August 30 — Compromises We Make for Family

by Marlene Samuels

About two months ago, I got a note from a long time friend describing the newly funded research project she was about to launch. While I know I was supposed to be totally thrilled for her, I may as well have gone off to suck lemons. A tenured anthropology professor at a huge eastern university, my friend is considered an expert in her field. So, what put me into my very bitter funk?

Attached to her email was her academic vita–ivory tower idiom for resume. Pages and pages and pages! Besides the four books under her belt, she’s also published more than three-hundred journal articles, monographs, and textbook chapters. Do I care that in probably no more than 500 scholars in the world will ever read her work? You bet I do!

I ought to be happy for her, right? Wrong! Instead I became obsessed taking a mental accounting of all the compromises we make for our families, spouses, parents, and offspring. But in order to minimize my nagging guilt about not having joy for her, I also considered that I ought to itemize all the life choices Dr. Anthropology had to make to so much “career path” accomplishment.

That got me moving along the regrets tangent–the notion of what could I have done, how much I compromised, and sure there really was, and still is, an awful lot of that. While I was decorating homemade fudge birthday cakes with gummy worms, my friend was poring over anthropology journals in the library, perhaps way into the wee wee hours. When I was hiding from my kids in the basement toilet just to get a five minute private gossip session with a friend, maybe Dr. Anthropology was trying to find a friend with whom to have an acceptable, politically correct gossip session–one that wouldn’t result in violating university ethics codes.

Now, in view of my comparatively paltry accomplishments, I have come to admit the surprising. There’s something indescribably magical about ascending the commencement dais of a renowned university, extending my hand forward to receive the PhD I’d worked on for so many years between carpools and snow days, between orthodontist appointments and paintball parties and looking out into a sea of faces to find my husband and two teenage sons, simultaneously teary-eyed. “Welcome to the ancient and honorable company of scholars.” says the university president to me.

“Hey Yo! Mom, way to go!” my younger son jumps up and screams then gives me the high-five wave.

Marlene is a sociologist and writer,earned her Ph.D. and M.A., from University of Chicago in Social Science and teaches research methodology to non-fiction writers. She’s completing a short story collection and co-hosts and  Her writing has been widely published. Visit her writer’s website,


6 responses to “August 30 — Compromises We Make for Family

  1. Marlene, I so get what you are saying. And let it be known that while I’m ever so grateful for the basic knowledge people like your friend are cranking out, I also believe that people who make fudge cake filled with love and topped with gummy worms keep the sun shining on the planet. That you have been able to plant a foot in both worlds is utterly awesome.

  2. Sharon-thanks so much for your comment! As I’m sure you know, there are still moments when, no matter how old we are, we question the choices we made in the past. Comments like yours reinforce my gut instinct that mine were the right ones for me. Obviously, life is full of very complex choices – ones made more so when we feel compelled to take the needs and happiness of others into account. Again, thanks!

  3. With all due respect, your accomplishments are not paltry, not even “comparatively” so. I understand your point about making compromises for family, which is another way of saying that women give up a portion of their intellectual potential when they become moms and homemakers. I perceive (in your fourth paragraph) that old sense of minimizing the importance of the homemaker’s role.

    You are so blessed to have been able to embrace two major roles in life– that of homemaker and that of earning a PhD. Regrets can morph into gratitude, and your last paragraph suggests that they fianlly did so, for you.

    Sometimes I wonder whether or not a whole new model of society could be constructed, a matriarchal system in which women controlled everything. They’d send the men off to work, and raise the children communally. Individual women with intellectual or business potential would be free to follow that path to its fulfillment, even when they became wives and mothers.

  4. What a lovely piece, Marlene! Thanks for sharing a bit of your journey of coming to understand why you’ve made the choices you have, and your joy at being able to earn your Ph.D. while nurturing a family. I know what it is to look at another’s accomplishments and say to myself, “How come I haven’t done all that,” and also to realize that what I have done is a lot. So give yourself a “way-to-go” and high five from me too!

  5. Oh Susan – what a really nice comment! I greatly appreciate it and even though most of the time I truly do believe my choices were the correct ones for me and given my circumstances (not to mention generational constraints) there are occassional moments of self doubt that rear their heads. Thanks again and I’ll definitely be giving myself that high five!

  6. Marlene,

    You captured the jealousy/joy dilemma perfectly here, with joy winning out, as I think is ultimately the case with all of us who had the gift…though challenge laden–of raising our children. No substitute for being there. There’d be other guilts, had you paid someone else to put those gummy worms on the cupcakes, etc.

    Lovely piece.

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