The innocuous term “working mother,” descriptive of me for 22 years, still leaves me feeling pushed up against the wall, it’s metaphoric hand on my throat. Inherent in the expression is the profound double bind that I, and many (white*) women, feel at the exact intersection of two of the most vital roles of our lives.
First, let’s examine “working.”
In our western society today, the common exchange of productivity through goods and services is money, which translates to safety and freedom. We make something, grow something, or do something, and this allows us to provide for our basic needs – shelter, food, water, education, transportation, comforts and luxuries. While there are many other currencies in the modern world that come with the gift of working (learning, achievement, validation, ego, contribution, and connection) it is money that sits at the base of the pyramid we call “earning power.”
The ability to “take care of oneself” financially is drilled into us as children as we are encouraged to take jobs and earn an education in order to secure or improve our lives. I have loved working since I was a kid, and it was always essential. I do not recall ever being asked by anyone in my world, “do you choose to work?” as if it was optional.
That is, until I gave birth to my first son. Before his arrival and in fact, ever since, I have sensed from the world around me that others had thought my working was a personal, deliberate choice, different from the choices made by the men with whom I worked.
“Are you going to return to work after you have the baby?”
“Will you travel when the baby arrives?”
“Who watches your children when you travel?”
Other than those odd, lazy days when I sometimes roll out of bed thinking, “oh it would be nice to just not work today,” I have never felt victimized by work itself. I have instead felt it was an important part of being a good citizen, and these last 22 years, a good mother. My work has afforded me and my family so very much: travel, education, healthcare, an alimony and child support-free divorce, a home where everyone has a bedroom, music, dance, and pets. This economic value means I have been able to, in the truest sense, take care of those I love, give back, and celebrate.
So what’s the problem?
In the professional world, the wise and responsible cultural construct of working, especially for white women, has become sort of dirty or “less than.” Women I know whose incomes support their families, openly discuss feeling badly that they do, rather than proud. They minimize their economic success or wealth, or loosely attribute it to their spouse. They carry around mountains of guilt, no matter how successful they are, that this very thing they studied for and strived towards is somehow inferior to the contribution they make in their other big job: mothering. Something seems to happen on the achievement curve for women, and it is a terrible bait and switch. Encouraged to get good grades, to study, to earn advanced degrees, women are then admonished when the hard earned job itself interferes with the glorified and unspoken worshiped role of mother. This dynamic doesn’t serve men either, as the men who can’t support their partner and children financially are seen and treated as inadequate and weak.
The sanctification of mothering, while perhaps flattering, leaves women who work feeling simply that no matter what they accomplish professionally, they are not enough. Don’t get me wrong. I believe a mother’s love is unique in a family, and I have truly cherished the gift of mothering all these 22 years. But it is not an altar on which we should sacrifice all other accountabilities for society, economy, and productivity. I cannot think of a white woman I know who has not spoken of her inner torment over feeling inadequate as a mother once she enters the juggle of mothering while working.
My “aha” moment came one early morning at 1 am when the gingerbread cathedral I was building for my daughter’s kindergarten collapsed as I laid the final gummy bear atop. I had flown in from a business trip late that afternoon, and completely forgot that the next day was “gingerbread house” day, and I had signed up to bring the centerpiece. After a hurried dinner, filing my expense report, and tidying up from a week away, I began cooking a many-step process and engineering marvel to meet my obligation. I think deep in my heart that gingerbread cathedral represented my role as “Mommy.” All wrapped up in it’s ultimate collapse was the little voice in my head that said, “even though the kids have had to do without me all week, I will make up for it with the most amazing, made from scratch, centerpiece.” Sobbing over the pieces that dark morning, it felt like an utter failure to have to go to Safeway and purchase a pre-made gingerbread cabin on the way to school. Tired and ashamed, I was the consummate “working mother.” The fact was, no one else cared or noticed the difference, especially my daughter, but the angst it cost me personally epitomizes the double bind felt by women who work in the USA.
In order to break apart the altar of motherhood, I suggest we validate and celebrate that while mothers matter, so do fathers and grandparents, and nannies, and child care providers that sub-in to primal parenting to ensure that children’s basic needs are met. I suggest we women let go of the mythology that nags, “above all else, be a perfect mother,” and get real with what we do contribute and why it matters. Our love for our children will be felt through important moments together outside of work in which we provide what only we can provide: mothering. It transcends organic food, homemade snacks, play dates, side-by-side homework, and “always being there” mythology. Oh, and the money we bring, it matters, too, in keeping them warm, and safe, and healthy, and fed.
I have not (EVER) heard men at work referred to as “working fathers.” I haven’t heard them discuss outwardly their shame or feelings of failure as fathers because they work. It seems assumed in our culture that men will focus on their work (after all, it pays the bills) and will be great fathers when they come home.
Children, mine and yours, deserve great parenting and great love from their parents. They also deserve, and our society depends upon, the economic security and social contributions established only through meaningful and rewarded work. For society as a whole to thrive, we need all hands on deck, contributing ideas, sweat, and effort to making the world better. The juggle of working while also raising children demands flexibility for both men and women, validation that both roles matter, and celebration for when either job is well done.
Working Parenting. How does that sound as a replacement for “working mother”?
*I am specifically speaking to the white feminine experience, which is what I know. Most colleagues of mine who are women of color eschew the shame and retribution white women feel for working.