Originally written in 2005, revised 2008. Ok, folks, this is a hot button topic but I decided to post it anyway.
An acquaintance of mine recently shared the happy news that she was expecting. After dispensing with the particulars of due dates, baby name contenders, and pregnancy symptoms, I found myself gushing about how much I love being a mom. My baby days farther and farther behind me, the memories of sleepless nights, sore nipples, and diaper duty are blurring. Having survived the infancies of my children, I now have the luxury of romanticizing it all. “The only thing I have really hated about being a mother,” I confided, “is enduring the judgment of other mothers.” In the newborn period it was the judgment of nursing moms towards bottle-feeding mothers, co-sleepers vs. crib sleepers, “Ferberizers” vs. “attachment parenting” devotees. At approximately the three-month mark, things got really ugly when some mothers returned to work while others remained at home. Much to my naïve surprise, the tensions between these two groups were (and still are) palpable.
When my daughter was born, my husband was a pediatrics intern at Stanford University. His salary did not even pay our rent during the Silicon Valley’s dot-com boom of the late 90s. I was the primary earner so returning to work was a necessity. I was proud that we were able to use maternity and paternity leave to keep Amelia at home until she reached 6 months of age. My supervisor allowed me to go to 75% time and I felt that we had struck a great balance: Amelia was at a high quality daycare while I earned the money we literally needed to keep a roof over our heads and food on the table. When my son was born a year later, I knew that my division was being closed and that I would soon be laid off. I returned to work with my son eight weeks after giving birth and received my termination notice my first day back. We were leaving the San Francisco Bay Area later that year so there was little point to finding another job. My husband moonlighted to compensate for the loss of my salary, spending every other night away from home in addition to working days and most weekends. Despite needing to survive on a tight budget and meeting the demands of two children under the age of 2 while preparing our household for a cross-country move, I enjoyed that time at home with my small children. I relish my memories of those sweet months: mornings of play followed but lazy afternoon siestas for all.
When we moved to North Carolina several months later, I decided to return to work. I had spent many years training in public health and an extended hiatus would hurt my fledging career and, with my husband pursuing three more years of training, we still needed my salary. I was fortunate to secure a part-time position at a nearby university that allowed me to bridge the two worlds of working inside and outside the home.
Throughout the years of raising my children, I have been flabbergasted by the frequent and uncensored comments of both stay-at-home and working moms. I have heard working mothers question what stay at home moms “do all day.” On the flip side, I have frequently heard acerbic comments from stay-at-home moms about their working counterparts. During a casual conversation with a neighbor, I remarked upon a mutual friend’s calm and relaxed parenting style. “Well, she’s never with her child. She always working,” she observed callously. The judgment in her comment was razor sharp. I was too stunned to reply in the moment, but I should have defended my friend who, as a single parent, never gets a break from the nighttime routine or the 7 am Saturday morning wake-ups. Another acquaintance once explained her choice to be a “stay-at-home” mom: “I could never left someone else raise my children,” as if mothers who work outside the home do not raise theirs.
One never hears working men sitting around beating their breasts and crying “Mea culpa” for returning to work. Most men seem to take for granted that parenting and working outside the home are not mutually exclusive endeavors. By the same token, I have never once heard a male neighbor make a comment about the one stay at home dad in the neighborhood. Men don’t feel the need to compete on this level, so why do we? Perhaps it is because motherhood is so central to our sense of self. We want so desperately to be good mothers, but have limited understanding of what constitutes a “good mother.” And with no “good mother” standard to which we can aspire, perhaps we look to other mothers as a source of validation for our own choices. Without any accepted definition of a “good mother” are we willing to settle for making ourselves feel like a “better mother,” leading to our current intragender conflict?
Surely if there was a formula to raising children – a one fits all size approach guaranteed to produce happy, functioning members of society -- someone would have figured it out by now. And I can say this intellectually, but it does little to address my ambivalence about my own choices. I extracted a great deal of joy and a sense of accomplishment from my work. After spending 11 years in higher education, I felt a certain obligation to myself and my mentors (not to mention the federal government that underwrote much of my training) to pursue a research career. And I hope that I helped improve the lives of children through my research as well as the lives of the students that I have taught and mentored. But, there were certainly days when I wondered if I missed something by working. I sat at my desk more than once and cried over missing my kids. And I often wondered if my work life was worth it.
I have to admit, however, that I am glad that there are mothers who work outside the home and not only because I was one of them. I simply do not want to live in a world where the only doctors, lawyers, teachers, judges, etc. are men and childless women. If women uniformly stopped working during their childbearing years, the glass ceiling would never shatter. I want to know that other mothers are out there making and enforcing the laws of our country, teaching our children, advancing research, and caring for the sick. I want to know that the workforce includes mothers like me: this gives me faith that my needs will be represented whether it is in the design of a new product or the drafting of new legislation. And in 9 years when my daughter enters her freshman year of college I want to be able to tell her: “You can be whatever you want to be” and I want it to be true.
At the same time, I understand the desire to be at home with one’s children. I recently went on disability. Being at home allows me more time to make meals and obviates the need for my 11 p.m. crockpot preparations. With more sleep, I felt more rested and less stressed. Life is more manageable without having the daily stresses of work superimposed on the unavoidable stresses of parenting. I completely understand why many women choose this approach to maintaining sanity in their family life.
I picture my own daughter struggling with this choice when she becomes a mother and wonder what I could say to her. As I would tell my pregnant friend, “You have to do what is best for you and your family.” I would tell her honestly that it is rarely an easy choice, but that, as with most things in life, she can always change her mind. And I would caution her to avoid judging the choices of her peers for this is an intensely personal and private decision.
Now that I am facing the possibility that I am dying, this entire debate – in fact all motherly debates – seem ridiculous. Whether I nursed my children or fed them by bottle, worked outside the home or left the workforce, Ferberized them or rocked them to sleep matters very little. All that matters is that I loved them. And love is not some “one size fits all” phenomenon; it comes in many shapes, sizes and forms.
We women waste a lot of energy on this issue. Just think of what we could accomplish if we redirected our energy towards something that we can all agree on like improving our schools or protesting nuclear proliferation. We ignore everything have in common as mothers to fight an ideological war of words that is getting us nowhere. It is time to declare a cease-fire.