Women's Work: Do I Ever Feel Guilty About Not "Using" My College Education?

Mailbag time!

The Question:

Hi Mrs. Tierney,

My name is Sanasi and I am a 21 year old university student. I stumbled across your blog when I was looking for more Catholic blogs to read in my free time and it's kind of weird, but I feel like I see so much of myself in what you write about. Someday in the hazy future, I'd like to be a Catholic mom and it's exciting to see what a wonderful blessing that can be.

I read your post about deciding to become a stay at home mom and I was wondering if I could ask you a question about that? Do you ever feel guilty for having gained a college education and then not "using" it? I'm in my fourth year of undergrad right now and plan to continue on to medical school or law school most likely. I love the idea of being a stay at home mom in the future, but I feel guilty just thinking of having spent all this money on post-secondary education and then not getting a career afterwards.

I know that's kind of a strange question and I'm not sure if you have time to respond to this, but I'd love to hear your thoughts.

Best wishes,


The Answer:

Dear Sanasi,

I think this is a really important question to think about. And I'm not sure that young women are thinking about it enough.

Just after we were married, we lived at Stanford while my husband went to business school. I was lucky enough to get to know some of his classmates, and to interact with some of the undergrads, including my own sister, who had graduated from Stanford the year before we arrived, and was working on campus.

There was a lot of concern among the young women I met as to how they were going to balance it all. Most hoped to have a family some day, but all were also bright and determined and had professional aspirations.

We are trying to figure out how to balance all of this in a way that no one has really had to do before. For generations, "work" was mostly done in and around the home, by both men AND women. A woman's work could be done alongside her mothering. Whether you were a laundress, or a shepherdess, or a queen, whatever you were doing, you just did it with your kids around, at least to some extent. Then, after the industrial revolution, work slowly shifted to something done away from the home, and away from children.

For a fascinating in-depth analysis, check out this post by Daniel Bearman Stewart: Buttons, lard, and Old Norse: The Invention and Abandonment of Home Economics

Since you could no longer care for your children and "work" at the same time, families divided responsibilities: fathers worked, mothers stayed home with the kids. A shortage of laborers in an industrialized society during the World Wars meant women were encouraged to join the workforce. Then, eventually, the pill allowed women to avoid pregnancy even when their husbands weren't away at war, and they could join the outside-the-home workforce full time. Finally we were liberated! Right?

ummm . . . thanks?

But now, women of my and younger generations seem to be looking at this question honestly for perhaps the first time. What if we don't want to make the personal sacrifices necessary to pursue a career INSTEAD of having a family? What if we want children but also aren't content to neglect our other gifts and talents? What if, like you, we are trying to decide what to do with the whole rest of our lives at twenty, before we even know for sure that we have a vocation to marriage and motherhood? WHAT THEN?!

I got my degree (two actually) from a private university, then went to flight school after that to train as a pilot. About a year later, I began working as a flight instructor to build flight hours. About a year after that, I met my husband and in very quick succession I got engaged, married, and pregnant. I kept working until right before my due date, but then shortly after my son was born, I decided I wanted to stay home with him, and I've been home for thirteen years and seven more kids.

So, was my education and post graduate training a waste of time and money?

No, and yes.

No, because education is a good thing. My mind and my horizons were broadened by my university education and my vocational training. Even though I never made it to the airline career I had planned, I couldn't have known that when I started. If I were still a single woman, I think being an airline pilot would have been a good career for me.

And I could never regret my education. My studies in English and Comparative Literature for my degrees have probably been instrumental in my late-onset writing career. If only my professors could see all the cutting edge stuff I'm doing in the literary genres of "zombie homesteading" and "netflix sponsored post."

But, really, an educated society benefits everyone in it. I use the research and study skills I learned in college every day in my role as a mother. Especially as a homeschooling mom, (but all parents do this, I'm sure) I have the opportunity to share the subjects about which I am passionate (like grammar) with my children. The more I cared about my own education, the more I have to share with them.

Our homeschool group is full of moms who use their particular knowledge and skills to help our community. Traditional schools are the same. And there are tons of volunteer organizations who would love to have the part-time expertise of a newly-retired young mother.

On the other hand, looking back, I think I could have been more discerning in my career choice. I will encourage my own children to consider eventual marriage and parenthood when they are making education and career choices. Which, of course, my own parents did try with me. My dad always encouraged me to be a writer, it just seemed like too scary a thing to try to do at the time. It wasn't until I was settled into my vocation of marriage and motherhood that I finally realized that he was right all along.

If I had felt confident that I would be a wife and a mother, I should have studied something that I could pursue alongside my primary vocation. And airline pilot really isn't that. But, in my case, I didn't know. I really couldn't imagine being married to anyone until I met my husband.

Basically, my advice to you and other women like you, is . . .

1. study something you love, something that will be a part of your life whether or not you're getting paid for it
2. keep your options open as much as possible, and
3. realize that no decision, no matter the cost involved, is forever.

A wise woman knows when to call a sunk cost sunk and just move on to the next thing. That's allowed.

Edited to add:

THE most important aspect of keeping your options open is to avoid debt as much as possible. The comments below are full of cautionary tales and success stories about this part of the puzzle.

My parents and scholarships paid for all of my educational and vocational training, so I had no debt when I got married. My husband went to college on an ROTC scholarship, but did incur debt to go to business school. We are still paying it off, just a tiny bit at a time, but that was a good decision for us.

My lack of debt is what allowed me the freedom to decide to stop working after my son was born. I've read the advice (Kimberley Hahn, I think?) that after marriage, a couple should put all of the wife's salary into savings and live off of the husband's so that they will always be in the position to allow her to stay home should she wish to. I think that's REALLY great advice. But it's unlikely to be possible if you are hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt because of graduate school.

There are so many different ways to do this.

I know a handful of women who have had relatively large families while working outside the home and being the primary breadwinner for their families. It's a possibility. But I think the sacrifices and hardships involved in that plan are greater than most women would choose to take on. In fact, in all the cases I'm thinking about, the women ended up in that role because of a unique family situation. I'm not sure if any of them would have chosen it, if it hadn't been for their particular circumstances.

That means that, for most of us, the ideal blend of professional and personal fulfillment is going to look different than it will for men. We can say all we want about equality, but the reality is that parenthood is a physical, bodily endeavor for most women and it isn't for men. So, if you're picking a career now, and you hope to one day become a mother, maybe don't pick a career (like I did) that just is NOT going to work with pregnancy and breastfeeding and the general care and feeding of small humans.

Writing works great for me. My sister, after she had kids, was able to transition from a regular nine to five office job, into a part-time, work from home position. But neither of us is supporting our family with what we do. It's more personal fulfillment and some "nice to have" money.

If you feel like you'd want to keep working even after having kids, you need to talk to women in the fields you are interested in. What does family life look like for them? There must be disciplines within law or medicine that work better with a family.

Maybe you know you'd want to stay home full time with your kids, should you have them. That doesn't mean you don't keep up your studies now. You never know what God's plan for you might be. Maybe you'll cure cancer THEN get married and have a bunch of kids. Maybe you'll stop out of your career for a while, then resume it once your kids are older. Maybe, like I did, you'll just walk away and never look back and find out you were actually meant for something else entirely.

As long as your evaluations and choices are made honestly and prayerfully and often, you really can't go wrong.

Unless you're this lady. That's just scary.

Good luck!

You might also enjoy . . .

A Vocation to Motherhood

The Country Bunny and Seasons of Mothering

Disclaimer: I am not a theologian, nor am I an official spokesperson for the Catholic Church. (You're thinking of this guy.) If you read anything on this blog that is contrary to Church teaching, please consider it my error (and let me know!). I'm not a doctor or an expert on anything in particular. I'm just one person with a lot of experience parenting little kids and a desire to share my joy in marriage, mothering, and my faith.

If you've got a question, please send it along to catholicallyear @ gmail . com . Please let me know if you prefer that I change your name if I use your question on the blog.
p.s. I am WAY behind on my mailbag. Like, a month behind. Maybe two. Between keeping up the blog, writing for Blessed is She (about the devil), the printables and custom work at the Etsy shop, the mugs and t-shirts and pint glasses at the Cafepress shop, the fixing up of the house we bought, and the general care, feeding, and education of my children . . . I am fresh out of time to respond to emails. But if you wrote to me to ask a question, please know that I got it. I read it. I composed an answer to you in my head. But I haven't typed it up yet. It is my sincere intention to do so sometime in the near future.