Working Moms: A (somewhat) feminist perspective

I’ve yet to be on a campus where most women weren’t worrying about some aspect of combining marriage, children and a career. I’ve yet s-WORKING-MOM-largeto find one where many men were worrying about the same thing.

–Gloria Steinem

“Before I had kids, I thought the decision about work was a straightforward one- whether to work for pay (full or part-time) or stay home.”

– Mom, post having children

            First of all, I do not subscribe to the term Stay-At-Home-Mom (otherwise known as SAHM) as NON-working. My experience with staying at home work has been anything but! In fact it was, and is, frankly MUCH harder work in my experience, in some ways, than leaving the house to work. When you leave the house to work, there are freedoms that come naturally that SAHM’s just don’t have access to in the same way. A few of these perks are:

  •  *Freedom to
    go to the bathroom whenever you want, by yourself, and without having to announce it or manage meltdowns as a result of it.
  • *Ability to eat your lunch without having bits of it snatched away or receiving already chewed bits of food that your child had decided they “don’t like” spewed onto your plate.
  • *Your colleagues, clients, and/or supervisor respectfully listening to what you have to say, without yelling “No!” or requesting “can we play cars/dolls/farm animals now?” in the middle of it.
  • *You get paid! Without having to change any diapers, do any laundry, cook any food, mop any floors, sing any songs, or stay empathically listening to individuation-attempting tantrums. Did I mention you get paid? In money?
  • *There is often time, on the way to or from work to stop for coffee, milk, or grocery shopping without having to redirect away from the child eye-level sugar and glitter “treats.” A 10-minute trip can actually be 10 minutes!
  • *Quiet time. Yep. Work outside the home post-parenthood actually gets re-designated as “quiet time.”
  • * Intellectual stimulation and satisfaction. As one mom put it: “I like to be engaged in the world with a more intellectual, professional fashion than day-to-day child care allows. I like the challenge and sense of accomplishment that work provides. I found that when I went for stretches without working, I really missed it. And, to be honest, I was bored silly by playing the same game for hours with the kids when they were young. As a friend put it, I’m not a great floor mom.”  (Parent Walravens, Samantha, Torn: True Stories of Kids, Careers, & the Conflict of Modern Motherhood)

The G Word

The shadow side? We all know it: the G word. No, I’m not talking about God here- much more devastating for Moms: Guilt. Guilt along with complicated attachment, jealousy, and sometimes angst for everyone! We all want nannies and caregivers with whom our children feel safe. Obviously that is the goal. And yet it is complex experience at best for a Mom when her child reaches for the nanny or acts disinterested upon Mom arriving home from work. This doesn’t necessarily mean that the child is insecurely attached.  (For more on attachment, see http://www.simplypsychology.org/mary-ainsworth.htmlIf a child has a strong attachment, it can be to more than one caregiver. The times of Mommy-is-the-only-primary-caregiver are gone! In fact, “Married moms with children under 18 are now the primary breadwinners in 15 percent of households, up from 4 percent in 1960.” (Moscatello, Caitlin “Cloudy…with a Chance of Rage?” Oprah magazine, February 2014) Halleluiah to stay-at-home Daddies, part-time nannies, full-time nannies, Grandma and Grandpas, etc.! Because it takes a village to raise a child.

Most of the time, when the child doesn’t want nanny to leave, it means the child is still in the middle of playing and Mom (or Dad or other Mom or other Dad) coming home interrupted this. Young children are right brained and do not have clock time awareness. When they are having fun and in the flow of playing, they are happy. And when they are interrupted, they are unhappy! I remember an experiment we did in my graduate school training for child play therapy where we got to play and be “children” and then, at an unannounced time, the “adults” would come in and interrupt. The “children” in this experiment were not happy when the “adults” interrupted. As any parent knows, transitions for kids are the buzzword for look-out-for-emotional-meltdowns-and-plan-ahead-for-it-to-take-longer-than-you-expected.

As I have been a part-time stay-at-home Mom and part-time work-outside-the-home Mom, I get to have both experiences: one of noticing (when my husband would come home on my stay-at-home days) how our child would be disinterested in him due to being in the middle of playing, and one of the parent who comes home and their child is disinterested, saying “Hi Mommy” and going back to playing with the nanny.

A colleague of mine described her experience as a Mom who worked and had a nanny when her little one was a baby. Since she worked from home, she would come out of her office at feeding time to breast-feed.  Her baby would reach for her and suckle until full, then reach back toward the nanny. She felt like the “wire monkey” in Harlowe’s attachment experiments. (For more on Harry Harlowe’s ethically questionable experiment, see http://psychology.about.com/od/historyofpsychology/p/harlow_love.htm)

Dr. Melissa Arca, Pediatrician and author of the blog “Confessions of a Doctor Mom” shared recently on her experience of working outside the home and poignantly quotes her six-year-old:

Mom, how come you don’t take care of me that much?

Umm, what? It’s all I could choke out.

And there it is, staring me right in the face. The guilt. In the form of big, beautiful, and earnest brown eyes. And I know exactly what she’s asking.

Why am I at work all day? Why have I hired someone else to do my job? To care for her, feed her, soothe her tears, make sure she does her homework/chores, and mediate squabbles between her and Big Brother?

The Second Shift

     Another down side, along with the guilt, of working outside the home is the phenomenon of “a woman’s work is never done,” which continues today. More than twenty years ago, Arlie Hochschild and Anne Machungset began both conversation and controversy with the bestselling book, The Second Shift. It examines what really happens in dual-career households. Adding together time in paid work, child-care, and housework, they found that working mothers put in a month of work a year more than their spouses.

Money and Power

     Though free from the guilt of the working (outside the home) Mom, SAHMs have their own share of difficulties . One Mom shares her experience with attempt to be “Donna Reed” after quitting her (outside the home) job and how she wrestled with feeling devalued and disempowered with her new relationship with money and her husband:

“Though my focus had shifted, I maintained an ambitiously busy life. I mothered lavishly but on my own terms. I volunteered one morning a week in my daughter’s first grade class…Life was as sweet as a 1950s sitcom. About six months in, the fantasy showed signs of strain, began collapsing under the weight of its lofty expectations- its disconnect with the salient facts of my life…I wanted to take the girls to have their annual Christmas pictures taken, but my husband- saying we didn’t have the money and a nice Kodak would do just as well- vetoed it.

He vetoed it.

It was a notion that was unfathomable to me, since I had always worked hard. I had a powerful memory of having money- which turned out not to be quite as powerful as actually having a little bit of money- and the strain of being wholly subsidized was beginning to take its toll. It was beginning to alter the power dynamic in my house. I had to plead and bargain and barter for things I used to be able to buy.” (Steiner, Leslie Morgan,  Mommy Wars Stay-at-Home and Career Moms Face Off on Their Choices, Their Lives, Their Families)

There is no right answer

         Being a Mom is a complex, difficult, rewarding, joyful, mundane, frustrating, ecstatic and ever-changing job, regardless of whether one works outside the home or not. I have no conclusions on what is “the right choice” and believe that this belief is actually another myth of motherhood.  There are difficult choices for Moms and for Dads, each of which have gifts and challenges, all along the way. The SAHM’s don’t miss their babies’ first steps, first words, glimpses of discoveries that will never happen again. They often (but not always) have an easier time with feeling confidant in secure attachment and tending to their children’s growth steps. These are priceless. There is no way to put a value on that. And yet it is not the right choice for every Mom and it is not a viable choice for every Mom. One of my colleagues was a single parent protecting her children from their father, who had an untreated drug addiction. She separated from him and had to work outside the home to support the family. It wasn’t a matter of what she wanted. It was a necessity.

     The only conclusion I have to make, having just made another decision to scale back on my work hours outside the home in order to not miss precious moments of my child’s life, while knowing that I need to work outside the home in order to feel useful, fulfilled, and at peace with myself and my family emotionally, spiritually, financially, is that being a parent is a journey of ongoing decisions, again and again, none of them perfect and all of them, hopefully, good enough.

“If any woman thinks she is going to make only one decision- to work or not to work- she needs to think again. Because that us what she will actually be doing- thinking, again and again. It’s never been just an either/or proposition. There are always additional questions like, ‘what type of work?’ and ‘how much?’ Paid or unpaid, it’s still work. “

 -Samantha Walravens, Torn: True Stories of Kids, Careers, & the Conflict of Modern Motherhood

Resources:

Moscatello, Caitlin “Cloudy…with a Chance of Rage?” Oprah magazine, February 2014.
Parent Walravens, Samantha, Torn: True Stories of Kids, Careers, & the Conflict of Modern Motherhood, Seattle: Coffeetown press, 2011.
Steiner, Leslie Morgan,  Mommy Wars Stay-at-Home and Career Moms Face Off on Their Choices, Their Lives, Their Families, New York: Random House, 2007.

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