Karen Sharf | What I wish for you

Guest Column | Trying to paint off the grid but within the lines

· April 18, 2012, 12:44 am   ·  Updated April 23, 2012, 12:11 am

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This week, College senior and former Daily Pennsylvanian Managing Editor Samantha Sharf’s column has been guest written by her mother, Karen.

Dear Daughter,

A few weeks ago, I found you and your aunt, who also attended Penn, painting by numbers and drinking wine at her kitchen table. “A little mental therapy?” I laughed. You walked away for a moment and I took the paintbrush. When you returned, you yelled at me for not following the color grid. “I believe in painting ‘off’ the grid, but staying in the lines,” I replied. You tilted your head, looked at me a little funny, then responded, “I buy that.”

My mind wanders to a conversation between you, your aunt and me in our kitchen over five years ago. It began when I raised the unpopular question, “Why Ivy, grad school or law school, if you’re not going to use it?”

In walked your grandmother and your aunt turned the question on her. “Why did you push me into law school?”

“College, law or graduate schools were things your father and I could provide — paths unavailable to us,” your grandmother replied. “It was our honor.”

For years, your aunt searched for “something.” But, much to her frustration, she couldn’t find a career that incorporated both her intellectual skills and other interests. At the time, she had two small children and felt almost trapped by her degrees. Many paths she encountered didn’t seem appropriate for a Penn Law grad.

I assumed life would be much clearer for you and your graduating class.

Curious, I Googled “Ivy women in the workplace” and was shocked by what came up. I couldn’t find any recent studies on the subject. What I did find was how inflammatory the question “to work or not to work” is, even today.

I came across a New York Times article from 2005 describing the results of a recent Yale University grad interviews with hundreds of women at elite colleges. Louise Story found that many women she interviewed did not anticipate staying in the workforce 10-plus years down the road.

Story found a few key reasons: First, these women did not believe they could “have it all” — a high powered career, children and balance. Second, (you’re going to love this one) Ivy women leave the work force because they can. Highly educated women are more likely to marry well and thus have the option of not working. Finally, women surveyed were greatly influenced by the choices their mothers made. Growing up with a stay-at-home versus working mother had a tremendous impact on how women saw their futures.

I also found Linda Hirshman — an author, lawyer and retired philosophy and women’s studies professor at Brandeis University. By opting out of the work place, Hirshman theorizes, women of your generation (and mine) leave themselves vulnerable to many ills. Lower pay, difficulty re-entering the workforce after having kids, imbalanced marriages, boredom and a lack of fulfillment are a few. Most of all, she argues these women are throwing away strides the women’s rights movement achieved 40 years ago.

The women Story interviewed did not think they could “have it all.” Hirshman concludes that staying at home is a slippery slope. I do not think either presents the whole truth. It’s complicated.

Very recently, your grandmother told me in her day, the only reason a woman went to college was to get her “Mrs.” degree. Your grandmother only attended one year of college due to finances but still directed a large nonprofit mental health organization for over 20 years.

When I went to Boston University in 1979, I took the SATs once and never heard of SAT Subject Tests. I went to school in Boston because my boyfriend attended Brandeis University. Career, marriage, motherhood — it just all kind of happened. To this day, I still work.

After years of searching, your aunt is in the wine business and has finally allowed herself to do something she loves. I’m also sure her law degree serves her well.

When I said, “I believe in painting ‘off’ the grid, but staying in the lines,” what I meant was, for me, it was never mommy versus career. I had to find a path for both, create my own paint by number palate. It’s possible.

So, what’s an Ivy grad to do? Something you love. Be passionate. Do not waste the gifts that were given to you.

Finally, never forget how hard it was to get to where you stand today and honor those that came before you that could not do the same.

Love,

Mom

Karen Sharf, is the mother of College senior Samantha Sharf, a weekly columnist and former Managing Editor for The Daily Pennsylvanian. She is from Old Brookville, N.Y. Her email address is karensharf@aol.com.

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