Mothers & Grandmothers issue. For more inspiring stories dealing with mothers and grandmothers, check out The Only Child Box and Pause by Mary Ruefle.