Allow me to personally set the women’s liberation movement back 60 years: I totally want to be a stay-at-home mom. Call me the anti-feminist, say I’m being prosaic, whatever. Because if I had said “I want to be a career woman and never have children” I’d receive the same amount of criticism. Not that much has changed since women came out of the kitchen, it just that now we have more than one unfair archetype to compete with. I had this thought at our recent holiday party. Nicole was so excited to receive a Kitchen Aid mixer for Christmas (And why shouldn’t she be? That thing is the kitchen gadget to end all gadgets.) but upon expressing her elation, she immediately became apologetic: “I know that sounds very un-feminist of me.” But why should she, or anyone else for that matter, feel ashamed of being “un-feminist”?
Women’s lib has done a great deal for the fairer sex, and I’m grateful. I like that I get to vote and have (ostensibly) the same earning and career potential as a man, but in the last fifty years since societal expectations for women shifted away from the home, a new prejudice has taken root. Now, it’s not only career women who are criticized for their ambition, but home makers, too. A woman with a family who holds down a full-time job is just as likely to have her motivations questioned as the woman who chooses to stay home with her children. Not to mention the side-long glances that women get if they decide not to have a family at all.
In my experience, having gone to college, gotten married, and started a career before starting a family (cheekily termed the “right way” of doing things), I’ve run into every passive judgment out there: “Oh, so, you’re not going to graduate school right after you get your BA?” “Wow, you got married young.” “You better hurry up and make some babies!” Oy vey. This is, in fact, a very popular trope in movies, TV, and books: the working mother, the stay at home mother, and the I-don’t-want-to-be-a-mother. The maiden, mother, and crone of our generation. In the movie “I Don’t Know How She Does It”, the class lines are fairly well drawn: you are a working parent struggling to keep up or you are career mommy, spending your days either at the gym or barefoot in the kitchen. As Sarah Jessica Parker’s character tries with dubious success to be everything for everyone, the viewer realizes that this is what society wants — a successful career person, who never misses a play date or soccer game. She keeps a functional and beautiful home, and makes sure her man is satisfied, all the while mastering the art of French cooking. But, no pressure.
We also laughed lovingly as Sex and the City’s Miranda made the awkward transition from career powerhouse to fumbling single parent. The coworkers at her firm sneered when she made her son a priority, while her housekeeper shook her head in disappointment when Miranda had to tend to work obligations. Moms just can’t win.
I still remember the look of utter disdain my senior advisor gave me after I told her I was getting married after graduation, a look that clearly said, “another smart woman lost to girlhood fantasy.” She actually seemed a little offended that I had decided to put graduate school on the back burner (a decision that had nothing to do with getting married and everything to do with a serious case of senioritis), as if it were her potential I was wasting and not my own. In telling her the truth about my decision, I hadn’t given her an answer that she wanted nor one that she respected. Neither did I answer satisfactorily when asked by my family how I feel about going back to work now that my daughter is 7 weeks old. I was honest: “It sucks, and I’m depressed about it because I already know that I’m going to miss her. I wish I were able to stay home with her full time.” The sort of half-smiles and indulgent glances I got after that admission made me feel like I was lacking the proper enthusiasm. Might they have been happier with “No, no, I’m not sad to leave my child in the care of others! I am thrilled to go back into the work force and make lots and lots of sweet, sweet money! Pass the seared baby seal.” Because it is, for many, about money — if women want equal treatment, they should be equally financially responsible, not dependent on their husbands to pay all the bills. For me, if the world was perfect, I’d go back to work part-time — you see, wanting more time with my child is not a ploy to avoid the work force or shirk my financial responsibility. Yeah, I’d love to be a stay-at-home mom, but the pay is terrible.
My husband is sympathetic to my plight, but alas, doesn’t really understand. (He, after all, didn’t become a mother when our child was born: see this blog post.) When I first admitted how increasingly despondent I was feeling as the date of my return to work loomed, he chuckled, “Yeah, if I had had two months off of work, I wouldn’t want to go back either.” But that really isn’t it. This isn’t like the kicking-and-screaming tantrum you once had as summer vacation ran out and you were once again relegated to the toiling primary school masses. Becoming a child’s primary caregiver is not an easy occupation. We all know there’s a great deal of work involved — unpleasant, dirty, smelly, frustrating, back-breaking work — so clearly, it’s not a lack of work ethic that I’m talking about here. It is a change in attitude, a shift in my passions, a new calling. Some where along the way, I woke up and I was Moira’s mom, and no one is going to do that job better than me.
I made this perfect little person, carried her in my womb for nine months, gave birth to her, and have spent the last eight weeks devoted to her every need and desire. And now I’m expected to just hand her off to someone else and trust that they will do as good a job as I would do. And I’m one of the lucky ones — I am blessed to not be a single parent, as many working parents are, and my daughter isn’t going to day care with a stranger, she’s going to be either with her father or with a family friend while I’m working. This ought to alleviate some of my anxiety, but it doesn’t. There are 168 hours in a week and I will be away from my child for nearly a third of that time. That’s not a vacation from parenthood, as some may suggest. That’s torture.
Very few people understand why a successful, educated person would want to stay home to raise their children. Won’t you miss adult conversations? Don’t you want to do more in life? You mean, more than nurture and educate my kids? I achieved a lot in my early twenties and I’m proud of those accomplishments. But there is more pride in seeing my baby girl smile up at me in joy than in any academic commendation or career accolade.
Admittedly, this isn’t the case for all mothers. Among the Widows, there’s a pretty even divide amongst the moms that work in the work place and the moms that work in the home. And as is often the case, we sometimes want what the other has. Lady M, for instance, had her first baby in the middle of her college career, and now with number two on the way, sometimes wishes she could focus on her education and her career rather than mommyhood. Still others have confided in me that they were relieved to get back to work after their babies were born, as the din of the office became a haven for some much needed quiet. To each their own — I’m not here to judge. I wish we could all say that, but as I mentioned before, when it comes to the motherhood versus career-woman dichotomy, everybody has an opinion, even if they’re not aware of it. From my professor who wrote me off after I married, to the kept women that sneer at a mom trying to balance home and work obligations, we all seem to lack insight.
As I type this one-handed on my iPad with my daughter asleep on my chest, I am dreadfully aware of how many moments like this one will soon slip from my grasp. Some women struggle because they want to discover who they are outside of motherhood. I am struggling because I want the opportunity to discover who I am within it. And in the end, whatever you choose, or whatever you have to do, we should respect each other for the obstacles inherent to the path we have chosen. Mothers can only overcome the Good Mother, Better Woman archetype if we support each other. (Except those mean, holier-than-thou types. They just suck.)