Why is that the truth of my work as a mother always feels like it disparages the work of another mother?
Ever since I began staying with my kids full-time, I started calling myself a full-time mother. I used “full-time mother” to describe what I do, because it puts the work I’m doing in the positive. To me, “Stay at Home Mother,” describes what I’m doing by what I’m not doing, which is presumably, going anywhere. But, when I used the term in a previous piece, a friend pointed out to me that “full-time mother” implies that working mothers are “part-time mothers.”
I can easily see how this implication that one is a “part-time mother” feels wrong, even if there is some truth in the practical reality of it. During the hours a mother leaves her children with someone else, she is not with them full-time. But being a mother encompasses more than physical presence. As often as I tell my children that I have “clocked out” (when I put them to bed and they continue asking for things), there is no card to swipe to step out of the work of mothering. Mothers continue the work of caring—in the form of thinking about, planning for, worrying about, loving, missing— in their minds and hearts throughout the day even when not physically with a child. And mothers who pump milk at work are physically present for their baby even if they are not connected skin to skin. Of course, then, mothers with paid occupations, in working for the food to go on the table, the roof overhead, and the health insurance card in the wallet, are always working to fill the needs of children. So, to say that a mother is not “mothering” while at work would be a gross misunderstanding of what the work of mothering contains.
And yet. Why is it that I— as a mother who am with my children in my physical person all day every day, as in I was with them yesterday, non-stop, with one of them making contact with my body probably 70% of the time, from 7am when I woke up until 8pm when my husband came home, and I went to sit in the driveway and drink a beer by myself for ten minutes—why is it that I can’t describe that work as being with my children full-time? In other words, why is that the truth of my work as a mother always feels like it disparages the work of another mother, when we’re both working to the point of exhaustion, when we’ve both made our decisions from the core of our being towards the best we can do for our families and ourselves?
On the flip side, the term “working mother” has the same effect. By defining women who work outside the home, for a paycheck, as working mothers, mothers who work, unpaid, with their children and within the home and the community are left in the negative space of the implied ‘not-working’ category. Even though women who are employed to care for “working mothers’” children are ‘working.’ Of course most people who have spent time caring for children and a home (and the community it’s connected to) understand that it constitutes work. Different work from that of teaching, or performing surgery, or fighting fires, no doubt, but work nonetheless. The point I’m making is not about what people understand about what we do, but about the terms we have for that work and what those terms reveal.
Women’s choices and the descriptions of those choices are pitted against each other, working against each other in their very terminology. In the same way, my desires are pitted against each other: my desire to teach in a classroom works in opposition to my desire to be with my daughters in the woods in the rain, watching a worm inch his way through a puddle.
Is there a term I can use to describe what I do that does not describe me by where I don’t go? Is there a name I can use that doesn’t exclude another woman’s choices?
The tension about these names likely connects to the way that women’s lives and choices are perceived and pressured more broadly by the culture. In being raised to believe that we can do all things, we are made to feel guilty if we do not, in fact, do all things. The dissatisfaction I feel at the term “stay at home mom,” and, likewise, the way I feel excluded by “working mother” belies inner insecurity, a pull away from where I am and toward a path that would have more notoriety, a paycheck even. On the other hand, from my experience, during the time I spent in an office with a machine attached to me rather than my infant, I felt an inner disintegration so profound I thought I would splinter apart.
Perhaps finding the right name for my work is like earning a coveted job title—it’s a life’s work. Perhaps when I find the right title for myself, I will have arrived at my true vocation, the work which all my life thus far has prepared me for.
Mothers of the world: let’s not jump to exclude each other or to feel excluded by the names we use to describe our work. We don’t have appropriate names. Let us each describe with honesty and transparency the work we do, and let us listen to each other and see within the names the struggles and the multitude of capacities contained within that work, as well as the pain involved in setting aside some work in order to attend fully to the work at hand. Let us assume that each woman has made her choices to care most fully for her loved ones and for her dear self. And when you find your title, let me know. I’m leaning toward ‘worm-watcher,’ for now.
Text © Copyright Elisabeth Hedrick-Moser
Image: Giacomo Ceruti – Women Working on Pillow Lace, Public Domain