Tuesday, August 23, 2005

On being a bleeding heart....

“You would have made a great doctor.” My grandmother tells me this at least once a week. She has never been one to hide her displeasure with regards to my educational choices—in particular my decision to drop my pre-med major in college to pursue something far less “professional”-- child life therapy. The decision to change my major, and hence my career path, came when I interned at DuPont Children's Hospital in Delaware for a summer during college. The purpose of the internship was for me to shadow a pediatrician, and what I realized during this experience was what little contact doctors have with their patients, especially in big establishments like DuPont. After a lot of research, and a lot of volunteering in different departments within the hospital, I discovered Child Life Therapy and changed my major to psychology when I returned to school in the Fall. This decision has prompted my grandmother to send me countless emails and newspaper clippings (complete with graphs) that depict the salary of my chosen profession as falling just above that of a mediocre artist. She never fails to add a note at the end of her email: “You should have been a doctor.” My grandmother attributes my “lack of motivation towards a ‘real’ profession” to me being a “bleeding heart”. And for all intents and purposes I am one. My parents used to comment on “how cute” it was that at age 7 I used my allowance to sponsor a child from the Philippines. But now that I’m older, my “bleeding heart” is viewed by my family as being less of a virtue and more of a tragic flaw that is preventing me from being “successful”.

This background brings me to a conversation that I had with my hairdresser, Sue, on Friday (btw Aspazia, yes, beauty salons are FABULOUS for that!). As usual I asked about her three daughters, all of whom are in their early twenties. Her oldest daughter graduated from a liberal arts college 3 years ago with a degree in Biology and decided upon graduation that she wanted to join the Peace Corps, her middle daughter graduated from the same liberal arts college last year and was accepted into the program “Teach For America”, and her youngest daughter just graduated from Columbia and is leaving in 2 weeks to work in an AIDS clinic in Africa. All I could think as she spoke about her girls was how cool it would be to have all three of them in a room together!! But after talking about their work for a few minutes, Sue made a comment that shocked me: “it’s a waste to send a woman who’s a ‘bleeding heart’ to college.”

I pressed her to explain this further. She said that while she felt that her children were “engaging in worthwhile causes, that they would be better off entering into the professional world, and leave the benevolent volunteer work to women who have made the choice not to pursue an education.” I asked her what she thought about my work in Child Life Therapy, and she responded in the same way my grandmother always does: "Antheia, you would have been a really good doctor."

She went on to claim that “bleeding hearts” tend to gravitate towards ‘nurturing’ professions (teachers, nurses, child care workers, or that they work for non-profit organizations), and that this is nullifying years of advances gained in terms women’s educational rights!

I was so taken aback by her thought process. The notion that her daughters aren’t as “successful” as some of their colleagues who are doctors and lawyers is astounding. Their work is emotionally taxing, underpaid, and under appreciated, and yet there's something that makes them go back to work every day... something that can't be measured by corporate benefits or a 401k plan. Sue’s daughters (like quite a few women and men I know) feel a sort of responsibility to use their educations to better the lives of others; to act as advocates for oppressed populations who don’t have a voice. If that makes them “bleeding hearts” then I'm damn proud to be a member of that category!