The gnawing conflict between achieving success through one’s career and devoting time to foster a fulfilling family life is nothing new for most women. However, the gnawing between career vs family might be more acute for a Greek-American girl.
Greek culture has as its foundation the family and the family has its foundation the mother. Therefore, to be Greek and female means that you won’t have fulfilled your cultural destiny unless you become a mother, or so it goes. As far as mothers go, there are few cultures that can beat the Greek one. Someone could not ask to have a better mother than a Greek mother. She typifies the words “love” and “sacrifice.” Because Greek mothers do such a good job at mothering, they leave an indelible imprint on their daughters, so that the urge to nurture, to hold and feed babies, to orchestrate the minutiae of a household, and to mandate the economic and emotional course that a family unit takes is very strong in Greek women.
Transplant this need to nurture to the 21st work-career-driven America and see what happens. For women of our mother’s generation, the art and science of running a household was the only avenue open, except for the occasional role of subordinate business partner in their husband’s restaurant or shop. For the women of my generation, however, the avenue of success through work has been paved by virtue of our very presence in this country. We have more options than our mothers; this makes our choices richer yet simultaneously more complex. We value careers and the outlet of our creative, analytical and organizational capacities. We are geared to be first-rate achievers in schools and on the job.
Yet even while we have attained success by American standards, our culture deems us unsuccessful unless we are married and mothering. We identify with the freedom, independence and willfulness of our American working girl counterparts, yet yearn for the nest-building power of our matriarchal mamas. We might be very successful in the boardroom, but there is that aching and gnawing in our womb all because we have internalized the norms of our patriarchal cultures—“Thou shalt marry Greek men and bear Greek babies.” Because we have been raised to follow two contrasting codes for a woman’s role by two very disparate cultures, we can never fully fulfill the parameters of either one.
We have externalized the attainment of the successful, liberated American girl while we have internalized the self-sacrificing home-making Greek mother. Ultimately, what we do for ourselves is at odds with what we feel about ourselves, no matter which side of the street we choose to walk. And as a result, we cannot be at peace with ourselves or feel successful one way or another.
I catch the push/pull of the American vs Greek girl in my reactions to other women’s success.
I was appalled at the valedictorian of our senior class in high school, a brilliant Greek woman, a Westinghouse math and science winner with a full scholarship to NYU. She would spend her time leisurely flipping through the heavy glossy pages of Modern Bride during lunch while we were doing service for the Chair of the Chemistry Department.
“I can’t wait until I get married,” she’d stare in blue wide-eyed dreaminess. “I know exactly the dress I want from now.”
“But Eva,” I’d argue with her, “You are brilliant. You are going to become a doctor or bio researcher after college, aren’t you?”
“Well, I’m just going to college until I can settle down and start a family.”
“You can’t do that!” I protested. “Your mind is too valuable to waste on having babies. You would be doing the world an injustice. Society needs people like you to find a cure for cancer or operate on a baby’s heart or something.”
“Perhaps,” she’d say. “But I want to have two children—a girl and a boy first.”
Evanthia started her valedictory address with the Webster dictionary’s definition of success—“the gaining of wealth, fame, etc.” Her final conclusion about success was that it depended on each individual’s goals, and was not supposed to be a cultural or societal mandate handed down unquestionably and unexamined. She deconstructed the established definition of success, brought into question the subconsciously held views of success in our society. But I wonder? Did she ever think deeply enough to question her own culturally assumed definition of success?
Evanthia probably went on to get married and start a family, apparently very happily. Was she or was she not truly successful according to her own definition? Which definition of success was she following—hers, Webster’s, her native cultures, her adopted cultures?
And then there’s the opposite extreme. Olga is a distant cousin who is one of the NIH’s top biological researchers. She is in her late 30s and whenever here mother and aunts corner her aound a Thanksgiving dinner table, they harangue her with, “When are you going to get married, more? Don’t you want to have children?” They were not on her case to make her feel bad; they genuinely believed that she needed to have a family to feel fulfilled. To the disappointment of the older female generation, Olga clearly feels no qualms about going to the grave a spinster. “What a shame! She’s such a beautiful, well-educated girl, so smart and polite,” her mother laments. For her, her daughter’s not marrying amounts to squandering her social and biological seeds, to wasting her feminine gifts on cold test tubes and inanimate strings of amino acids.
I look at Olga around the turkey drumsticks. She wears a light-blue cardigan with dark wool pants and strings of Mallorca pearls. I imagine her painstakingly squirting a beaker, measuring out miniscule levels of a deadly virus antiseptically dressed in a white lab coat with matching sterile white gloves. Could she be missing the forest for the trees? By scrutinizing suspect strains of questionable life forms, could she be missing out on life with a capital “L”, real life, the kind that gets recombined deep somewhere in her womb and not just on a Petri dish?
I cannot tell which force yanks harder on my empty uterus—biology or my Greek culture.