Pomona College Magazine
Volume 41. No. 2.
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Shattered Image

For Rachel Johnson '96, choosing full-time motherhood over a career was both easy and troubling.

By Rachel Johnson '96

My baby is sleeping on our guest bed; our computer is here and the floor is too Spartan for us, so my baby is sideways near a pillow on the bedspread. Soon he will peep or growl or otherwise urge me into action, and I will put a knee on the bed near him, pat his well-cushioned ribs and smile back at him. He is a big baby, big enough that I have begun to preempt the comments others make: “He’s a big boy.” “He’s our chunky monkey.” He is silent on the bed, for now, but soon he will be awake and we will both be back in the moment. In these interludes of baby snoozes, I am an exquisite housekeeper, a maven of organization and a marvel of level-headedness. The rest of the time, this baby and his 3-year-old sister delight but also befuddle me, focused as I am each day on the triage of motherhood.

I have trod an uncommon course in the years since I graduated from Pomona, one that could alternately be seen as bold and true to the self or as underachieving. Fond of my experiences working with professors during my undergraduate career, I fashioned myself a wunderkind and sought to hone my research acumen in graduate school. Although I enjoyed this second set of campus years, I realized that I was not well-suited to a life in academia. Before I exited my mid-20s, I knew I wanted more in life than a career, and I knew that being a wife and mother would trump virtually all else.

It is not an attitude frequently voiced in academia—in hallways traveled by pioneering women who shattered glass ceilings with proud hammers. Young women like myself were supposed to lift those hammers and seize the opportunities others were denied. But I didn’t exactly revel in anything on the career front. Instead, I picked up my hammer and returned it gently to a shelf.

Not long ago, my daughter lay on the grocery store floor, making a snow angel. She had confidently tossed a package of hot dogs into our cart, demanded to smell vanilla candles and to eat a donut.

“I want a donut.”
“I know, baby chops. Donuts are for special times.”
“There they are! There are the donuts.”
“Um hmm.”
“I want a donut.”
“Oh, look! Look, there are the apples. Which kind do you want?”
“I want a donut.”

As a Pomona student, I don’t think I pictured myself at 30 with my hands on a grocery cart and my mind occupied with the pros and cons of toddler music class and the freakish rate of apple juice consumption in my home. The disconnect between my spoken aspirations as an undergraduate and my reality today makes me quick with clichés: “I wouldn’t have it any other way.” “This is the best job I could ever hope to have.” “Parenthood is wonderful.” These assertions are all true. And, I suspect that if at 20 I had sat down to think about it, I would have professed a desire to be a mother and to devote more of my energies to the daily hubbub of parenthood than others might. What I don’t think I realized then—or fully grasped until graduate school—was how easily that simple, common desire could eviscerate my career.

According to the U.S. Department of Labor, the presence of mothers of infants in the paid workforce has been on the decline for the past several years, now approaching 50 percent. So my choice to forego full-time work in favor of assuming the daily care of my children is not unusual. What makes me odd, I suspect, is my path—a steady march of career-mindedness sharpened by the choice to invest in a Pomona education, my years at a similarly renowned graduate school and the conferral of my doctorate degree, followed by a casual freelance writing career that generates only a low hum of activity, part-time college teaching and two adorable children.

Mine is a beautiful, frenetic, in-demand existence. It is fun. It is humbling. There are no coffee breaks, no sneaky long lunches. My daughter never gets up from the sticky grocery store floor, looks at me with pity, and says “Good job. Let’s take five.” She at three is about her joys and sorrows of the moment. Perhaps in the grocery store if I start to walk away, she will get up, look doleful and offer a perfect ungrammatical plea: “Mama, I want hold you.”

I feel challenged and loved and tired and blessed every day. So I am not certain whom to blame for the simmering feeling that by devoting so many years to motherhood I am squandering my fat education. Did my professors, mentors and benefactors educate me for aisle 9? Is raising my children enough of a contribution to the world? Is it enough of a return on the collective investment others made in me? Is it enough for me?

My quandary is well-worn; it is familiar to others. By choice and by circumstance, through deliberation and through chance, we each settle into an approach to this most central and defining of life challenges. I try not to begrudge anyone their choices.

One night not long ago, my son refused his first bedtime. He was round-cheeked triumphant when I returned him to my chuckling husband’s lap. Then my daughter, hearing me from her dark bedroom, whimpered. Double bedtime failure. I pushed open her bedroom door and found her wide-eyed, sitting on the rocking chair next to her bed. I urged her back in and crawled in next to her.

She told me jokes—by adding made-up words to her bedtime prayers. “Thank you for dorsey worsey.” She let out peals of laughter. “Thank you forwee lee.”

More giggles. I smiled too. Then I thought I should be a responsible mother. “Okay, now, let’s be sleepy. Close your eyes. ”She closed them deliberately, grinning. A brief silence, then, into the darkness: “Toots-a-lot!”

Our side-by-side laughter was the highlight of my day.

This naughty, late bedtime is what I live for. It is not so much that I have high-minded notions of the value of fostering humanity’s future, or that by pushing career to the back burner now I am keeping to a schedule in a well-defined life plan. It is simply that I could do nothing else. I would rue the morning if it meant kissing my children goodbye until dusk. I do think about career, but I am content. This is enough.
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by Pomona College
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