As a college student, I spent part of a summer teaching health and sanitation to schoolchildren in a mountain village in Guatemala. The knowledge was needed; the situation was desperate. But after the first day I learned an important lesson about the limitations of our work. To improve the health and wellbeing of a community, the education of children is helpful. But the education of mothers—those who inculcate values and practices into the hearts and minds of the next generation—is vital.
Experience and study in the years that followed confirmed that reality over and over again. A mother’s implementation of ordinary, daily practices of health and safety make her the central influence in preserving and nurturing life. A mother’s use of language in ordinary interactions expressing, explaining, and questioning make her the most significant influence in a child’s cognitive development. And a mother’s sensitivity and responsiveness to emotion make her the foundation of a child’s social-emotional strength. That is why her education matters so much. In critical ways, it is continuously woven into the hearts, minds, and bodies of her children.
But a recent highly publicized argument suggests that primarily nurturing the next generation may actually be a waste of her education, especially for women who graduate from premier institutions. Kelly Goff argues that women with elite degrees who choose to be stay-at-home moms are misusing their educations. For Goff, “advancing the lives of her own family at home is a noble cause, but not one requiring an elite degree.” These women have an obligation to “stay in the workplace and shatter glass ceilings.”
Goff’s argument is shortsighted. While acknowledging the need for women’s distinctive voice in the public sphere, it buys into a narrow, one-sided view of influence and power. Using Jean Elshtain’s poignant words, Goff champions “the new woman as the old man!” By embracing the terms of influence and power created by men, she fails to challenge a society that downgrades the unparalleled contributions of women who have nurtured generations.
In response to Goff, Princeton alumna and stay-at-home mom, Anne-Marie Maginnis, pointedly asks, “If a woman at home doesn’t need an elite degree does she need a college degree? A high school degree? At what point is a woman not worth educating at all?” Goff’s perspective “completely disregards the inherent worthiness of educating a human mind.” Most importantly, Maginnis continues, it ignores the most meaningful way in which stay-at-home moms use their degrees – to invest the best they have received, including their education, in the nurture of those who will lead the next generation as mothers, fathers, public servants, writers and artists, scientists and business leaders – those whose development the future entirely depends upon.
I grew up hearing my mother quote women’s advocate Edith Hunter: “Educated woman in the home? What an odd thing to deplore! What better place to have us end up? What more important job is there than sharing the values we are learning with the next generation of adults? What more strategic place could there be for an educated woman?”
We knew Mom believed it because she lived it. She gave her life to imbue us with the finest and best she had developed. Her love of poetry translated into helping us memorize hundreds of her favorite poems. Her understanding and love of history and geography translated into countless conversations exposing us to events and issues involving people all over the world — conversations facilitated by exploring the maps she kept on our dinner table. Her well-developed piano skills translated into thousands of hours helping us develop the ability to share the inspiring music we learned to love because of her.
But all along we knew it was not our academic and musical achievements she cared most about. It was about our capacity to care and serve; the character we developed through the commitment and tenacity required to develop those skills; and the lives we would lead as teachers, nurses, musicians, fathers and mothers.
There are many mothers today who are employed for more hours than they would like to be; mothers who yearn to give more of themselves to the children whose worth they know most intimately. And there are many stay-at- home mothers who wonder if their investment really matters. We would do more for all women if we strengthened them in doing what they do so effectively – to use their unparalleled influence in the development of those whose wellbeing everything that really matters depends upon.
Jenet Jacob Erickson teaches in the School of Family Life at Brigham Young University. Her opinions do not necessarily reflect those of BYU.