Here we go again.
It seems like every few months the Mommy War pot gets stirred and articles start flying back and forth. Is being a mom a job? Is it the toughest job? Would anyone ever actually apply for this job?
This time, the pot got stirred by a viral ad put together by a greeting card company in order to guilt us all into buying Mother’s Day cards for our poor, beleaguered moms. I’ll assume it’s made its way to your inbox or Facebook feed.
Predictably, there were some well-formed reactions to the ad, most of which thankfully recognized it for the cloying, pandering artifact that it is. Mary Elizabeth Williams’ column in Salon probably did the best job of taking down the ad’s argument that mom’s jobs are the worst. But others have responded as well, culling data and surveys that chart the place of stay-at-home and working moms in American society. Tweets like, “every mom is a working mom” show up and gently pat us all on the back during this May season of commercially-sanctioned mom honoring.
I feel like this topic has come up a few times in the past year since I left the world of the gainfully employed to join the mirror world of the stay-at-home parent. At a party or gathering, someone will ask me what I do and I’ll cheerfully say something like, “Right now, I’m being mommy!” Their studied response usually follows the lines of, “Oh, that’s the most important job you can have!” Or, if I respond saying, “I don’t work right now,” they’ll answer, “That’s definitely work, being a stay-at-home mom is a full-time job!”
Somewhere in our attempts to validate the efforts of stay-at-home moms in a world where they are increasingly put-upon, it has become standard practice to default to this way of talking about moms who are not working. We devise euphemisms like “full-time mom” or “non-working mom” or we are “opting out” or “leaning in. All of which just politely tip-toe around the simple fact that what we are talking about is a grown-up, often quite well-educated, who does not get up in the morning, punch a time clock and draw a paycheck from a corporate entity.
On one hand, I think this kind of language shows an admirable impulse to include women and men who are playing outside the boundaries of our economic system. “Your work is the most important work in the world!” we exclaim. We even quantify the value of the work of stay-at-home parents through complex calculations that add up the equivalent costs of home cooks, cleaners and nannies. We’ve all heard the numbers — stay-at-home moms should make over $100,000 a year if all their duties are compensated at a fair market value.
But, no. Being a stay-at-home mom is not my job.
Might I suggest that if we are still talking about motherhood – parenthood – in these terms, we are doomed to continue asking the wrong questions and fighting the same pointless battles.
My experience of being a mother has been so unlike “working” or having a “job” that I find myself resisting the common praise, of “oh you’re doing such important work!” Because the relationship I have with my son and with my husband is nothing like a job, I believe that if I start to perceive and speak of it that way, I will do harm to those relationships and to myself.
What other relationships do we talk about using the language of commerce and business? Yes, we talk about marriage being work, but we don’t talk about it as being our “job” to be a wife or husband. We don’t imagine our friendships, our sibling relationships, our place as sons, daughters, aunts, uncles, or cousins to be places in which we measure our contributions or weigh our input. But somehow, when we start talking about being parents, moms specifically, we start measuring.
I understand the appeal of using work language to describe parenthood. It imbues the task with a sense of meaning, direction and purposefulness that most of my day-to-day activities with my son lack. But if we take these metaphors to their extremes, how does that impact our thinking and our behavior in day-to-day activities?
If we’re working moms, who is our boss? Our husbands? Think about how that dynamic can poison a marriage.
If I’m a working mom, how am I supposed to feel valuable during the vast stretches of early infancy when a day consists of nursing or feeding and lumbering around the house in baggy sweats in a state of neurotic sleep-deprivation? What kind of performance review can I expect for those years?
If I’m a working mom, do I have to justify my keep by reporting my daily activities to my boss at the end of the day? Do I feel pressure to become that most-typical of adjectives, “crazy-busy,” just in order to account for my feeling of worthiness in my job?
We have let the language of the market – the business world which sees us as either consumers, producers, makers or takers – give meaning to our most intimate life experiences. But the market does not have the language with which to understand and value these things. Thus, the temptation is devalue the aspects of parenting, mothering, which can’t possibly fit its paradigm.
Getting up in the night to soothe my teething son is not working overtime. Packing lunches, doing laundry, cooking meals, keeping the house tidy – these are not items on a job description.
These are love. Care. Soul-work. Which cannot be measured and should not be accounted for. To try to do so is like using a yardstick to measure the beauty of a garden. I am more interested in making my garden beautiful, unique, treasured than in being sure my harvest meets quotas.
Reject the language of commerce when it comes to family life. We are moms, and dads, and those are our identities, ways of being in the world in relationship to others. It enriches our souls, not our resumes.