Monday, March 17, 2008

Define "Working Mom." Yes, That's Right. So Is That. That, Too

There's been a great deal of controversey over Leslie Bennetts and her new book, The Feminine Mistake. Some of it has to do with the title -- many women feel that it implies that their choice to opt out of the workforce is seen as "wrong." Some of it has to do with the book itself -- while Bennetts makes a strong and fascinating argument for working outside of the home even while one's children are small, she doesn't really address who is supposed to take care of the kids (or how women in lower income brackets are supposed to afford childcare).

Even at a website like Work It, Mom!, she wasn't exactly preaching to the choir. The whole debate made me think of my own "Working Mom" status, and how I thought it changed while I was on maternity leave -- even though I was still technically "working":

When I was on maternity leave with my now-preschooler, and again with my now-toddler, I was still writing freelance stories. The number of stories I wrote was no where near what it was when I wasn't on leave (nor near what I thought it should be, but we've already discussed the unrealistic expectations I had for my first maternity leave), but still, I was churning them out as best as I could.

I remember being frustrated by the difficulty of trying to write with an infant who refused to nap and a toddler who wanted to play and no childcare in sight. I remember wishing that our older kids could help me more as I ran downstairs to referee some argument or another, a half-written article up on the screen in my home office, my train of thought long gone by the time I had calmed the chaos enough to return to the computer. I remember fuming that my husband could go to the office to work, but I had to schedule and wrangle time to complete an assignment on deadline from home.

I remember thinking that I wasn't working because, well, I wasn't at work. I wasn't commuting anywhere on a daily basis. I had no meetings to attend. I didn't even fit into my work clothes. I was drawing a paycheck because I had cobbled together my vacation time and my sick time, not because I was at the office. So, while on leave, even though I was a mom and I was working, I didn't think of myself as a "working mom."

I couldn't have been more wrong.

What's ironic is that, at the time, my friends included a stay-at-home mom who was doing a little freelance writing here and there, an architect working from home part-time while her kids at playgroup, an older mom with grown kids starting a home-based business, a Ph.D student with a new baby working on her dissertation, a mom of two who was homeschooling her kids, and a mom who was working on her novel after her kids were in bed. And I considered all of them to be "working moms" -- even as I thought of myself as "not really working."

Why is that?

I wonder if the many moms who work from home but don't consider themselves to be working feel that way because they're comparing what they currently do to what they used to do when they "worked" (which is what I think I was doing, in my situation). Or does it have something to do with the income they generate? Or the difficulty (or lack thereof) of the activity? Or the amount of time they put into it?

All moms are working moms. I know that sounds kind of trite, and I'm not trying to be all "rah-rah go us!" about it, but really, what is work? And how can anyone possibly say that what we all do, each and every day, isn't it?

Merriam-Webster defines "work" as "1: activity in which one exerts strength or faculties to do or perform something: a: sustained physical or mental effort to overcome obstacles and achieve an objective or result b: the labor, task, or duty that is one's accustomed means of livelihood c: a specific task, duty, function, or assignment often being a part or phase of some larger activity."

Yeah, I'd say what moms do fits the bill.

As for the whole "Mommy Wars" issue and the controversy surrounding Leslie Bennetts (and Work It, Mom!'s publication of her article), all I can really say is this: In order to take part in the war, you have to buy into the theory or theories behind it and pick a side. And I don't.

Maybe it's generational -- I'm Generation X through and through, and we're lazy slackers, right? (Yeah, didn't buy that one either.) Maybe it's situational -- I've always been the breadwinner in our family, so not bringing in a significant income isn't an option for me. Maybe it's personal -- I like working and, to be completely honest, I was miserable during my maternity leaves, especially the second one, even though I adore all five of our children. Or maybe it's me wanting to have my cake and eat it, too -- I like working, but I'd like it even more if I could earn what I earn now (or more!) but on my terms, on my schedule, and without my current commute.

Whatever it is, I want to go back in time and give my on-maternity-leave self a (gentle) slap upside the head and a hug and tell her that, yes, she's definitely a "working mom" -- and, damn, that's some hard work she was doing.

How do you define "working mom"? If you don't think of yourself as "working," why not?

Weigh in on the subject here, peruse the archives at The 36-Hour Day, or check out the discussions going on at Work It, Mom!

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