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Grandma's fortitude laid groundwork for workforce

POSTED: December 6, 2017 11:29 p.m.
Amy Choate-Nielsen/

Amy Choate-Nielsen's grandmother Fleeta, when she first received her nurse's pin in 1936.

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My uncle once told me a story about my grandmother that made me want to laugh and cry at the same time.

For him, the tale was something of a family joke. For me, it was a live wire plugged right into a nerve that connects to the part of me that is employed.

The story goes like this: In the 1940s and ’50s, my grandmother, Fleeta, who died before I was born, worked full time as a nurse on a military base. She opted for night shifts, when the foot traffic was slower, and she spent many nights talking with her patients — veterans wounded in World War II. When she came home in the morning, she went to bed, and stayed in bed most of the day, until she went back to work the following evening.

Because of her schedule, she didn’t see much of her two children, so the story goes, to the extent that, sometime, when my father was about 5 years old, my dad asked my grandmother if she really was his mother.

“Well of course I am!” she replied. “Who did you think I was?”

“Oh, I don’t know, some woman who just came to sleep here,” my father said.

My grandmother laughed at the idea that some other woman would be visiting their house, and she thought the comment was so funny she told it for years as a punch line. She never took offense to his comment, and, as far as my uncle ever saw, she didn’t bemoan the fact that she held a full-time job, when most other women didn’t. She didn’t apologize for being gone. She found humor where I could find tears.

I fit into a category of mothers who have young children who work outside of the home. I am home more than I am gone, and my children have priority on my time. I love my kids. And I love being part of a working community. I think I have talents and skills that I am able to use professionally, and I enjoy it. I value the time I have with my children, and I don’t want to miss out on the moments, big and small, that pave the road of their life’s experience.

But still, I wrestle with my choices. I am at the mercy of baby sitters and day care providers. I wonder how to scale back. I sometimes feel like I do many things poorly, and nothing greatly. I get stressed out, I cut out sleep, I burn my candle at both ends to do what needs to be done. My life is full and challenging, and rewarding, and I am not alone.

At times, I feel isolated, but I am not alone.

I am fascinated and emboldened and encouraged by the women around me who blaze trails of bravery every day. I was surprised to learn that in 2016, in the United States, 61.1 percent of married couples families with children had both parents employed, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. In the same year, the participation rate of mothers with children younger than 6 years old was 64.7 percent, with a higher percent of mothers of older children participating in the work force.

In Utah, the statistics are older, from 2014, but also surprising. In Utah, women help the state achieve one of the highest birthrates in the nation, with higher high school graduation rates than the rest of the country, and a higher percentage of women over the age of 16 in the labor market than the rest of the country in 2012, according to Utah’s Department of Workforce Services. About 61 percent of Utah’s mothers of preschool-age children work, the Department of Workforce Services says. In 2007, women owned one quarter of Utah’s businesses. Utah women who worked full-time made 70 percent of the median male earnings, the Department of Workforce Services says, with evidence that “institutional discrimination does exist.”

To me, these women are amazing. I may have a nerve that connects to the part of me that is employed, but it runs right to my heart, where I am grateful for the groundwork that was built for me by my mother, my grandmother and countless women. If Fleeta could be resilient, then so can I.

It’s in my DNA.
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