Saturday, March 12, 2011

Am I a full-time mom?

Yesterday I read this blog post, in which The Feminist Breeder objects to the term "full-time mom." Her point is that "full-time mom," when used to refer to a stay-at-home mom, suggests that working moms are "part-time moms." Obviously, if you're a mother, you're a mother all the time. You don't leave the mother part of yourself at home, and if your kids need you while you're at work, you have to leave work and go take care of your kids. Not to mention that your income goes to support your family. We don't call working dads "part-time dads" -- I think people more readily acknowledge that dads are doing part of their job as a father when they're at the workplace than they do for mothers. But if a mother needs to work to feed her family, working is mothering. It's caring for her family.

And I agree with all that. Definitely, if people find the term offensive, I won't use it.

But still. The discussion on the post annoyed me.

First off, what am I supposed to call myself, then? Stay-at-home mom is the average term, which is okay I guess, but I don't care for it. I don't stay home all day. I stay with my son all day, and we go places. Homemaker and housewife and "domestic engineer" are all worse. Because I don't stay home to take care of the house, I stay home to take care of my child. I wouldn't stay home just for the house -- when I was working full-time, I still had to take care of the housework. And I don't think the fact that my husband earns money for his job and I don't earn money for mine automatically exempts him from the housework and makes it my job. We both work on housework whenever we have time after we're done with our other jobs.

If someone asks what my occupation is, my occupation is mothering and I do it full-time. If someone asks what my state in life is, it's mother, wife, etc. with no addenda. Because you can't be in a state in life, or in a relationship to another person, part-time.

The whole debate between stay-at-home mothers and mothers who work outside the home is called "the mommy wars." It's fueled a lot by news articles and such, but I do think it's a real conflict. Mothers want so badly to believe they are making the right choices for their family, and they feel very threatened when people imply they aren't. So when someone says that a working mom isn't a "full-time mom," she gets upset, and conversely, when someone says a full-time mom isn't a "working mom," she rightly might argue, "I work just as much as the next mom, I just don't get paid!"

The general answer to the "mommy wars" that the blogosphere has come up with is, "We're all good moms. We're all making the best choice for our family. No one's choice is any better than anyone else's."

On the one hand, yes, mothers make the best choice for their family, or at least they try. If it's a choice between staying home and food on the table, what mother would insist on staying home? Mothers who work, believe that they are doing what is right for their families. Mothers who stay home, do it for their families. Most mothers are pretty darn selfless and wouldn't do what they do if they thought it was hurting their families.

On the other hand, is it necessarily true that no choice is objectively better than the other choices? Surely someone's got to be right -- either children flourish best with non-parent caregivers around, or they flourish best in the near-exclusive care of their parents. (I'm speaking mainly of children too young for school; at school age there's a separate question of homeschooling vs. outside school, which goes beyond the question of whether mom is at home or not.)

I've made no secret of my opinion that children need their parents around if they can get them. Children form very strong attachments to their caregivers, and having that caregiver be a parent or close relative means that those bonds won't be damaged or severed when the parents switch daycares or the nanny quits. Love is something that is given so much more easily by family than by paid labor, but it's something that kids need -- and not just outside of work hours. It's not like a two-year-old can save his crisis to talk to Mom about after work -- either she's there when he needs her, or he will have to be comforted by someone else.

Sometimes having at least one parent around at all times just isn't an option. And that's okay -- the parents will have to pick trusted caregivers and try to cram all the love and attention they can into the hours they have with their child. But it still makes me sad, reading about moms who drive like the wind to get home with their baby by six, play with him for an hour or two, and then put him to bed. I can't imagine this can be what any mom wants. Worse still is the situation of, say, military moms who are deployed far away from their children for months. A very young child might not even remember his mom. It breaks my heart.

Back to the blog post, and the mini-mommy-war in the comments. Someone said, "It bothers me when employed mamas treat SAHMs like they do everything we do and more." I agreed with that statement -- and got blasted for it by the blog author. The argument that working moms are full-time moms too ends up arguing something along the lines of, "Well, I am a full-time mom too, PLUS I work for eight hours a day." Does that mean that mother has 32 hours in a day? Perhaps her 24 hours are more packed with activity, like packing lunches, running errands, cleaning the house, and so forth. But she can't give her kids more than 24 hours of her time. And from the kids' perspective, they're only getting 16 hours a day with their mom, a big chunk of which is spent sleeping. With all that lunch-packing and errand-running, they don't get a lot of time to just play, snuggle, and connect with their kids.

That's sad and I know most working moms would love to get more playing, snuggling, learning, and connecting time with their kids. But they just don't do as much of it as stay-at-home moms do! Is that so offensive to mention? Eight hours (or so) of the work that stay-at-home moms do, mainly the childcare part, is outsourced. Working moms are getting help for it.

I'm not saying they have it easier. Sure, it must be nice to get a shower every day and to be able to take a bathroom break. Some moms go back to work simply for the opportunity to dress up nice, get out of the house, and get adult company for eight hours. Work seems way easier when you've tried being a mom! But almost all working moms end up with most of the at-home burden when they walk in their front door too. They have eight hours of paid work and sixteen hours of unpaid work that they're doing. Whereas a stay-at-home mom has 24 hours of unpaid work. The working mom's 24 hours might be more or less difficult or pleasant than the at-home mom's 24, depending on the number of kids, the type of job, and how much help she's getting from others. But I don't think you can generalize and say, "ALL working moms have it harder and do more than ALL stay-at-home moms."

I don't think the mommy wars are ever going to go away, as long as stay-at-home moms say, "You're not caring for your kids as well as I am," and the working moms say, "Yes I am, PLUS more." But how can women stop saying these things when they made the choices they did for a reason? Why would women stay home unless they thought it was better? And why would women work outside the home unless they thought it was just as good? Even when they didn't actually have a choice, they still prefer to believe what they're doing is as good for their kids as what someone else is doing for hers.

So what do I do when people ask if I stay home with the baby or work? I generally answer, "I stay with him full-time, but I also work for an hour a day." That causes some furrowed brows, since most people aren't accustomed to jobs where babies are welcome. I think it puts me in a rather privileged position of being BOTH a stay-at-home mom and a work-outside-the-home mom, and I've never been judged or sidelined for my choices. But just because I am responsible for childcare 24 hours a day and working one hour a day doesn't mean I am working 25 hours a day. My thought when accepting the job was, "Well, I have to take care of the baby anyway, I may as well teach at the same time." Is it harder than taking care of him at home? Sometimes, and in some ways, but not in others. Finding time for grading is the hardest, because I don't have childcare. But I fit it in around baby time, like I fit in everything else.

Maybe it would help if people didn't assume that others' self-descriptions were about them. Me saying I'm a full-time mom doesn't mean you're a part-time mom -- I just describe myself that way because I'm doing specifically mom stuff during the 40 hours a week that would otherwise be used for a full-time job. You calling yourself a working mom doesn't mean I don't work -- you just have a job outside the home that you call "work." What does it hurt me what you call yourself? It has nothing to do with me. I'm fine with the person who has the job deciding what she calls it.

So, sure, since people find the term "full-time mother" offensive, I will have to think of something else. Unfortunately, everything I can think of that affirms and defends my choices will probably also offend someone. If I say, "I stay at home because I think my baby needs me with him," doesn't that mean that a working mom isn't fulfilling all of her kids' needs? Or if I say, "Nothing is more important to me than spending time with my son," doesn't it suggest that someone else has the wrong priorities? Perhaps I should just hang my head and mumble, "I stay home all day," and if people criticize me, judge me, or say I'm "less than" or "lazier than" other moms, I should just keep my mouth shut. When someone says "What do you do all day?" I should answer that I sit around doing nothing during those 40 hours a week when others work ... because, clearly, if they're doing all the mothering I'm doing plus 40 hours a week of work, than I must be wasting some time, somewhere. Playing stacking cups with my son just doesn't rank as useful work to some people -- if I suggest it is really vitally important, and that it's the kind of work that can't be outsourced, won't I make someone else feel bad?

I'm not really sure what to do about that. I truly don't judge others choices. I was a nanny, you know, and every working mom I worked for longed to be with her kids more. What they wanted was not more pats on the back for "having it all," but more support so that they could have actually had what they wanted. I was so impressed by this women, and yet I knew that I, as the nanny, could never take their place.

I try not to make other mothers feel bad, either. But there is a point where I think it's okay to be proud of what I do as well. I think I can say, "Kudos to you for fitting in all that you do. You must be really busy," and yet also say, "I don't think I could be doing any work better than the work I do all day." I'm not talking about you, I'm talking about me.

This has been a long ramble, and I'm not sure I've made sense. I would love some input here, especially from working moms, if there are any reading!


Tiffany said...

Hi Shelia!

I've been thinking about posting on this very issue, so I read your entry with much interest. :) I am a mother that works full-time outside the home, so I too have been exposed to many, many opinions on this. We are all sensitive to our choices, certainly, so it's a touchy subject. But I think you did a great job of covering everything fairly.

I can really appreciate your perspective on this. Several of my friends stay at home and do not work *outside* the home (because, of course, they work very, very hard *inside* the home)and they are often faced with this conversation-stopping inquiry into "what they do for a living." And I often see them unfairly labeled as "wasting their education" and generally not doing very much since "they don't work." Very frustrating. For what it's worth, I completely agree with you that WOHM do not "do everything a SAHM does plus more." We all work hard to do what is best for our kids, but I agree with you that that statement simply isn't true.

And from the other perspective, I am a mother who gets hurt by comments to the effect that "someone else is raising my child" or that "mothers are selfish who put their children in daycare." Which is not at all what you were saying, and what the original piece was trying to rebuke as well.

There is really no easy answer on this one. Each side is going to still sometimes feel stigmatized. I don't find "full time mother" offensive at all. I don't think that that means I'm only a part time mother. But I guess I can see how some mothers wouldn't like it. I mean, if I had to describe it, you're staying home full time right now to care for and educate your child. Hum. Thought-provoking. If I come up with a better answer, I'll let you know. :)

Sheila said...

Thanks for your comment, Tiffany! I am so glad that I didn't come across as insensitive or offensive to working moms. Of course I think my way is best -- that's why I chose it -- but so many different set-ups can work for different families. It's all a matter of what is necessary and what works. If your situation is working for you, it's no one else's place to criticize!

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