As usual, I’ve got lots to say about this mom gig, especially when I read things about moms on the internet that are either brilliant or terrible. Over the course of this year, I’ve accumulated lots of links to articles that hit a nerve with me when I read them (maybe months ago), and I can’t just forget about them, even though the news cycle has long since moved on. As I said before, I have to speak out in whatever small way I can, and not let my dearth of free time quiet me. So here are three of those articles and my comments.
This one qualifies as terrible. “A Letter from a Working Mother to a Stay-at-Home Mother, and vice versa” by Carolyn Ee is supremely well-intentioned. It’s about mothers appreciating each other and recognizing that we all work hard and make sacrifices, whether or not we work outside the home. However, the terms for that appreciation are retrograde and guilt-inducing. Jessica Grose at Slate did a great job explaining what’s wrong with the letters. Grose especially emphasizes that working or not isn’t really a choice for most women, and that when it is, it’s a choice that doesn’t happen in a vacuum. That’s an approach to the issue that I’ve read and appreciated before.
The vision of gender roles in these letters is really old-fashioned. The husband/father/partner figure is only even mentioned once, when he comes home and fails to relieve the stay-at-home mom because he had a hard day too. The mom doesn’t demand help, but simply dissolves into tears. There is no sign of a partner in the working mom letter, as if all working parents were single mothers. This really doesn’t give enough credit to involved dads who work hard to be equal partners and co-parents. The “second shift” is referenced, but as a fact of working-mom life, not as an injustice that needs to be rectified in our larger community and in individual families. One of the main reasons given for why working moms are admirable is basically because they are everywhere and we all need them to do their jobs. As if our economy’s dependence on the work of parents were remarkable at all, and as if the community’s reliance on them were necessary for us to permit them to leave their children in day care without calling it neglect.
These “letters” are a great example to me of the rhetorical dangers of using the second person to address an entire group of people. By saying, “all of you stay-at-home moms do a, b, and c,” or worse, “every one of you working moms feel x, y, and z,” the author alienates all members of that group who do not do or feel exactly those things. She implies, for example, that the working moms who don’t enjoy the time they spend at home with sick kids don’t love their kids or something, ignoring the fact that sometimes kids are their most insufferable when they’re not feeling well. I was offended by this line about working moms, because I have committed this sin, and plan to do it again, as often as possible:
I know that you often feel guilty about having any more time away from your children so you sacrifice your leisure time. I know you can’t bring yourself to take a “day off” for yourself when your children are at daycare.
So am I supposed to feel guilty for working half days over the summer while keeping my child in care full time? I thought the purpose of these “letters” was to alleviate mom guilt. Lines like that present a single acceptable version of motherhood, whether working for pay or not, and judge all who fail to conform to it. And that single version is an oppressive one; it’s total motherhood, and it’s exactly what’s making stay-at-home and working moms both feel so insecure that they end up judging each other to make themselves feel better. So Carolyn Ee has really just been feeding the fire she says she’s trying to put out.
Instead, this is the kind of discourse we should be having about stay-at-home moms and working moms. FaithM will be working less because she’s having her second child soon, and she puts that ‘choice’ in the context of the wage gap, family policy, and our cultural assumptions about families (mother = primary caregiver, and worker = breadwinner = man with wife and children at home). She points out that parenting is hard work that society doesn’t value the way it should because there is no dollar amount attached to it, and that to some extent, some versions of feminism have bought into that devaluation of domestic work. We need to talk about the larger context in which we make ‘choices’ about our families and careers, while also appreciating people who don’t get enough respect because of our screwed up ideas about work and family.