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The Work of Moms

It's time for another round of the mommy wars.  Every few months, a new book on balancing motherhood and work is published, and wham, all the usual suspects are weighing in on whether you can be a good mommy and work outside the home or be a good feminist and stay at home with your kids.  

It's all become incredibly recursive.  I suspect few of us are reading any of these books; we're all just using the latest release as an excuse to jump up on our soapboxes and proclaim our positions one more time, merrily indulging in the fallacy of the excluded middle.  (According to this erroneous belief, there can only be two possibilities, and there's no room for any kind of compromise or nuance: if you're a woman, you're either a good mommy or a good feminist/employee, but you can't be both.)

By these strict standards, I'm neither a good mommy nor a good feminist.  In the ten years I've had children, I've worked full-time, part-time, and not at all, as the needs of my family dictated.  As a result, I've gotten it from all sides.

When I went back to work after Drew was born, I faced disapproval from friends and acquaintances who couldn't believe I would "abandon" my infant to go back to work.  When Franny was born and I quit my full-time job, a different set of friends assured me that I was committing career suicide.  When I re-entered the full-time workforce last year, I had to deal with prospective employers who assumed my brains had leaked out of my ears while I was working part-time from home -- during one job interview, someone sneeringly pointed at the section of my resume featuring the conglomeration of part-time and freelance work I'd used to pay bills (and maintain my skills) while I was at home with the kids and asked, "Were you paid for this work?"  -- and with the disapproval of friends and acquaintances who felt Alec was too young for me to be going back to work full-time.  When I told an old friend that, all things considered, I was happier to be working full-time than to be at home with my kids, I could feel the icy disapproval from several hundred miles away, pouring through the telephone lines as she made polite noises about different strokes for different folks.

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I'm about to start a new job, and I'm giddy with excitement.  I like to work.  I also love my children and love being with them.  I made choices that slowed my career progress so that I could spend more time with my kids when they were babies, and I'm not sorry I did it.  But now that they're older, I'm glad to be back in the workforce full-time, and I recognize that my choice to put my career on hiatus for six years had long-term financial consequences.  Juggling family and work responsibilities means making compromises on both ends, but I refuse to believe that those compromises necessarily make me a bad mom or a bad feminist.

When someone asks me why I went back to work, I have to stop myself from justifying my decision with details of our finances.  Yes, finances played a part, but why should I have to prove that our situation was dire enough that it justified me re-entering the full-time workforce?  Who gets to judge whether a second car and a refrigerator that doesn't make that weird grinding noise are luxuries we could do without, if only I loved my children enough?  Why is it such a taboo for a mother to simply say, "I like to work"?

Maybe it's because we've bought into the notion that women are always supposed to put everyone else first.  According to this philosophy, women should never take their own needs or dreams into account (in fact, women's happiness is often portrayed as being diametrically opposed to their children's happiness, as if even considering your own needs is a betrayal of what you owe your children).  There's very little talk about balancing the entire family's needs; even those who encourage women to work outside the home tend to frame their arguments in terms of the financial risks to the children, should their father leave or die.  There are a lot of judgmental diatribes that start with "I'd love to [have an exciting career/loll around with my baby all day], but I'm doing what I know is best for my children."  Apparently there are plenty of people on both sides of the fence thinking that the grass is greener on the other side, but heroically resisting the temptation.

What has all this envy and self-righteousness gotten us?  Catty sound bites and lots of media coverage, but not very many real solutions.  Work/family balance in this country is still primarily predicated on the assumption that one parent (usually the father) will have a demanding, highly paid job, while the other parent will be the primary caregiver and will curtail her career (whether or not that parent works outside the home).  If having a "real" job means working long hours, bringing work home with you and generally sacrificing time with your family for your job, then, yes, it is difficult for both parents of young children to focus on their careers.  But what supports this system is the unpaid labor of parents (usually mothers) who pick up the slack at home, enabling their spouses to work all those extra hours.  And while there are some jobs that require that level of dedication, many jobs could be changed to be more family friendly without sacrificing productivity.   In order for mothers and fathers to both be able to pursue fulfilling careers and to be fully involved with their children's lives, things need to change at home and in the workplace.

Years ago, a smart woman told me that if I wanted my husband to do more, I had to do less; he couldn't pick up the slack if I refused to let any of it drop.  It's only when women stop doing the lion's share of the housework and parenting that men really become engaged in what has traditionally been considered women's work.  Conversely, I believe it's only when men start pushing for more reasonable work arrangements that employers will truly accommodate work and family balance.  Those who have focused on the economic risks of staying at home (as Leslie Bennetts did in her recent book, The Feminine Mistake: Are We Giving Up Too Much?)  have been accused of devaluing "women's work" but I would argue that dividing caretaking and breadwinning responsibilities along gender lines is what leads to parenting and homemaking being cheapened.  The fastest way to get respect for "women's work" is to encourage men to do it too.  The fastest way to change the workplace is for employers to view family and life balance as something that is important to all their employees, rather than a women's issue.

The extreme solutions (mothers permanently dropping out of the workforce or both parents working full-time at extremely demanding jobs) aren't going to work for the majority of families.  Fortunately, other options are available to us, if we can only stop squabbling long enough to see them and advocate for them.  If we acknowledge that different families have different needs and that there's not a one-size-fits-all solution, we'll be a long way towards ending the mommy wars and achieving something productive and beneficial, not just for children, but for their moms and dads as well.
About the Author:  
Melissa Lipscomb
lives in Austin with her children Drew, Franny, Alec and husband Adam. Some days she feels like she's figuring out, and others she's just waiting for the other shoe to drop. Visit her blog.



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