When I was a little girl, my father would ask me what I wanted to be when I grew up. “You can be whatever you want to be,” he’d say. “What about a trash collector?” I asked impishly. “Sure,” my Dad would say with a grin. I knew he wanted me to pursue a career like his, as an engineer, but I also knew that he meant it when he said I could choose whatever path I wanted. He just wanted me to be happy.
I can’t say that I’m as generous with my own daughters. Sure, I want them to be happy. But if I had my choice, I’d want my girls to be financially secure first.
The goal of financial independence may seem to be an obvious one to have. But as we’ve heard in the news, it’s one that’s becoming increasingly evasive for many young adults as they face skyrocketing increases in college tuition and the cost of living. In a 2016 survey, Forbes discovered that adults in their 20s struggled on their own, with just about half needing outside help with paying their rent and health insurance.
For young girls, the challenge can be even more daunting. Put together the unfriendly economic environment and the demands of gender roles, and they’re faced with a double threat. In addition to having a successful career, after all, they’re also expected to raise a family. And as any mom knows, it’s a fine balance to do both.
At a teen STEM conference I attended with my daughters, the principal of the hosting all-girls school emphasized how its overarching goal was to prepare its students for real-world work. Although this might seem to be a no-brainer for today’s girls, she still faced resistance among some of her students as well their families, who were clinging to traditional ideals of womanhood. Mothers would say, “I just want my daughter to meet a good husband and have kids.”
It’s no surprise to hear this, even today. After all, although we may not explicitly say that marriage and family are goals for our girls, most parents would probably agree that they’d love to see their daughters (and sons, for that matter) “settle down” and raise a family.
The school’s emphasis wasn’t on promoting just any career, either. Girls were encouraged to pursue profitable life work. This meant steering them away from careers that weren’t economically beneficial (read: the arts) and towards careers that would (read: STEM careers). After all, research shows that STEM fields are where it’s at when it comes to better jobs and higher pay. So when a student announced her love for drama or dance, the school would respond, “That’s great. But what do you want to do outside of your free time?”
There’s nothing wrong with wanting to find a life partner and raise a family. And with my literature background, I fully support the arts. But the reality is, when these are the be-all/end goals, it can leave our girls on shaky ground.
I’ve had one too many friends who have found themselves financially struggling because their husbands—often the sole or major breadwinner—were suddenly out of commission because of divorce or illness, and even unexpected death. Other friends remain in unhappy or even abusive relationships because they (and their kids) rely on their partners for survival. In fact, economic dependency is one of the main reasons why women often stay in bad relationships. With women tending to live longer than men, it’s even more vital that young girls learn to take care of themselves.
Although one of my daughters jokes that she wants to grow up to be a princess with her own castle, she’s already looking at STEM careers. My kids know that life isn’t easy, and that they’ll need to take care of themselves one day. They’re slowly positioning themselves for careers in fields like engineering and pharmaceutical science, planning their school courses along these lines.
I do feel a bit sad that what they really enjoy—writing, reading, drawing, painting, history—is the stuff of inside jokes (“Yeah, Mom, I’m going to be a cartoon artist when I grow up!”) rather than dreams. But I realize that I want what most parents want for their kids. Not necessarily for their kids to follow their dreams—at least not just yet—but for them to be able to take care of themselves.
In all honesty, I want my kids to have it all—the strong career, happiness, and a family. Who wouldn’t? But I’m hoping that economic self-sufficiency will set the stage, and the rest will follow.
Lynn Ink is a university-level educator, writer, editor, women’s rights advocate and mom to three teens and a Border Collie. She loves Netflix binge-watching, blueberry pancakes and researching everything from historical events to remote places. She squirrels away most of her writing for no one to read, but is happy to share her work with LiveYourDream.org to help women and girls achieve their fullest potential. Currently, she’s working on a novel about a caregiver who chucks it all for an epic road trip and an In-N-Out burger. Maybe she’ll share it one day.