"What do you want to be when you grow up?" When you were a child, chances are you were asked this question, probably by a teacher or adult at church. The point wasn't so much to get you the proper career training as it was to inspire you to identify your budding interests. As a child of the 1980s and '90s, I heard the question a lot.
I grew up in an era when laminated posters on classroom walls told us to "Reach for the Stars" and "Dream Big" against gaudy fluorescent night skies.
"I can go anywhere! . . . I can be anything!" went the theme song of LaVar Burton's PBS series Reading Rainbow. While the song praised the magic of books, it also seemed to herald endless achievements, provided young viewers kept a positive mental attitude.
For all my young mind could discern, when it came to dreaming big about what I might accomplish in life, gender mattered little. From a book series at my elementary school library, I learned about Billie Jean King, Mary Lou Retton, Jackie Joyner-Kersee, and other sports stars who had defied deeply held beliefs about women's athletic abilities. Geraldine Ferraro ran for vice president the year I was born. Sandra Day O'Connor wielded a gavel in the highest Court in the land. In a project about the 1986 Challenger explosion, I studied Judith Resnik, an engineer who had died tragically alongside her six crew members. But she died doing what she was supremely good at—something she loved. From these and other women, I absorbed the belief, imperceptibly at the time, that being a girl would not factor into a career choice later in life.
From generation to generation
I also absorbed this belief from my mom. Like most of her peers in a suburb of Cincinnati, Ohio, in the 1970s, she decided to attend college. She was the first woman in her family to do so. After earning her bachelor's degree in library science, my mom worked at a law library, then a university library, before having her first child (me) in 1984. From then until 1991, she was a full-time stay-at-home mom. For one year during that time span, she had essentially been a single parent: my dad, a Marine captain, was stationed in Japan, returning for two weeks out of the entire year. Not long after he returned for good (and eventually left the military), my mom returned to library work—when my brother and I were old enough to stay home alone.
My mom didn't return to work for the money. My dad's career with the Marines, and later at a construction company, well covered our family's expenses. Besides, most librarians (excepting highly specialized reference librarians) enter the work for the books, not the money. It was this sheer love—of books, children, and education— that compelled my mom to go back to work.