Caregiving as Career: One Mom’s Bold Definition of Feminism
Apryl is an accomplished mother and caregiver. After thirty years integrating community engagement with raising her children full time, Apryl is preparing to attend medical school. Since our interview, she has completed her pre-med post-baccalaureate coursework, has taken the MCAT and the situational judgment exams, and is in the long secondary applications and interviews season. She plans to tailor her medical school education toward global and underserved emergency medicine, feeling that this path will be “a good second-choice life.”
Please introduce yourself, your family, and your current career situation.
My name is Apryl Martin. I’m 52, and I currently live in Collegeville, Pennsylvania. I have two living children, but I’m the mother of nine children. I’ve loved every one of them, but I only got to raise two of them.
I am currently a full-time student again, and I also run a set of six practical assistance offices in the Philly metro area. They are full-service assistance offices. We deal with everything from legal to immigration to employment to just reading mail for people who are not literate.
I am doing a post-baccalaureate pre-med. I just did my first year, and I think I may have one more year. Maybe a third year. And then I’ll take the MCAT.
In terms of what area of medicine I’d like to practice, I don’t think I’m ever going to get away from women’s health. I’ve been in it long enough that people locally and from all over the country call me when they need help with breastfeeding or when their daughter is navigating her first period. But I actually think I’m more disposed to emergency medicine. People should play to their strengths, for the most part, and I don’t ever get ruffled. I am clear-headed in the middle of chaos, so I think emergency medicine is for me, and I think I would do a good job at it.
Who’s brave enough to take an old lady for med school? We’ll find out.
How did your motherhood journey begin, and where did it take you?
When I was first married, my plan was to finish college and pursue business. I had already started a couple of businesses and found entrepreneurial pursuits pretty natural to me, so I was going to do graduate school and maybe pursue law.
At my one-year wedding anniversary, I was pregnant in spite of trying several methods to prevent that from happening. And I was devastated. I was the oldest of five children, and my mother had been ill for years after having a nervous breakdown. I was tired of taking care of people. That sounds so petty, but that was me. I was tired of taking care of people, and I didn’t want to have a child for a while.
It didn’t work out that way. I got pregnant. I couldn’t ignore being pregnant because I’m a very, very sick pregnant person. I lose weight. I vomit all the time. I’m a mess in pregnancy. So I struggled to finish that year of school and was determined to continue with my bachelor’s degree even though I was getting bigger and bigger.
[After my son came] I had to start doing directed readings with professors who were willing, and I kind of hobbled through that next semester. Motherhood was difficult, and lactation was difficult. When [my son] was just a few months old, I started interviewing daycare centers. I was absolutely committed to doing right by this child but also pursuing my education and my employment. Those didn’t feel in any way contrary to each other—to pursue [my son’s] health, and then to also pursue my own health, which at the time I defined by continuing my education and starting a business or whatever else I was going to do.
But then somewhere around seven or eight months I just fell in love with this little human being. I had fallen in love before; I definitely fell head over heels in love with [my husband]. But the way I felt about my son [was different]. I have never fallen in love like that ever. And I knew that my feminist side should want to do these other things, but, actually, I just wanted to be the one to be with [my son] all day. And I wanted it like I’ve never wanted anything. I was so surprised by this experience. By that point, I was majoring in philosophy and minoring in feminist theory. And yet [caregiving] is what I wanted; I just wanted to be with [my son] all the time.
When I was younger, I thought I’d probably have kids one day and love them when I had them. I had no idea I would like them as people. [My son] changed everything for me.
How did your plans change after becoming a mother?
I did graduate with my undergraduate, and I played around with applying to graduate school here and there, but my heart was not in it. I just wanted to keep being a mom all day. I just was fascinated by the project of helping a human being create themselves.
And then I tried to have more children. And they kept dying. And the grief of having found the work I wanted to do and then not being able to do it changed me forever. My life started with death when I lost my fourth baby and realized that it was never going to be the case that I had as many babies as I wanted to have or have them when I wanted to have them. My worldview changed. For all my philosopher training and all the education I’d had, I started to navigate my life with my heart, or with what felt right, and just go with that.
After I had lost quite a few children, we decided to adopt. We adopted [my second son] when he was born. He’s eight years apart from [my oldest] in age. I worried that they wouldn’t be close. And I was worried: since I had birthed one child and raised him, if I tried to raise the second child without birthing that child would I be able to love them in the same way? And how could you know until you tried it? And then, if you failed, the kid would know that you didn’t love them the same.
It sounds really silly to tell that story now because nothing like it ended up being true. [My second] was mine from the first time I put him to breast. Belonging comes from caring for someone. It’s not a genetic or a physical thing, except that it is physical—it’s all the way through your body—but that happens because you spend the time, the minutes, the hours, the days caring about the well-being of this little human and helping them make themselves.
So I totally fell in love with [my second], too, but those are the only two whom I got to raise. I continued to try to have children, but we have buried more children than we have raised. So that’s how I got to that point. And I’ve loved it. Surprisingly, I have loved it.
Did motherhood play into your early career decisions?
By the time [my oldest] was two or three I was trying to have another child. I get really sick with hyperemesis gravidarum when I’m pregnant, which makes it really hard to do much else. But I’m also an overachiever, so the fact that our efforts to have another living child weren’t working meant that I threw myself into it. I studied everything that I could about it. And I just kept trying. I’d get pregnant twice a year. I’d see doctors, and they’d tell me nothing’s wrong, so I’d keep trying. I would say I was absorbed, but other people who love me and know me would say I was obsessed.
I would hold small jobs. When we first got to Yale I worked for graduate studies planning activities. I did odd jobs around campus for different departments. And I would take classes when I could—anatomy, physiology, statistics—and I sat in on some classes at the Yale Law School to decide if I really wanted to continue that route with law, as I had planned.
But the truth was my heart wasn’t in any of it because I wanted more children, and when it wasn’t working, I just worked harder at it. I learned everything I could about it. I went to medical school classes and nursing classes and sat in on everything I could find out about prenatal health.
Eventually, I decided to enter the field of female health. I pursued lay midwifery and took classes and did my midwifery rotations on the Mexican border in El Paso. I helped other women deliver their babies and taught them to breastfeed and became a lactation specialist.
I danced around the thing that I myself wanted to do and became good at midwifery. But I really just wanted to raise more children. It wasn’t so much that I wanted to be pregnant again. Pregnancy was miserable. But I wanted to raise more children. So I made everybody’s children my children. And then “everybody’s children being my children” became “all people are my children.” And then I just became this caregiver everywhere.
How did you balance work and motherhood?
I did other things on the side when [my husband] finished graduate school and we moved to Pennsylvania. I took on the directorship of a program that was trying to produce academic opportunities in the city of Philadelphia. I did that in a job-sharing way with another woman who was also raising children. When [my second] got into kindergarten, I started working at the local hospital as a lactation specialist, and I taught childbirth education courses.
By the time [my second] was six or seven, I got the opportunity with my church to pilot a new assistance program that was more robust than their traditional welfare program. That’s what I’ve been doing for about 12 years now.
At some point I figured out that adulthood is defined by the fact that you have to close some doors and open others. You actually just don’t get to do everything.Apryl Martin
[My youngest] went away to college this year, so I have finally accepted the fact that I am going through menopause and I’m not going to have any more babies. So I’m going back to school, and I’m going to pursue my second-choice life now.
I don’t know any adult who has lived robustly who ends up with the perfect life they planned. Everybody is going to end up carrying a sorrow or two in the course of life. This whole silliness where people say, “Live without regret,” is ridiculous. If you don’t regret things then you probably didn’t live. There are going to be many things that hurt, and some of those hurts will be so big you just carry them the rest of your life.
What are some of the things that led you to more flexible and part-time work options instead of full-time work?
I was in love with the work of making human beings and helping them to make themselves. I have friends who’ve done it a myriad of different ways. I have friends who, like me, have taken advantage of the luxury of having a spouse who’s willing to do the work that brings in money so they can do the work of helping young humans make themselves. And I have friends who have chosen to stay with a career and have done daycare or hired nannies. I’m talking about my core group of friends—the women who are really my sisters—and it seems like each one of us has chosen to do it a little differently.
And, for the most part, we’ve all ended up with children who, like us, are flawed but are happy. They’re joyful. They’re resilient. They know how to understand truth when they hear it and how to speak it. There are just lots of ways to get to the top of that mountain.
The real truth is that everybody’s missing something and everybody’s enjoying something. Just different things. At some point I figured out that adulthood is defined by the fact that you have to close some doors and open others. You actually just don’t get to do everything.
What do you see as some of the biggest constraints that keep women from finding the balance of work and family that they want?
The fact that adulthood is defined by maleness. That’s really the biggest constraint. Right now in the US, we’re defining doing adult work as a 40-hour workweek outside the home, for which there’s a salary or wage attached and perhaps benefits attached. That’s our definition of what it looks like to be an adult, and the definition itself is flawed.
I’ve had so many people in a myriad of ways tell me I’m insane to go back to college. I’m crazy to think any med school would take someone in their 50s. Why would they? I don’t have enough of a career life left.
Why wouldn’t my life path be one valid way to do adulthood? But it’s not among the definitions right now. And part of how we change that is to go about being adults who live different from that model.
If you’ve got valuable enough education, you can say, “You will do this my way,” and if you keep saying that then eventually you’ll find some way to work it out. But if you don’t have valuable education, you are stuck with this unyielding male model. You will work 40 hours a week, you will work when your employer tells you to work, and you will not bring your child or even mention that you have them or that they have needs or that they ever get sick.
In my work right now, I work with a lot of women in poverty, and they have rarely had the chance to finish high school nor had a chance to go to college. In other words, they do not have valuable enough education to be able to insist upon terms of employment which can accommodate their work as parents. Poor women rarely have the life opportunities that could put them in a position to demand a different work schedule. Therefore they are stuck with the unyielding male labor-class employment model, where employers can and do demand second and third shift work hours (hours when their children are not in school) with employers who do not permit flexible hours or flexible locations for employment. These women don’t have the money for a nanny or for quality daycare. They have to put up with the daycare that state assistance can purchase or patch together care from a network of family and friends or worse. They and their children suffer terribly under the laborer-male adult work model which is disastrous if you’re trying to produce the next generation.
I want to find and make a world where the way that a woman goes about navigating her adult life is one of the valid ways to be an adult. It’s the radical notion that women are people and that they get the chance to do adulthood in their way, not as a way that they have to apologize for, not as a way that’s a deviation from the norm, and not as a way that people say, “Well, we’ll tolerate it that you absorbed all this time into your little humans that you call your children,” but as actually a real, valid way to live.
If we got to the point where we could envision adult work as fluid, changing over an adult lifetime, being flexible with hours and opportunities as we went along, and if we got all those policies and procedures and we all really lived our lives that way, we would still have a problem. The problem is most of us do not think that helping young humans create themselves is good work. But we can at least hope that if the world were more flexible, more people would try [raising humans] and maybe fall in love with it like we have.
What advice do you have for women who are trying to navigate decisions about life and family responsibilities?
Realize you might die tomorrow, and the only thing that ever belongs to you is your own choices. We are so brainwashed from the time we’re young as women to pay attention to what everybody else thinks, especially about us. But at some point we have to figure out that we don’t own anything except our own choices. So what are the choices that we want to make today? Who do I want to be in order to feel like I did a good job with this life?
I don’t own other people’s good opinions about me. I don’t own their pleasure over how well I turned out. I don’t actually own anything except my own choices. And it turns out it takes a lifetime to know yourself and to own your own choices. If you spend all of your energy on just that, it will still take a lifetime.
I just don’t care anymore whether or not other people like [my choices]. I care about other people and whether or not they experience love, whether or not they know what joy is like, and whether or not they’ve heard truth and recognized it. But I don’t care at all what they think of me. That’s my advice: stop caring what other people think of you. Own your choices. Make what you want to make.
Editing credential to Bethany Bartholomew.