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Nobody puts Mommy in a corner

September 25, 2010

A while back, one of the mommyblogs I follow shared a story about a Stay at Home Mom (SAHM) who, after tireless attempts to make her job at home acceptable in the eyes of careered friends and family, decided to make up business cards for herself.  I’ve seen this in other places, too, like on a friend’s Facebook profile where she writes that she currently works at the firm Pace, Pace and Pace (Pace is her last name).  Other women going back to work find ways to include their years at home in their job descriptions or resumes:  budget manager, head chef, homeschool board of education/principal/teacher, transportation coordinator.

I’ve thought a lot about this phenomenon, the advent of the “professional” mom.  Some women, familiar with the corporate world find that it gives them  a sense of accomplishment and helps create a continuum for themselves as they take a few years’ “leave” from an office job.  Others find that thinking about mothering this way helps them stave off the apathy that comes from being exhausted by the routine and sometimes mundane activities related to raising small children.

But other women feel that looking at motherhood as a rung on their career ladder is a degradation of what they believe is more of a vocation. I had a friend concerned that popping out a mommy business card as if you were a junior partner at Whoever and Whoever devalued motherwork and didn’t afford parenting with the esteem it deserves.  I would tend to agree there, but right now mother work isn’t valued as equal to a job, much less more important, so for me, the business cards are probably the most proximate translation we have for a culture that values financial returns over those social, cultural, and spiritual profits that are indeed immeasurable.

We’ve all heard Oprah and friends say that mothering, parenting, is the most important job in the world.  But when it comes to the way our society organizes itself, these proclamations don’t ring sincere.  Part of this is because work seen as “women’s work” has been historically degraded and undervalued (read: teaching, nursing, caregiving and especially mothering).  And, contrary to popular Beckydom belief, the women’s movement didn’t start it.

Women’s rights groups never initiated a war on “family values.”  Most early women’s advocates, and many of the later ones, believed advocacy for mothers was a foundational work for advancing the cause of ALL women, precisely because, in maternity, the rights and welfare of women and children (of both sexes) are mysteriously and inextricably linked.  It could be argued that second wave feminism bought into these ideas, to a degree, when it (however wrongheadedly) insisted that what was holding women back was NOT gender-based constraints imposed by society, but women’s own “uncontrollable” biology. But these activists didn’t *start* anything there.  The devaluation of women is part of a longer story: one that involves a grander scheme to undermine basic human dignity.

Long before second wave feminism, even before women’s suffrage, prosperous societies were organized in such a way that both women and children, and certain ethnic or religious groups of men, women, and children were prevented from accessing resources to meet basic human needs.  Families were (and in many places today, still are) broken by enslavement, poverty, untimely death and entirely preventable hunger and disease.  Throughout history, motherhood itself has been commodified, just as children have been, and maternity has been exploited for unjust purposes: be they the creation of a new class of workers or slaves, the systematic internment and “re-education” of children or the forced sterilization of women deemed unfit to mother.  In each of these situations, motherhood and motherwork was undervalued because PEOPLE were undervalued.

“Traditional values” advocates don’t have much of an answer for this, except to blame the feminists and say women should stay home with their kids.  Yet, at many turns, traditionalists and complementarians do nothing to promote policies that would allow women (or men) to do just that.  They even oppose such policies when it comes to certain kinds of women.  In the late 1990s, during welfare reform, poor SAHMs were told to get a job to support their families.  These women were told they were a drain on our collective resources.  Their kids would be fine in day care (though some of us would never think of taking that road that ourselves) and no, we’re not worried about the quality of that day care because we generally believe these women to be bad at parenting, so how much more damage could crappy day care do? But these are the consequences of being poor and having kids.  What started out as a funding stream to assist women with young children became part of American mythology, misrepresented by many who claimed to value motherhood as a crutch or worse, an incentive to continue procreating “irresponsibly.”

Thus even those who celebrate their own motherhood and, in their affluence, their ability to work in the home raising their young children, find ways to undermine and devalue motherwork itself by setting up contexts in which such work is deemed “appropriate and acceptable” rather than “frivolous and irresponsible.”

To compound the problem, men are struggling with their own roles in the wake of nouveau-retro-masculinity (a la Mad Men. Thanks guys).  This past week, Newsweek featured an article called “Men’s Lib: Why We Need to Reimagine Masculinity.”  Consider the whole article recommended reading, but I’ve pulled out a piece that spoke to my own heart:

[For men, the] home is a natural place to start. As the novelist Michael Chabon discovered on a trip to the grocery store with his son, society still expects very little from fathers. ‘You are such a good dad,’ a woman told him as he waited in line to pay. ‘I can tell.’ Exactly what she could tell was a mystery to Chabon, who recounts the story in his 2009 essay collection Manhood for Amateurs. But clearly no woman would earn kudos for toting her kids around the frozen-foods aisle. ‘The handy thing about being a father,’ he later concludes, ‘is that the historic standard is so pitifully low.’

The modern standards aren’t much better. Despite apparent progress—young couples believe in coparenting and sharing the household chores—very little has actually changed. The average wife still does roughly double the housework of the average husband: the equivalent of two full workdays of additional chores each week. Even when the man is unemployed, the woman handles a majority of the domestic workload, and it’s the same story with child care. If both parents are working, women spend 400 percent more time with the kids. Meanwhile, the number of fatherless kids in America has nearly tripled since 1960, and the percentage of men who call themselves stay-at-home dads has stalled below 3 percent. The old roles, say sociologists, are hard to shake.

At Slate, Tracy Clark-Flory commends the male authors of the Newsweek piece and takes their analysis one step farther:

Enough with the trend stories that ring the death knell for masculinity. In a no-nonsense piece, Newsweek cuts straight to the chase and searches for a damned solution. (How’s that for a manly response?)…

…Their argument is essentially that we need to encourage men to take active caretaking roles at home and at work. This means putting more emphasis on the importance of fatherhood and recasting so-called nurturing professions so that they no longer seem the sole domain of women. Another way of saying all that?  Men need feminism. They are talking, after all, about equal opportunity and expectations, and greater freedom from restrictive gender roles — that’s the fundamental aim of feminism, as I understand it.

There is no end to the love I have for this idea: men embracing feminism for themselves.  But it’s challenging enough in the Christian subculture to even get women to embrace it, so I’m highly skeptical that all our men will be climbing on that bus any time soon (except in my household, where the boys have a lifetime boarding pass).  And young men, who should really know better, are getting very swept up in the Wild at Heart mania that tells them Jesus was a tough guy and they should be, too.  I have a dear friend who was on the receiving end of his gal pals’ correcting rod recently when, reacting to that stupid End of Men article, my man got a little too brash and burly on his own blog.  Thankfully, my girls shut him down with, ya know, the B-i-b-l-e (with an assist from Pope John Paul II since my boy is Catholic).  But that incident continues to haunt me.  If my guy friend, a committed Christian who sincerely loves and cares for women, can get it that wrong, then any one of us can (male or female).

So what is a Becky SAHM, WAHM or working mom supposed to do in a society at pits women against one another in ideologically-driven “mommy wars” and leaves each one of us feeling “damned if we do, damned if we don’t” while dads are told they don’t really have any rights or responsibilities in this except to bring home the bacon (or mail the bacon in if it’s back-due child support)?

I would have two suggestions:  one small, one not-so-small.

First, let’s stop judging our sisters and ourselves.  I don’t know any mom who starts her day out thinking, “I really hope I can eff up my kids today.” There are women and men who do not have the skills to parent well. And there are parents pinned under demons that prevent them from loving well or understanding the damage they do to their own children.  I’m not talking about those folks, though I suspect they could use a little less judgment, too.  I’m mostly talking about letting go of whatever fiction we have about what it means to be supermom, superdad, and superkids. (Funny how the only one of those three my spell check didn’t underline as a misspelled word was the “superMOM.”) There’s enough guilt to go around without us throwing another log on the fire.  And let’s face it, once the kids get older, they and their therapists will have plenty enough coal to heap on our heads.

Second, we need examine our own bad attitudes about motherhood, fatherhood and child-bearing/rearing and repent of all of it in public.  We need to think about to what ends our philosophies on these subjects lead us.  Does thinking this way about what makes a “good mom” create problems for good moms I know?  What happens to moms and their children when I hold fast to do-it-yourself principles of self-promotion?  What happens when I look at a child as a byproduct of irresponsible or immoral behavior, or as any kind of “product”?  What happens to fathers when we tell them all we need is their money and what happens to moms who are told all kids need is your undivided, constant attentions and affections?  What happens to marriages when kids come first, or money comes first, or comfort comes first?

I don’t have any ingenious solutions.  I look at what I’m doing as a mom and I see that it’s hard.  It’s meaningful. It’s tiring.  Some days, it’s busy boredom.  But it’s periodically more gratifying than anything I have ever done, ever; the time of my life (I had to connect back to the post title, right?).  Motherhood is emptying and humbling; both in good ways.  I can also look upon it wearing our culture’s spectacles and scorn it.  I can resent it and wish it was someone else’s task for a change.  I can call it futile and hopeless even while I am reaping unimaginable rewards in the midst of it.

So for all my ideas about how society should change (and FWIW, I’m going to keep hollering about how it should and pounding down every stubborn nail around here until it does), these changes have to start with me.   *I* have to value mothering.  I have to recognize it for the unexpected and undeserved calling it is.  I have to be its advocate, my sister’s advocate, MY advocate.  I have to do it because to esteem it is to honor the blessing of my children’s very existences (heck, even *my* existence.  Thanks, Mama, and Daddy, too).

One Comment leave one →
  1. Kate permalink
    September 26, 2010 1:18 am

    One of the best BNB posts yet!

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