My mother, a child of the Depression, felt trapped into marriage and motherhood and, thus, she prized education. But her enthusiasm for our education backfired. My oldest sister got a BA only to become a tarot card reader. My brother, a math wiz at university, realized he hated the subject and became a peasant in Saint-Tropez.
As the youngest, I was left to fulfill my mother’s expectations. My star never shone as brightly as when I chose medical school. Mom lived vicariously through me: the first doctor in the family.
I loved it. I specialized in emergency medicine and the excitement of the unknown absorbed my restless spirit, the adrenalin rush of stamping out disease and battling with death had me hooked. Just before my 30th birthday, I became pregnant, encouraged by my husband’s promise that he would raise the baby. My mother was distinctly sour when I told her the news: No longer was I trusted to take my career seriously.
Fortunately, my brother tired of being a French farm labourer and became a doctor himself – a real one, not one frivolous enough to take time off for children. In my mother’s eyes, I fell from grace. Twenty years working as a part-time doctor while raising my three children never elevated me back to where I once was, or to my brother’s stature.
Although my mother died four years ago, her expectations of career versus motherhood still remain a thorny issue . Many women work while raising their children, often out of economic necessity. But finding the balance between work and home is complicated. A full-time job indicates career dedication. Part-time? Not so much, but most women still prioritize their children over their careers. Multiple studies show that women do the lion’s share of organizing the home and childcare even when working equivalent hours to their male partners outside the home. From the kids’ point of view this may be a good thing, but not so much for their working mothers.
I’m not dissing men who help out at home. Increasing numbers of dads do a fabulous job. But most men still just “help out.” They don’t actually take responsibility for getting it all done. Whether this uneven division of labour results from men not seeing what women believe should be done or because women are unable to abrogate responsibility depends largely on your gender.
My sweet husband made lovely promises. But “I’ll be home for dinner at six,” translated into “Look after the home front all day and I’ll get there when I’m done working.” And “I’ll meet you at the ball game,” meant “I’ll be advancing my career while you pack up the kids and transport them there.” At home, he pitched in with enthusiasm, but his professional duties gave him lots of get-out-of-jail-free cards. After a few years, my patience waned.
Being a supermom comes with other costs: exhaustion, anxiety and depression. Sound familiar? It should. Women have always taken refuge in mental illness. In the 19th century, male doctors called it hysteria, a diagnosis only removed in 1980 from the DSM-III, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders published by the American Psychiatric Association. Canadian statistics show that for every 10 men diagnosed with anxiety or depression, there are 16 and 17 women, respectively. The incidence of post-traumatic stress disorder is twice as high in women, eating disorders three times more common. Women remain vulnerable to mental illness as we struggle to live up to society’s obsession with physical beauty, unobtainable standards for maternal dedication and tacit acceptance of sexual and physical violence. Those expectations will continue to drive women like me literally crazy.
Men too have traditional ways in which they withdraw from the stresses of family life. They are statistically far more likely to become workaholics, alcoholics, have extramarital affairs, resort to physical and sexual violence, or abandon their families altogether.
I occasionally wondered whether I would prefer those masculine options of escape. I’d have loved the prestige that being a leader in my field would have brought, but night shifts in the emergency department were exhausting and death won the battle too many times. The toughest part was the constant frustration of treating patients amid chronic overcrowding and underfunding. Being a workaholic in that environment would have been unsustainable.
Maybe alcohol abuse would have dulled my worries over my daughter’s times tables. But excessive drinking doesn’t seem compatible with the desire for well-rounded kids. Fatigue extinguished my sexual interest. Violence and abandonment are an anathema to me. And my wide, child-bearing hips don’t show to advantage in a three-piece suit.
Sure enough, when the kids were gone, and my husband left, the exhaustion eventually eased. Although the mental illness ended my medical career, my single, unemployable status provided an opportunity to reinvent myself. I let go of the expectations of both my mother and ex-husband and concentrated on what I wanted.
My dreams led me to ballroom dancing and writing. Best part? I get to sleep all night long.
Rua Mercier lives in Vancouver.