Family: Another Option
One of my high school friends calls it the "Harvard complex"--the idea that, because we're at Harvard we must "amount to something" and be "important." What puzzles my high school friend and me is why this complex is so focused on careers. In one of my lectures last week, a professor asked us if we saw anybody here present the idea of a family as a real option after graduation. And I really don't think we do, or at least I have yet to meet someone who does.
It is not good enough that we become great Moms or Dads. We are surrounded by pressure to earn six-figure salaries and hold prestigious titles. We feel that we must succeed in one particular way, and there's something not quite right with just being someone's spouse or parent. Marriage and children--having a family--is seen as something to be put off or avoided, as a hindrance that will prevent us from achieving success.
A couple of weeks ago, my friends were telling me they need to do well in their classes in order to get a "good" career in investment banking or consulting. Are those really the only places where good careers exist? And even beyond that, do we really need a career? What about just having a job? What about pouring all of our energy and talent into our home rather than our office?
Too often it is taken for granted that "success" means beating others to the top of our chosen field--seldom, if ever, is success seen as raising good kids. My friends outlined, step-by-step, how they wanted their lives to proceed after graduation. None included a family in that picture. That shocked me. I grew up believing the most important thing any two people can do is raise children. As a friend recently put it, "to love is to live," and what better way to love than to raise children?
Last weekend, a friend and I had dinner with a couple of guys who have lived their entire lives in the North End. They have been best friends for 30 years. It was a great dinner--pizza at Regina's--but what really made me think was a comment my friend made as we rode the Red Line back to Harvard Square. She told me that what was so special about the evening was that they didn't see us as Harvard students. They weren't intimidated by us and didn't treat us as if we were somehow different. They weren't impressed by our education or the trajectory it throws us in. Instead, they saw us, she said, as "real people."
That's what we are, real people. We don't have to be a partner in a firm or save the world from anything. We can graduate, get a job, get married and have kids--and we won't be failures. And in no way does this detract from the fact that we are still a part of this institution and are here to make what we choose of the many lessons Harvard has to offer. If anything, it reinforces it.
True, having a career and a good family are not mutually exclusive--many people have both. But having both involves sacrifice in career and family. Like any life decision, it is, in the end, a question of priorities. Why choose the career? Is it because we really want it or is it because we feel it is what we should do? People at Harvard tell us over and over again that we should do what we love. What troubles me is so few of us here ever include having a family as an option.
I may be wrong, and indeed I hope I am. By no means do I feel Harvard students are cold and heartless individuals with no use for the family. Nor am I saying that there should be no investment bankers, lawyers or doctors in this world.
What I am saying is that those careers aren't our only options. It really is okay to have a job instead of a career, to center one's life on the home instead of the office. Some would say this is a waste of a Harvard education--in fact, some already have. But I don't think it is a waste for the main beneficiaries of my Harvard education to be my kids. Nor do I think that those who do devote their lives to their kids, like my own parents, are failures. One of the greatest things we can give to the world is our children. Just don't forget that, Harvard.
Matthew S. Vogel '01 is a sociology concentrator in Kirkland House.