This weekend, I felt I witnessed history. Live on television, I watched Austrian Felix Baumgartner jump from a capsule floating at the edge of our atmosphere at 128 000 feet above the earth. Planes fly at 33 000 feet. He free fell for four minutes at over 700 miles per hour after jumping from the step of the capsule. Shockingly, he could see the entire globe of the world from where he stood, not even just a continent. Imagine doing something no one in the history of humankind has done. What courage, what opportunity. I can’t imagine what he invested in order to fulfill this dream.
I watched his family overjoyed that he was successful, and survived. In the seconds before he jumped, I sat with my heart in my mouth, wondering about vertigo at such height and about the sacrifices his family must have made. What kind of family support does a man like that need to to achieve something so seemingly impossible? If it were a woman, would she have gotten the same freedom and opportunity? Would her family have understood or would she have been seen as selfish for her long days spent preparing, her willingness to risk her own life, her decision to put her family second? Could she have so clearly sacrificed the responsibilities (but not love) of mothering and done so without guilt? I hope so.
A few weeks ago, one woman in my class, just older than me and a mother, was trying to explain why she thought women should, if necessary, stay at home to raise their children because children suffer when no parent can give them the time and investment they need. ‘Somebody has to sacrifice their dreams’, she said, ‘I think it should be the woman because this is more naturally their role’. She wasn’t arguing the point, she was simply explaining her view, but I know she’s been questioning it since, as I am sure she was before. What has made people think that women should sacrifice their dreams? Don’t all human beings deserve equal chance to aspire and achieve?
Ironically, in another conversation just last week, an older male academic was trying to calculate the public cost of professional women, who were educated on public funds like national scholarships, leaving the workforce to raise children. He was wondering if he could mathematically work out the level at which women should stop schooling if they planned leave the labour market for fulltime childcare. That way, society wouldn’t invest in them beyond the returns they brought to the paid workforce. I said that fulfilled and happy women are good mothers, why make women choose between mothering and their dreams?
I know I struggle with these questions daily. When I want to spend a weekend at work to focus on my career, I fear I’m being a bad mother for not protecting the time with me that my child deserves. When I think about applying for fellowships that could disrupt my family routine and mean that Stone, Ziya, my mother and I live in countries far apart for periods of time, I question whether I am being inconsiderate of the impact my choices have on them and their rights and needs. When I stay late at work, in the back of my mind I think that someone is putting in time that really is my responsibility, and I wonder if I’m being selfish. I wanted to be a mother, but I’m still working out how to manage my dreams.
Witnessing one man’s almost insane dream come through, I hoped that one day Ziya would have that chance to make history if she so chose, because it seemed like a new era of possibility for human beings. Yet, despite all the rhetoric of women now having all they want, I continue to wonder if it is equally an era of possibility for them. I think Zi has the options to one day break barriers like never before. However, for her sake, just so she could risk it all even if it seems unimaginable, I hope that the barriers women face, which still tell them their natural role is to sacrifice their dreams, will already be broken.