Globe & Mail, May 19, 2006
Barbara Moses, Ph.D, is an international speaker, work/life expert, and best-selling author of Dish: Midlife Women Tell the Truth About Work, Relationships, and the Rest of Life.
Every time I pick up an article about whether mothers should work, I want to scream. And I'm screaming now.
Yet again, women are being infantilized -- told what they should or should not do. And why is it that only mothers -- not fathers -- are being lectured? After all, the kids are his, too.
Women can't win. No matter what they do, they risk feeling like they've done wrong. If they choose to stay at home, they worry that they will become desperate housewives and destroy their careers. If they work, they worry they are abandoning their children to a compromised form of child care with long-term negative consequences.
But, it's not just the stay-at-home propaganda that appalls me. It's also the dreadful simplifications on both sides of the debate.
In a bloodcurdlingly cold article that recently appeared in The American Prospect, U.S. law professor Linda Hirshman argued that the family does not provide enough stimulation to fulfill the intellectual and emotional needs of well-educated women. Women can only fully flourish outside the home; they owe it to themselves to work, she argues. They also owe it to the economy, given the skills shortage, she says.
In contrast, Caitlin Flanagan outraged many women with this admonition in her new book To Hell With All That: Stay at home, your kids need you. Yes, it can be boring, but your children want their mom around. And, oh, housework can be fulfilling, too.
She points to a mother's love as the most powerful force that she can give to her child. Yes, it's powerful. But it can be powerfully toxic as well as wonderful. It all depends on the mother.
I know many women who chose to stay home because they felt they were put on this earth to raise children. But nothing comes with the act of childbirth to equip all women to be effective parents.
Let's not sentimentalize mother love. Mothers, no matter how much they love their children, can still be dysfunctional. Let me count some of the ways: Using their kids as a status accessory or weapon in the mother wars. Projecting their own needs onto their kids. Criticizing their kids because they're not as perfect, high-achieving or athletically talented as the neighbours' brood.
My own stay-at-home mother was very smart. She was also demanding and critical, using conditional love as her primary child-rearing technique. I suspect she would have been a better mother had she worked, rather than feeling so dissatisfied living her life though her children.
It's no wonder, given the unrelenting barrage of opinion, that many mothers today are confused. And if they want to work, they are made to feel guilty -- as if they needed any more of that.
All these "rules" about what women should and should not do are based on sweeping generalizations. They assume that we all have the same needs and desires, and that we are all equally capable of being "good mothers" under the same circumstances. All of these pronouncements should come with a warning -- Caution: grossly irresponsible oversimplification.
In fact, there is only one rule. And that rule is that there is no rule. Women should do what works for them.
I recently surveyed several hundred, mostly university-educated midlife mothers about the decisions they made regarding their career for my new book Dish. These women represented all the work/non-paid work configurations and their views varied about their need to work.
I asked how they felt about their decisions. As with all issues related to women's experiences and views, there was no one universal truth. Indeed, the mothers fell into four groups.
First were the women who worked and were happy with their decision. "Even if I could have afforded it, I'd have been a bad mother if I had stayed at home," one retailer said. "I need the intellectual and social stimulation. It makes me feel better about myself so when I come home, I can give my daughter emotionally what I want to give her. Every penny I make goes to daycare, and I'm fine with that."
Second, there were women who worked but wished they could have stayed at home or taken a career track that would have given them more time for their kids. They live with regret. "I was never really in the moment . . . always in a hurry, worried, irritable and distracted," one commented.
Third are the women who chose to stay at home or significantly downsized their careers, and rue that decision. As one former media executive said: "I left a great career to stay home for the first five years of each of my kids' lives (seven years in total). I look at my friends who now have great careers while I'm struggling, especially now that I'm divorced. My kids are great. But somehow I feel they would have turned out great anyway. And I would be financially in a more secure place today."
Another stay-at-home mom said: "I don't think I was a great mother. . . . I was always angry and resentful of my missed opportunities."
The fourth group: women who chose to stay home and were happy they had done so. One women with two graduate degrees pointed to her stay-at-home parenting as her most important accomplishment. "Even though I worry that I am starting out now at 50 after 22 years and my skills will be the best-kept secret in this city, no, I do not for a moment ever begrudge the time out. This is how I wanted and needed to be a mother."
What do these four groups tell you? That women need to be able to make their own choices. That they need to base their choices on their own needs. And that no two women will have the same needs or make the same choices.
There is a lot of smugness and moralizing on both sides of the divide. "You can give up your fancy home and second car, and then you don't need the second income," said one stay-at-homer, implying that to choose to work is morally bankrupt.
"I don't want to become one of those sickening, superior, yucky, soccer moms who calls herself a full-time mom who uses her perfect kids and home as a launch pad and thinks she is so superior. I'm not a full-time mother because I work?" a working mother said.
Sure, many who say they can't afford not to work could in fact make that choice if they were prepared to downsize. But a mother isn't a bad person because she wants to work.
I would like to make one request of working mothers: Please deal with the guilt thing, whether it's real or affected.
Sometimes it really is guilt. As one working mother said: "My body was in the office, but my mind and soul were always with my kids, always colonized with guilt."
But, sometimes it's just women "spinning" their feelings for fear of being seen as bad mothers. They really do love their work. And if it comes with long hours and travel, so be it.
If what you're feeling is really guilt -- the failure of personally held moral standards -- do something about it. But if it's just a verbal hiccup that makes you feel better or allows you to fit into your group of fellow working mothers boasting about how guilty they feel, get over it.
I worked part-time in the early years. I needed time for mothering but also time for work. When I reflect back on when my son was younger, I am flooded with delicious memories, many related to him but many also related to work accomplishments.
If you are trying to make work/life decisions, think about the memories you want to have 10 years from now. And the opportunity costs associated with them.
There are no universal truths other than that we love our kids and want what's best for them and for us. An unhappy, resentful mother is not a formula for good parenting.
And there is no perfect decision -- just one that is better for you given your needs, your kids' temperaments and your financial situation.