Thursday, April 14, 2011

Calling All Moms 'Working Mothers' Devalues the Contributions of SAHMs

Oh man, it is time for the BabbyMama to get controversial. Note: I am totally up for a good conversation about this topic, but not for a flame-fest. And do keep in mind that this is largely an issue of semantics (and I'm one of those pesky people who believe that language can, to some extent, shape thought). 

Erin of Whole Soul Mumma recently shared a post on the Mothering community blog about the nicest, most polite way to differentiate between "mothers who stay home with children and do not earn income," "mothers who stay home with children and do earn income through paid employment," and "mothers who are employed outside of the home either full time or part time as a means of earning income." 

Why is this an issue, you may ask? 

You have to admit, having to say all that every time you're talking about a specific mom or some issue affecting moms would get old fast. And the lines between *deep breath* mothers who stay home with children and do not earn income and *deep breath* mothers who stay home with children and do earn income through paid employment and *deep breath* mothers who are employed outside of the home either full time or part time as a means of earning income are definitely more blurry than they used to be.

Until recently, you had your working moms and your SAHMs and that was an easy shorthand for figuring out who you could approach for finding playdates and who was only available on weekends. Then everyone started embracing micro-categorization. And some people started to feel hurt because the effort most mamas put into motherhood is not acknowledged often enough (especially among the SAHMs). So the concept of 'motherhood as work' and career motherhood and 'all moms are working moms' was born.

And I have to say, frankly, that all those terms make me cringe.

I'm sure I just made some people angry, but please hear me out. Because I think you'll be surprised at why I don't like lumping every mom under the umbrella of 'working mother'.

Work Means Some Very Specific Things, At Least In the U.S.

Google 'work sucks' and you get almost 7 million results. There are 3 BILLION results for 'I don't want to work'. 20 million for 'I hate my job'. So is it so surprising that I simply cannot fathom why everyone is suddenly so gung-ho to equate the effort of taking care of a house and a family with something that most people spend inordinate amounts of time complaining about and wishing the didn't have to do ever again. Namely, work.

Things We Do for Love vs. Things We Do For Money

Almost all the things I really love to do take effort. I make mistakes. I have to take the time to educate myself. And they aren't always fun. That includes: sewing, painting, exercise, taking care of five cats, home decor, pottery, and even being a wife and a mom. Heck, those last two things take tons of effort and patience and focus.

Just like my job.

But that doesn't make them work - or if it does, then every hobby, every pursuit we enjoy that goes beyond vegging in front of the T.V. has to be called a job, too. When I sew, is that work? When I try my darndest to throw a tall pot and fail, is that work just because it wasn't easy? How about keeping my marriage alive? Is that work with a capital W? I'd argue that no, it isn't.

Taking care of my family is something I do because I love them. And activities like pottery and sewing and growing food in my wee garden are things I do out of love for myself. Can I honestly call that work when it brings me so much joy? And why would I want to lump those things in with a word that carries so much negative baggage?

Frame Motherhood As Work, and Guess What It Becomes?

What I mean by that is that the negative baggage that is associated with paid employment frequently finds itself way into motherhood as soon as this topic comes up.

How many times have I read an article about this very topic that could be summed up thusly: "Of course I work! I launder diapers and run errands and clean and have to deal with a fussy baby and I never get any time to myself, etc."

Well, huh. As much as I hate that we're all now supposed to be working mothers, a lot of people have sure done a great job framing being a mom as a pretty crappy sounding endeavor!

(Which of course again isn't to say that work can't be immensely gratifying or that parenting can't sometimes feel like the least rewarding activity ever, but IMO there is a deeper and more profound kind of fulfillment that comes from being a mom, even when it's chores chores chores, that so utterly transcends even the most gratifying of jobs. It's primal, baby.)

Calling Motherhood Work Is Playing Into the Hands of People Who Devalue It Already

I may be way off base here, but I see the trend of wanting to add the 'working' label to all mamas is a response to society's stupid obsession with earning money. So when Person A steps in and says "What you do isn't work, you don't get paid," Person B responds "Don't work? You bet I work! This work is hard, too!" And then Person A says something like "Oh," but is really thinking 'Aw, isn't that cute - Person B wants to be included!'
Now I firmly believe that society should value all the great things moms and dads do! Is calling parenthood work going to make that happen? I don't think so, no.

Honestly, if someone doesn't value what another person does, they're sure as heck not going to start placing value on that thing when its framed in the context of the very thing that they think is better.

It makes much more sense in my mind to frame being a SAHM as something awesome in its own right, not as just another responsibility, another thing we *sigh* have to do. Because that's what I think the world hears when they hear mamas calling motherhood such. hard. work. Such thankless work! They hear "I'd rather be doing something else" and "This is so boring" and "Why me?"

Sure, Being a Mom Is Hard, But Is It "Work"?

I absolutely 100% think the contributions SAHMs - and WAHM moms and working moms and dads - make to their households and to the community around them should be acknowledged and honored. But I also believe that to label what people do for their families and for themselves and for their neighbors "work" devalues and even dishonors those contributions in a BIG way.

Does doing things for one's family, one's children, one's home, and one's self take effort - sometimes super-human amounts? Yes! Are there days where maybe being a mom isn't exactly a barrel full of laughs? Sure. Is it nonetheless hugely rewarding and fulfilling in a way that making money never is for most people?

Yes yes yes!

So why, exactly, does everyone suddenly want to start calling motherhood work? Honestly, as a mother - one who's been a SAHM, a WAHM, and a working mom - I find it insulting. Yes, I work - for eight hours a day, when I'm in the office (er, and also on weekends and some evenings). 

Please please please don't call what I do the rest of the time, whether it's cuddling with the Babby or going to the park or, yes, scooping toddler turds out of a cloth diaper and folding the freakin' laundry - work. 

P.S. - MY disclaimer: As I actually just now wrote to Erin, it's not at all that I want to put down work - before I got paid to work, once upon a time, I was doing my work as a hobby, which I guess makes it a calling? It's more like I love just being with the Babby a zillion billion times more than I ever loved any work I've ever done, so to me, applying the label 'work' to caring for and loving the Babby is like saying "Eating dessert is such hard work!" My brain just can't wrap itself around the idea. YMMV.

P.P.S. - I'm open to suggestions for an alternate word for all the great and important stuff moms and dads do! Feel free to add suggestions in the comments. 

P.P.P.S - I also want to say thanks to Erin because our short Facebook dialog really helped me better understand my feelings on the subject! 


  1. I agree with you, absolutely. And yet I want to work again SO MUCH (just not in my chosen profession) and because staying home with P is very hard for me. I envy you for your flex schedule and your getting out of the house. I miss the days when every moment with P counted because it wasn't 24/7. (And when someone else was getting her worst tantrums!)

    But, that said: I don't want anyone to call raising P "work" because it is something meta to work and money - it's part of what makes me human, to be a mother to this child. It's not like you can divorce it from the rest of your personhood, once you're a mom.

    I hate that there is no easy way for me to do both.

    (Also, at least for my work, I use a completely different part of my brain than I do when I'm hanging with P. The patience I acquired in becoming a lawyer, though: I use that a lot with her.)

  2. "it's part of what makes me human, to be a mother to this child. It's not like you can divorce it from the rest of your personhood, once you're a mom."

    Awesome sentiment. Sums it up so perfectly.

  3. I'm not sure where I fall on this. Is school considered work? My actual job is easier than being home with the kids on most days, although it's really a draw sometimes.

    I think it is some form of work, though. If you especially consider that you would have to pay other people to do the same thing you're doing for free. But when I was staying home, I wouldn't have considered that being a "working mom" even if I did a lot of work. Does that make any sense whatsoever? Probably not.

  4. I see there being a big difference between what our daycare provider does when she's with the Babby and what I do when I'm with the Babby - not necessarily in the specifics, but in terms of the feelings that are there. For her, it is work - a service provided for some form of practical return. It's not that for me.

    I'm not making much more sense here... I guess it's the difference between "effort" and "work"?

  5. I agree with you. Totally.

    However, I have to point out that maybe calling it "work" came about as simply as the reason we say SAHM-- both are simplifications. It might have come about like this:

    "I had a really hard day at work," husband sits down on the couch.

    Wife scrubs pee out of carpet, "oh yeah?" Rolls eyes, "Me too!"

    I really don't know what else to call it when I'm summing it up :) But I think it would be good to find a better way to say it. Calling it work feels the same to me as when someone says, "oh, you really have your hands full" at the grocery store. That makes me feel like the person thinks I'm an idiot. Seriously, it's not that bad, I love being a mom... saying I have my hands full is another way to devalue it.

  6. This is some juicy stuff you wrote it should be published somewhere because you captured so articulately the arguments of the mom categories. As for me, being a SAHM is the hardest "job" I ever had....rewarding and challenging. I loved the paid-for-work I was doing before. I love being a mommy more, but I do miss my career

  7. Hmm...still pondering your thoughts on not calling mothering work. I see your point. Perhaps we just need some new words or a more meaningful language (like Greek which has at least 4 words for love, depending on meaning). At the core though you are right, the way society defines work, getting to stay home and care for my family is not work....

  8. I completely agree....I think it's Mom's who don't work anymore because they have kids thinking they need to make themselves feel valued and have been the ones who have labeled themselves these names don't you?

  9. It is astonishing how volatile this topic can be. But your words here were gentle and thought-provoking. Any titles or labels are attached to people there is potential for sparks! But it's so healthy for each of us on our own to define our identities. For me, I'm a haven-maker. And it is work, but it's a beautiful and essential job!

    Enjoy your SITS day! :)

  10. I think I agree with Laura. It might help to have another word for the "work" or "state of being a mother at home full-time".

    I'm new to this termanology. As a newlywed and not a mother yet, I'm really looking forward to being a SAHM who will hopefully be able to earn some money party-time. Would you call that a WAHM?

  11. I feel like standing up and cheering.

    Here's my thing. I work outside the home. I deal with corporate drama and bosses, and deadlines. I mean, I love it, but it is what it is (work.) When I get home I start my second "Job" and that's a mother. But I don't get paid. But it's way more rewarding to me than anything my job will ever be.

    I have to be honest here...soemtimes as a working mother I feel like I'm "competing" with SAHM for who works harder. Who cares? We all work hard and do what we have to do to provide for our families. The end.

    Visiting from SITS :)

  12. I think this is awesome. I agree completely that the word "work" with all its negative baggage is maybe not the best word to describe the actions we do when we take care of our family (no matter how many hours we do it in the day).

    Having said that, I'm really coming up empty with other words to use. It's as if we don't have a word in the English language that equates to effort we put into the things we do for our families.

    And I do see the need to help some people understand that being a SAHP (parent instead of mom since we've got dads out there doing this too) or even a part-time SAHP doesn't mean the parent is getting to sit on the couch and eat bon-bons all day. I'm not sure why this fallacy exists, but it is out there.

    Then again, why do we care what other people think or label us?

    In the end, if we are getting fulfillment out of whatever we're doing, in whatever way we're doing it, that should be enough validation, surely. We could all use a confidence boost so that we aren't so insecure in the face of others' labels.

  13. I'm not sure how I feel about this. Sometimes my efforts as a mom are joyful and bring satisfaction. Sometimes they are just plain work. Like washing peepee clothes yet again. I don't do it because I love him. I do it because he needs clean clothes and there's no one else to do it.

  14. I loved this post - I have 3 kids - 20, 15 and 3 - and in all these years the SAHM vs. WAHM vs. "working mom" debate has really not changed at all since I parented the first time around. I really liked your honest take on this - visiting from SITS and want to let you know you have a new fan!

  15. I believe I started to comment and must have lost it before it went through. Really enjoyed your thoughts on this... challenges the popular notion in our culture and probably most of the thinking on the issue. You're right though, it truly is a matter of semantics. I agree with the person who said we probably need a "better", more rich language, with different types of meanings for one word to apply to this discussion... I think it would solve the "problem"!

    Hope you had a wonderful SITS day.

  16. And ... I did not realize I was commenting as The Chef....! That should be The Lucky Wife (via The Chef)....!

  17. I enjoyed reading your post and the comments. Such an interesting topic and I think you make an excellent point.

    For me motherhood is not "work." Though I have a hard time not compartmentalizing. I definitely put household chores in the work category. I don't do them lovingly. Though I did used to have jobs outside the home that I loved and probably wouldn't have considered to be work.

    You have me thinking. I will ponder.

  18. Thank you for putting into words so many of the thoughts and feelings I've had for a long time.
    P.S. If you want to join the fun, submit a cute or funny photo to my website, encourage your friends to vote, and watch the results to see how many viewers vote for your photo. NO entry fee.

  19. Really interesting post! I agree with you that buying into the whole work/not work framework (yikes, work really is everywhere!) is probably not going to help further the quality of the conversation. I agree it's about valuing everyone's contributions. I have started to feel some of the deep cultural (and perhaps it's just my specific culture, not the U.S. culture as a whole) value on making money, as I am now almost exactly part time working and part time with my son.

    While we're at it, why "stay at home" parent? How often do any of us who stay home, even a few days a week, actually stay in the house? Again, it's constructed in opposition to the concept of going to work. Which to make it more fun, in today's world is just one version of going to work, considering how many people work from home now.

    I have no answers, but what all of this tells me is we are working with some pretty out-dated language to describe some out-dated ideas, and I appreciate your effort to move us all forward!

  20. Hi Christa, what an interesting post! I just wish that all mothers were able to make their own choices based on their individual dynamics and that things like social status didn't come into it.


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