I’ll never forget the valecditorian of my class in high school. Her name was Evanthia: short cropped hair, petite, with huge saucer blue eyes. She talked with the tilt of the off-the-boat Greek accent ever so often even if she had lived in the States for eight years by the time she graduated from high school in Astoria. In the 1980’s Astoria was still the little village of first-generation immigrant families from Greece. What most impressed me about Evanthia was that she was brilliant. She had a 99 overall average on every single subject. She had won the Westinghouse Math and Science competition, maybe twice in a row. She was good at both English/Social Studies and math/science in a high school known for high standards. Although I never asked, I’m sure her SAT scores were off the charts. She could have gone to any Ivy League school she chose. I even remember her valecdictory speech; she defined “success” according to Webster at the beginning of her speech and argued that success depended on what you thought was imporant by the end. She beat out even the swarm of hungry and cut-throat Chinese first-generation sons by her brilliance. I admired her. Until that day during AP Bio, when we were waiting for the lab assistant to ready the chemicals and specimen samples whiffing of formeldahyde, that I caught her during some down time. She was sitting on the wooden stool at the corner of the black marble lab table leafing through a thick “Modern Bride” magazine.
“I can’t wait to get married,” she uttered in a trance state, her eyes wandering beyond the glossy photos of perfectly powder-puff models in frilly chiffon and white lace into that fuzzy distant future the kind you have to squint to imagine yourself in. “If I could get married, I wouldn’t go on to college. I’d stay home and have a family.”
“But Evanthia, what are you talking about?” I answered. “You got a full scholarship to Yale. How can you give that up?”
“All that stuff does not make you happy,” she replied. “I know I would be happy just to be married and have a couple of kids.”
“But Evanthia,” I continued, “You’re brilliant. You can’t waste your mind like that. The world needs intelligent people to come up with the cure for cancer or something.”
“Yeah,” she said, “that might be true, but what does it matter if you wind up alone without a family around you. Wouldn’t you become a waste in a way?”
“I don’t know, maybe you’re right,” I said. “Maybe we’re both right.”
I was shocked. Here was the female Hellenic equivalent of Albert Einstein in my eyes and all she wanted was to get married and knocked up. Ti sto diaolo! Was it a waste or did she have a point?
I think every intelligent Greek woman who has made the decision to get educated and have a career runs into the dilemma: which is more important–my career or my family? Many women solve this dilemma on their own terms; some find a balance between pursuing their career but still devoting quality time to their families. Some take time off from stressful careers to raise a family and return when the kids are school-bound. Some choose careers that allow for a balance. But, knowing what I know about being raised as a dutiful Greek-American daughter, I tend to think that when push comes to shove, when the choice is lethal–either you kill your career or your chance at happiness with a doting husband and children, most choose the “marry and live happily ever after” option. Just like Evanthia. She would rather be happy than successful. She would rather use her uterus than her cerebrum. Not that the choice has to be so either/or. But I find that in such a dilemma, even when one tries to do it all by becoming a superwoman driven career-tracker and devoted mom, one always pays a price. You cannot have it all without driving yourself to physical and emotional exhaustion. One way or another–something gives, either your dreams, goals, aspirations or your family’s needs.
I think Greek-American women choose the family over career for several seminal reasons. One is the importance of the family in Greek culture. Two is the socialization that girls in Greek culture get. Three has to do with “the voice” that voice that we have internalized deep in our being that yanks us back when we are about to do something for ourselves and not for the family, for the ethnos, or for the patrida. (Funny how that “voice” always sounds like the high-pitched nagging rasp of your mother–“Mori, anoieiti ti kaneis?”)
One of the greatest things about growing up Greek is the strong binds that the family has on you. Family is sacred. It is the thing that raises you, supports you, strengthens you, teaches you; the place you return to day after day, decade after decade, generation after generation. It is a fortress, a cooking pot, a comfort station. It is unescapable. Because family takes such prominence in our culture, we know it is so valuable so it is worth investing and saving. The pillar of that institution is the mother; without her it would not be as great. The family derives its power from the power of the mother. We know how important the family is to Greek culture and identity so as women, we know our pivotal position in that structure. We know the hand that rocks the cradle rules the world. So being CEO of the Pappas clan is as powerful a post as being CEO of Pfizer.
As Greek girls we have been groomed to assume that CEO position from birth. We are indoctrinated to think that girls should know how to keep house, cook mousaka and make galaktobouriko with just enough crust. We are raised with the expectation that we will all marry and bring “eggonia” to our parents. (Not that it’s any different for our brothers; Greek children are in debt to their parents until they are married and still they carry the yoke of parental interest until the investment of grandchildren satisfies their parents’ need to guarantee that their name is perpetuated down the generations.) It goes without saying that girls are born to get married and bring more descendants that carry either Pappou or Giagia’s name. There would be a stigma and a shame attached to any person, either male or female, who chooses to stay single. There is something wrong with those people. It is a cross the family has to bear if their children do not marry. “Achristos” or “achristi” they think. It is a waste of life and potential if someone does not marry.
From as long as I can remember, my mother kept a bulky, overgrown “baulo” in the corner of the kitchen. For my the baulo became a symbol for a girl’s destiny. It was the sort of living bank account of my family’s investment in my conjugal bliss. That clunker, a wooden crate lined with aluminum plates beveled with iron nails, held layers and layers of neatly folded linen, bath towels, doillies, silver platters and assorted other housewares. Wafting of mild moth balls, the baolo was a living reminder of my mother and father’s stake in my marriageable future. Every so often she would open it up to rearrange its contents and add new ones: a mixer, silver goblet sets, crystal bowls, 24k silver cutlery in a red velvet-lined box, knives, forks, big spoons and little spoons with tendrils on their edges cozily sleeping in their grooved compartments. It was the holding pen for the dowry or the “prika” a vestige of the village farm practice her mother had practiced and her mother before her. The dowry is the price a family paid to get rid of daughters, to make them more desirable to a groom and his family who would take on the burden of having to upkeep her and her progeny. “And what if I never get married?” I would ask my mother as she gingerly folded assorted kitchen towels into the baulo. “Ase tis aidies,” she would say (“Stop the nonsense,” there is no such thing. Of course, you are going to get married.” Such a possibility is unthinkable. It is the natural course for all young Greek girls.
And then there is that “voice”. That voice, that even with two advanced degrees and a fulfilling career, whispers and nags, “You are not really happy. You need a husband to do that.” “Don’t be selfish; a woman’s place is with her family. You will not feel fulfilled if you didn’t have three kids.” You must be the one who sacrifices her goals, her career, her intellectual potential so that the children grow up in a stable, loving family. But what about that voice, my voice, that screams you will not feel fulfilled until you start living to your potential, until you have discovered who you really are and who you really want to be, on your own terms, not in relation to anyone else. Up to this point, I actually thought that my kids and my family were more important. But that wasn’t my voice telling me that. That was the voice of my teacher friends who sacrificed a lucrative marketing career to have three kids; that was the voice of my mother who still is praising my achievements as a mother and homemaker more than any other of my accomplishments; that was the voice of my patriarchal culture dictating to me what the “good daughter” would do. But this voice has nothing to do with me. Ironically, it is imposed by the very woman who loves me dearly. But she slaughtered herself on the sacrificial altar of the “family” so that she could carve out an easy identity for herself because it is always easier to follow the dictates of our culture and the norms of our society instead of trying to figure what makes sense for ourselves by ourselves.
And so I think it is that many otherwise intelligent, ambitious, self-reliant young Greek women choose the conventional route of love-marriage-and-two kids instead of staking out on their own and following the beat of their own inner drum. In many ways young women shortchange themselves because they listen to the “voice”.
I often think about Evanthia and what became of her. What choice did she eventually make? Was she successful according to her own definition of the term? And if she married and became happy ever after, did she make the right choice? Would it be a waste of her potential to live a conventional happy-homemaker life and make keftedakia and skordalia? Or would she be an “achristi” if she chose to never marry but devote her life to science and live in the passionate pursuit of the cure for cancer? I hope whatever her choice it was from her, the real her.
Have you ever wondered who decided on the life you have taken? Growing up as a Greek American girl, the answer is not that easy. Of course there is you–the woman who wants to start a career–to be a practicing physician, a chemical engineering calibrating minute solutions of acids in petri dish, a forensic psychologist or a country-skipping international correspondent, a Greek captain sailing through the South Seas, or even a stock broker, or an installation artist. And then there is “the voice”–that voice of culture that usually takes on the shrill voice of your mother that voice when she called you to come to the kitchen or get home before your curfew, that voice deep within your subconscious that nags you , “Pote tha pandrefteis mori? Pote tha kaneis paidia?” A woman without a man, who is not married or at least in a committed relationship is not really successful.
That voice that I kept hearing deep within the caverns of my conscience nearly destroyed my life and definitely obliterated my youth. You see, you can’t ever be happy. Greek women are usually very strong, independently-opinionated, and innately confident. They were born to be somebodies; however, that bugle call of culture sometimes undermines their living to their highest, most liberated potential. They compromise living “an actualized self” as the psychologists say. Why? Because whether you choose a successful career or not, you are stuck feeling inadequate. And even if you do choose a career, it probably won’t be the one you are meant to pursue because so many smart, independent, educated Greek women shortchange themselves and limit their potential because they are following some deeply imbedded script of how a Greek girl should be and what a respectable Greek American woman should do. Most of the time that script involves that she be married, have a few kids and be in the kitchen making koulourakia. But is this who we are as modern American women? Is this archetype compatible with the opportunity for professional and psychological fulfillment we can achieve in the greater arena?
In my case, sadly, it is not. I feel so stifled and constricted in this Greek matriarchal role, even though at the same time I realize it is extremely important. While I know many women have to deal with the family vs. professional and personal fulfillment issue, but for Greek-American women the choice is made tougher because of the strong pull of culture on our heart strings. Because family is so enmeshed with cultural identity maybe the thought that if we are not true to our biological calling we will also be unfaithful to our culture does a hidden whammy on us? Perhaps we pick conventional roles because those roles we assume to be part of our cultural identity and to deny them would mean rejecting our culture, which is anathema to any immigrant group threatened to be consumed by a larger cultural hegemony? How have other Greek-American women accomplished this task? Is it possible to stay faithful to the Greek side of you, raise a proud Greek family with an Eleni, a Yiannaki, and half a Marko, while at the same time pursuing your professional and personal goals? And can you do this without losing your sanity or getting zapped of all your physical and emotional strength? I would really like to know. Join the forum to discuss.