Valued but not invaluable.

I have an awkward love/hate relationship with stress. Actually, its probably not a relationship so much as an acknowledged coexistence. But its not one of those productive, balanced symbiotic relationships. No, its an imbalanced mess from hell. I tend not to stress out about the things that I have the power to change, fix, or control. Things like homework, packing, getting the house ready for a party; those things were a walk in the park. Why? Because it is solely up to me how they turn out. What was the point of worrying over finishing a paper when I knew that I was going to eventually get it finished? I knew I was going to sit down and write it, so there was no reason to stress over it. It would be finished on time (which means couple minutes before the actual deadline). The night before my college senior thesis was due, I wrote fifty pages about paradoxes and nonconformity and history and computer science and art, but never once did I freak out and think, “Good Lord, I’m not going to finish. I’m not going to get this done. I don’t have enough time. I’m going to fail and not be able to graduate.” No, I thought, “I wonder if I can squeeze in a forty-five minute nap between the last section and my conclusion.” Obviously I’m unstable.

And then there are the other things. The big things. The aspects of our lives that we only dissect during the ungodly hours past midnight and before dawn. Those frustrations that we manage somehow to shove into compartments in the recesses of our minds, but like to bring out during the times when we should be relaxing and possibly dreaming about attractive men and shopping sprees. These are things we stress over: our finances, our careers, our relationships (or lack thereof), our futures. I lie in my bed at night and fret over things that are a little bit out of my control, things that I don’t really have much of a say in. Sometimes I’ll be alone and my problems blindside me, knocking me over and leaving me breathless, as if to remind me that it would be silly to think they had somehow solved themselves and disappeared.

I’m in debt. It was I choice I made when I decided to pursue my education. Going to college was, for me, merely a question of when and where. School was the only thing I was truly good at, the only skill I seemed to have developed. So as an undergraduate, I took out loans to cover my room and board (I was blessed with a full-tuition scholarship; I’m not sure how I could have possibly managed without it); as a graduate student, I took out even more. I justified the large amounts to myself, saying that you can’t put a price on knowledge, academics, and a good education. And maybe I couldn’t put a price on it, but the federal government could and did.

We live in a society where education is “valued” but is not “invaluable.” We are told that we need it, we need that piece of paper saying that we passed the tests and wrote the papers. We need the degree that somehow means we have achieved an expertise in something. We need to borrow thousands and thousands of dollars for an education, only to be sent out into the world and be told that there aren’t enough jobs and we don’t have enough experience. In the end, we didn’t need it, we shouldn’t have wanted it, and a piece of paper is just a piece of paper. And while we scramble trying to make it work, the government comes calling, and that priceless education is now given a monetary value that is expected to come out of my minimum wage, part-time paychecks. Its kind of cute really.

What isn’t cute? The horrid feeling of dread that I can’t seem to shake. The deep acknowledgement that at some point over the last six years I must have made a mistake: I picked the wrong major, I picked the wrong school, I picked the wrong career path, or perhaps I didn’t really pick a career path at all. I walk around and feel as if I am drowning and know there is absolutely nothing that anyone can do to fix any of it. That even I, to some extent, can’t undo or erase or change it. No matter how many tears I cry or nights I go without sleep, the debt is going to keep following me. It’s a chain wrapped around me and there is no key.

The hardest choice I ever made was deciding to walk away from graduate school without finishing. I completed my first year, loved every moment spent in the classrooms, at the library, and in front of my laptop. I learned so much and wasn’t even close to knowing it all. But I was an out of state student without a teaching assistantship, which meant more loans. My first year as a grad student doubled what I had already taken out in school loans. A second year would triple it. For two weeks I was beside myself. I wanted that degree. I wanted my Master’s in history, because I was damn good at what I did. I deserved that degree; I was worthy of it. But the cost was too high. And I had to sit down, for the first time in my entire life, and decide whether or not my education was worth it.

It wasn’t a choice I should have had to make. No one should have to. Education should never be the thing we have to sacrifice. We shouldn’t look at it like an indulgence or guilty-pleasure. I shouldn’t be made to regret the time, effort, and money I put into bettering my mind with the intention of bettering someone else’s. It saddens me that the society we live in would rather make money than educate the future generations. It would toss education aside as something extra, without real value or purpose. Knowing that I live in a place where my desire to learn will cost me my peace of mind and get me ridiculed leaves me heart-broken. And honestly? I’m finished.

So, society, I’m calling you out. You want an entire generation of adults that has to give up their dreams of higher education to slave away at minimum wage jobs to pay off loans or to simply survive in this world? You got it. So what are you going to do when we forget how valuable an education is? What are you going to do when the leaders of your country could barely afford an associate’s degree at a community college? What are you going to do when our education system continues to embarrass us on a global scale? What are going to do when we stop reading books and forget how to write? What are you going to do when there is nothing left, when the brightest minds to come along in the last century are told that their knowledge, creativity, and gifts are meaningless and useless? When you become a joke, a laughingstock, an embarrassment to the history of mankind, remember that you told me working in retail was a better use of my mind than going to graduate school. Remember that you made my choice for me, and you have no one to blame but yourself.

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How French are you?

Subtitle: Feminism, Part Two (ish)

{Preface: This is not actually about French people… per se…}

One of the first posts I wrote for this blog was about Christianity and feminism. I would say go and check it out, but after reading and rereading it, I’m going to say that it wasn’t my best work. I hadn’t even thought about that post until one of my very dear (and rather educated and out spoken) friends mentioned that he was a bit disappointed in some of the views I seemed to be espousing concerning women. My first thought was, “dude, please,” followed quickly by “wait, what did I even write?” I tend to write like some people talk: quickly, fluidly, but without much thinking ahead of time; its kind of in the moment. Sure, I read over what I’ve written when I finished, but usually just for grammar and such. But the content, the ideas, those I rarely edit. So I went back over it, and I wasn’t all that impressed. It started out well and muddled in the middle, like our best intentions.

The lovely thing about writing? I can issue an addendum or corollary or clarifying statement. I’m not going to take back what I wrote, because I don’t think it was all bad. But I want to make it better. I want to make it more me.

To be completely honest, I probably wouldn’t have even written this if I hadn’t come across two articles and had one heartfelt conversation. Since all three came on the heels of my friend’s thoughtful criticism, I figured I would just go for it.

Important event #1: One of my roommates showed me an article on the new line of LEGO’s that caters to young girls. The new LadyFigs (because they aren’t boxy like the LEGO men) can play in “a hot tub, a splash pool, a beauty parlor, an outdoor bakery and a ‘cool convertible,’ as well as an inventor’s workshop.” Feminists were displeased, to say the least, due to the hypersexualization of the figurines’ shape and the stereotyping of the activities girls would prefer. Others, however, question why its wrong to provide these sort of traditional girl-focused toys for the consumer. Shouldn’t the parent have the right to decide if they want to purchase traditionally masculine or feminine toys for their kids? {My thoughts: nothing is more hypersexualized than a Barbie doll; LEGO dolls are the least of my worries.}

Important Event #2: In an uncharacteristic move, I bought a women’s fashion magazine (Marie Claire to be specific, because I watch Project Runway and two of their editors have appeared on the show). I don’t like fashion magazines, because its all pictures with few articles. But I picked it up out of boredom and read out of curiosity, and I came across an interview with French philosopher Elisabeth Badinter on her new book The Conflict: How Modern Motherhood Undermines the Status of Women. (Sidenote: good title; you can’t really pass that without wanting to know what the heck she’s talking about.) Her first point, “motherhood is a choice, not an obligation.” Second, women shouldn’t give up economic independence or sacrifice their “intellectual dowry” to stay at home with their children. Third, it is better for children to have a mother who works. Four, something about breast feeding (I’m not all that prepared to weigh in on that one). And five, French women can be mother’s without losing their identity as a woman (a sex life is key to this, apparently). {My thoughts: mostly I don’t agree; she talks first about women needing to make their own choices, then tells women why choosing to be a stay at home mother isn’t the best idea; also, who says the French have mastered any of this… seriously.}

Heartfelt Conversation: Today I was riding home from work with my close friend (who really is more of a sister), and we were talking about all of these things. She is married, works full time (probably more than full time to be honest), and wants to have children. I told her a bit about the article I had read in the magazine and my own thoughts on women and motherhood and marriage, and asked what she thought. She said she was tired of being told what to do. She was tired of people telling her that quitting work to be a mom was a stupid idea. She was tired of other people telling her how to live her life and what was socially acceptable. It was her life, her choice. {My thoughts: I agree… yeah, that’s it.}

We live in a society that knows things. We are educated, aware, capable of learning just about anything because of the information technology at our fingertips. With that knowledge eventually comes the feeling that we know best. That we know what everyone should and should not do. We know your mistakes before you make them and have no problem saying “I told you so.” We like to be involved in everyone’s personal business. We like to know what’s going on.

So we, as a society, love to tell people how to live their lives. We love to look at women and say, “This is what you as a woman should aim for. This is what you should want. This is what you need to have.” We have society, tradition, religion, philosophy, education, and history all telling us different things. We are torn, pulled in all directions, without really being able to sit down, take a breath, and decide which path is best for me. Which path mirrors what I need. Which will make me happy.

My friend who was less than impressed with my writings on women reminded me that feminism is about choice. It is about women deciding what they want to do and choosing to do it. It is about giving women the power to act on those choices. Its about me choosing to be a mother or choosing to pursue a career. Its about me choosing to go to school or stay at home. Its about me choosing to be on my own or to share my life with a partner. Its about me choosing to be my own person or to be what everyone tells me I should be.

So when the ultra French Mme Badinter says that motherhood is a choice not an obligation, I agree. Motherhood is a commitment; its difficult, messy, and stressful. But many also say its fulfilling, meaningful, and a blessing. Women who choose to take that on, who want that life shouldn’t be looked down upon, mocked, or ridiculed because of that choice. Its their choice, not society’s or Badinter’s.

Likewise, women who don’t want that, who don’t need it, who look at motherhood differently shouldn’t be shunned for their choice. Women shouldn’t feel that they have to have kids, that they have to give up their career or education to stay at home. If its not something that you want, something that will make you happy, it isn’t worth it. Some women aren’t even able to have children. Their identity isn’t determined by their reproductive ability. Its determined by what they make of their life, what they choose to do with the gifts and talents they have.

I hope that nothing I’ve written in past implies that woman should take the traditional role in their lives. I don’t believe that women need to have children and stay at home to be a woman. They don’t need to get married young, or ever, and settle down to have kids. They don’t have to give up their academic dreams or career goals. They don’t need to be anything other than what they are. A woman’s purpose isn’t being a mother or being a housewife or being a businesswoman or being an intellectual. Its about being you, full time, no matter what society tells you.

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