Lessons in Real Life

Ann Velenchik, associate professor of economics and writing

Photo by Lisa Abitbol

Photo by Lisa Abitbol

The morning Ann Velenchik, associate professor of economics and writing, returned to work at Wellesley after the birth of her daughter, she found herself unable to get out of her car. “It was January of 2002,” she recalls. “I was sitting in my car weeping, because I just didn’t want to go back. And the passenger side door opened and Diana Chapman Walsh [’66], the president of the College, got into my car and closed the door.”

Walsh then said something Velenchik will never forget. She put her hand on Velenchik’s arm, “And she said, ‘It is perfectly OK to feel regret. Because you can’t be in two places at once. And there will be things you will miss, but you have nothing to feel guilty for.’”

Velenchik says she has shared the same message with “7 million young mothers” since then. “I wish everybody in the universe could cry in public, and then have Diana Chapman Walsh get into their car,” she says.

That moment, and her own experience as a working mother, informs Velenchik’s teaching. In her first-year writing class, Having It All? The Problem of Women and Work, her students hone their writing skills while they grapple with questions about the economic and social roles they will face as they move into the world and decide how, when, or whether to start families of their own.

While it might seem unusual to have an economist teaching a writing class, such interdisciplinarity has been the norm for decades at the College. “Wellesley started a first-year writing program separate from the English department in the early 1980s,” Velenchik says. “People from all sorts of disciplines teach in the program.”

After several years working as a dean, Velenchik returned to the classroom. “I thought, what can I teach that will be interesting to students that would speak to my background as an economist?” she says. In a previous class, American Women in the American Labor Market, she had focused on the wage gap. “If you push really hard at the wage gap, you discover that most of the earnings gap left between men and women is probably not systematic discrimination in the labor market. It’s probably that the world is set up so that workplaces, especially at the upper end of the income distribution, want you to be at work all the time, be always available all the time. Human beings can’t do that and raise children.” The Having It All? class addresses that issue head-on.

Velenchik designed the class in part, she says, because “It has long been my belief that Wellesley doesn’t talk enough or publicly about the question of work-life balance, or work-life integration, and probably doesn’t advocate forcefully enough for the kind of government policies that actually support the notion that two parents can both work and have children. This is the only industrialized country in the world in which care for your children is your problem.”

The class also talked about the effect of the pandemic on women in the labor market. To give her students hands-on experience with interviewing and writing about how social issues affect real people, Velenchik worked with the Alumnae Association to match them with alums. “Forty-some Wellesley alums with children are willing to be interviewed,” she says.

WRIT 133-01: Having It All? The Problem of Women and Work

In this course we will examine the highly varied aspirations, opportunities, and experiences of American women as they relate to work. We will consider some of the advice high-powered professional women have given to college graduates looking to advance their careers and “balance” that ambition with family life. We will read memoirs of low-wage earners, including many single mothers, about the particular challenges they face, and the limits that discrimination and systemic inequities place on their personal and professional goals. We will also explore what social scientists have to say about how cultural norms and economic markets generate the opportunities and constraints that women face. Finally, we will analyze how public policy at the local and national level influences the choices women and families face, and how those choices affect society more broadly.

Selected Reading

  • Screaming on the Inside: The Unsustainability of American Motherhood, Jessica Grose
  • Career and Family: Women’s Century-Long Journey Toward Equity, Claudia Goldin
  • The School for Good Mothers, Jessamine Chan


For their first assignment, Velenchik asked students to write a short personal essay about their mothers. “What was clear through most of it was how much they love their mothers and how much they admire and respect and are grateful to their mothers.” Velenchik asked her students to send the essays home because, she says, “I felt confident, being the mother of a 22-year-old daughter, that these 18-year-olds probably hadn’t said that out loud to them.”

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