“Mama, what is your job?” My daughter asked me this question last night as I was loading the dishwasher after dinner. I told her my job title and she replied, “What’s that?” This was not surprising for a couple of reasons. First, my job in college student affairs is not one that is depicted in picture books alongside scientist, nurse, teacher, or firefighter. Second, and more important, she doesn’t know what I do because to her I am first and always her mother. This week on the blog, we’ve been exploring myths of motherhood. I set out to write five myths about working moms, but this conversation with my daughter got me thinking about the way that our children view what we do in and out of the home versus how we view ourselves and our friends/sisters/mothers/colleagues/strangers.
So. The myths. I’ve heard a lot of myths about working moms, including these:
Myth #1: We don’t make time to cook on weeknights.
I don’t have time during the week, which is why I plan an entire week’s menu on the weekend. During the week, I get up an hour earlier to prep dinner so coming home is less stressful and we can sit together as a family
Myth #2: We get to enjoy our lunch.
I eat lunch alone at my desk 99% of the time so I can run errands during my “lunch” or leave the office a little early to eek out a few more moments before bedtime.
Myth #3: We have the luxury of finishing whole cups of coffee in the morning.
Yep, I finish an entire cup all by myself when I’m up an hour before the rest of the house prepping dinner and planning my day at work and home.
Myth #4: We don’t raise our children.
Now that’s just silly, but one that I’ve heard nonetheless. Motherhood is not something that comes with a timecard to be punched in and out. I raise my daughter while I work and work while I raise my daughter.
Myth #5: We think we can have it all.
I don’t think I can have it all, but I do think that I can have a fulfilling professional and personal life and that the two are not mutually exclusive.
Even as I wrote these myths, I felt the indignation creeping in. Who are you to say I don’t raise my daughter! Leave my coffee out of this! And then I realized what is quite possibly the mother (pardon the pun) of all myths: Mothers must explain themselves.
I have three sisters. Each of us came into motherhood at different stages in our working lives. One of my sisters came to be a mother while she was managing a kitchen in a restaurant, before returning to school to earn her degree in Business. Another sister came to be a mother while working a full-time, high-stress job after graduating college and having a spouse in medical school. My youngest sister and I both came to be mothers while we were in the home stretch of graduate degrees. In each of these cases, motherhood became “what we did” and part of who we are even as we also did other things like school, work, relationships, households, to name a few.
Stay at home, work at home, working, we are all mothers. Somehow, though, these descriptors have crept in to make sure that everyone around us knows (and can make a judgment based upon) what kind of mother we are. My husband was never once called a “working dad” after our daughter was born and he continued to work full-time, outside the home. He never had to explain himself and his choice to stay at work or debunk myths about working dads. If you’re a mother, well, you’ve got some explaining to do but there is no right answer. If you are a working mother, you are at once martyred and maligned for having it all but leaving your children in someone else’s care. If you’re a stay-at-home mom, you are at once revered and reviled for answering life’s highest calling but forsaking your brain for board books. And do I even need to mention that this whole conversation is often one of privilege, leaving out those for whom working or staying home is a necessity, not a choice?
These myths that we attach to the identity of mother have served largely to support long-held assumptions about what it means to be a mother and leaves all of us in a catch-22 of never realizing ideal womanhood or motherhood. Do I say I’m a “working mother” lest I or others forget that I do both? Do those of you who use the descriptor of “stay at home” say this because we know that the first thing people ask us when we meet is, “What do you do?” and we grasp for a way to elevate the role of raising children? As if it needs elevating.
I say we stop explaining ourselves and instead start saying, simply, “I am a mother.” It might require a conscious effort, a slight squaring of the shoulders and lift of the chin when we say it. If someone cares to know who I am and how I do motherhood, just ask. I think we mothers know how complicated it is to be just that one word every day, whatever that day entails. And no matter where we’ve been and what we’ve done, there is at least one person who will come to you with outstretched arms, look up to you and say, simply, “mother.”