12/17/2012 12:14 pm ET Updated Feb 16, 2013

Get Married, Stay Home and Take It Easy OR Go to Work?

A student once asked me if I ever wanted "to get married, stay home and take it easy instead of go to work."

I laughed for five minutes.

She was laughing with me -- despite having absolutely no idea what was funny about her question -- until I explained, sputtering, that "being married and staying home" was much, much harder than going to work. "If you want to have a good marriage and a stable home, it's never easy," I told her, from the heart, as I poured us coffee. "Having a solid work life will probably make your relationships at home even better -- but seeing married life as an "escape route" from personal responsibility is like seeing a three-ring-circus and thinking it'd be a great place to take a nap.

Yes, Dr. Freud, my perspective most certainly goes back to my own mother.

My mom did not learn to write a check until she was in her late 30's. I remember being with her at a local store when the pharmacist behind the counter explained that he would accept a check from her written on my father's account; I don't think she'd even known writing a check was a possibility.

Like many other women of her generation, she was given a certain amount of cash every week as a household allowance and it was assumed that all expenses would be paid from that small, small fund.

Anything "extra" had to be asked for specially. I remember eavesdropping guiltily when the "extra" item was something I wanted: a new doll, a new dress or money for the movies. My mother would do my pleading for me when I was a kid, and she and I waited, like members of some guerrilla force, to ambush my father when he was "in a good mood."

My mother would instruct me to help prepare his favorite meal and be cheerful until he was sufficiently relaxed.

Then we pounced, giving all the good reasons for this unplanned expenditure.

Sometimes it worked, and sometimes it didn't. I grieved for months after being denied a pair of white go-go boots in fourth grade, which had seemed crucial to my emotional well-being. I won't say that I felt like Scarlett O'Hara lifting her fist to the sky and swearing, "With God as my witness -- I shall never be hungry again!" but I promised myself that when I grew up, I wouldn't have to play tricks to get them to buy me what I wanted.

My father worked hard -- 12 hours a day, six days a week, sewing bedspreads and curtains with his brothers at the family shop -- and money was always more than tight. It had a stranglehold on us.

Neither of my parents, however, thought my mother should work. She was conflicted in the lessons she taught me, her youngest child and only daughter. I heard that I, too, should be a "feminine" woman who wasn't out there scrambling in the rat race, tough and wise-cracking with the men. But I also knew that she wished there had been a way for her talents and intelligence to be recognized, and for her to have more economic independence than her life allowed her.

But since she'd left school in Quebec in the eighth grade and English was her second language, it wasn't as if she would be able to get an interesting job, or one that used her intelligence and her talents. Cleaning other people's houses wasn't going to be any more fun than cleaning our own.

I was scared by my mother's life. I never wanted to have to ask anybody to foot the bill for my rent, my food, my clothes or my education. I put myself through college and graduate school and while I got scholarships, I still racked up huge loans which I paid off only after I started writing -- and selling -- books. I wrote "trade" books for a popular audience as I did academic work that would permit me to be awarded tenure as a professor.

I worked, it worked, and I've kept on working.

Yes, I embrace and respect work for the psychological and emotional securities it provides; at times, these can overshadow the very paycheck. And I worry about women who've convinced themselves that, by marrying for money, they're not going to be "working" for a living. It can be more of a burden to please a partner with whom you live than satisfy a boss for whom you work.

There's nothing about "taking it easy" to make life more interesting, more fun, or more challenging -- and if we don't want to be fascinated, thrilled, or inspired every day, then it's not worth the bother.

Life can be great. It really is like the circus: it's a place to be delighted but not a place where you'll relax -- which means that, if you're doing it right, it's rarely easy.

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Adapted from an essay originally published on