Initially, I wanted to give a microphone to working moms with this article; to create a tangible example that gave words to the idea that, despite what some small-minded people might say, being a so-called "working mom" is, in fact, a positive thing for innumerable families. So I asked more than a few groups of moms, "Why does working make you a better parent?" One of the first people to answer was my brilliant friend Rachel, who summed up something I'd thought a million times with the following question:
"Has a father ever once been asked to justify why working outside the home is the best decision for his family or if doing so makes him a better parent? No. People, and society in general, who keep suggesting in one way or another that all of my decisions need to be about my kids above, and potentially to the detriment, of all else can suck it."
No lies detected, Rachel.
Of course, being the fine, upstanding, feminist killjoy I am, I'd intended from the get-go to discuss the fact that while we hear "working mom" all the time (we're our own marketing demographic!) you never hear "working dad." Men, it seems, are allowed to make decisions about their lives without having to hyphenate their existence. And yet the way Rachel put it got me thinking: does this very question contribute to a narrative that suggests women have to justify their careers through the lens of motherhood? That we're mothers first and, frankly, people second?
But then I thought about it from the other side — while everything my friend said is true, I think it's also true that fathers, generally speaking, have not been asked to engage in their parenthood as fully or richly as mothers. So asking them to balance work (which is a system that has been built around them) and parenting (the very little we've asked of them), frankly, isn't all that challenging: the parenting bar has just been set that low.
Moms who have entered the workforce, on the other hand, are unfairly told that they must conduct their professional lives as though they have no family responsibilities (the way we've encouraged men to behave since... forever) and their family lives as though they have no professional responsibilities. They are afforded no more hours in a day, no more time off to attend to their families, and are, on top of it all, generally paid less than their male counterparts.
A solution, as I see it, is not to stop thinking about how one's profession informs one's parenthood and vice versa, but to insist that fathers do the same (and, dare I dream, to restructure corporate America in a way that would accommodate such a thing). Because, the truth of the matter is, the different spheres of our lives all influence one another. Here's how some women who have been there see it:
"I was laid off a year ago and always thought I wanted to be a stay-at-home mom. Being home was great at first, but I quickly realized that I needed additional stimulation. My brain goes a million miles a minute and my kids are like the human version of a sloth. I work in corporate retail — a fast-paced, demanding environment. I feel like a dog that goes to the dog park (aka work) and gets all of that nervous energy out, and then goes home to relax. I have so much more patience, I enjoy every bit of time with them instead of desperately wanting a break, and they get to have friends at daycare that they tell me all about. I am so much calmer with them having gotten my mental exercise throughout the day."
"In my experience, I appreciate my family time so much more because I have less of it. Simple as that. My husband and I have always been equal partners in raising our daughter simply because it was the only way we could make this work, so whenever we hit a challenge there's no resentment. Its simply "how we do solve this issue?"
Additionally, I honestly don't know what it feels like to need a break from being around my kid — not because she's an angel or anything, but because I don't get endless amounts of time with her. So I've built up a "patience bank" and am more forgiving of her difficult stages because I'm not with her 24/7. Also, my daughter is such an easygoing, chill, flexible kid because of her wonderful daycare and preschool communities. She easily allows herself to grow close to people who aren't her family, and she's gained a diverse group of playmates, some of whom have parents who I've grown close to over the years. And both of us working lets us travel, buy memberships to museums, zoos, and a family health club to give her experiences we never would be able to if I was home and we had to scrimp simply to stay afloat. Being a dual-income household has been awesome for our whole family."
"Because I need to feed my soul and to be a separate person in order to give more of myself when I am then back home. I often do both at the same time being a small business owner, and I'm stretched thin, but I do love the chaos. I love the role model I've created for [my daughter]. When I've stayed home briefly I find I topple toward depression and feeling like I'm not good enough and when I work I find it easier to accept limits. My brain is a funny place."
"I work [for several reasons]: student loans; I would go nuts with my kids all day; and I am overpaid and make more, so it would really hurt financially for me to stay home. But I hope my kids are proud of me and the example I set in that I can both work and provide a service that helps people, and (as a work-at-home mom) not really miss any of their big moments, school programs, field trips, sports things, etc. Combining the need to work but the flexibility to be there as much as I am, makes me feel like I am not taking that much away from them."
"It allows us a little, tiny bit of financial flexibility to experience things with our children that we otherwise would not."
"I have a break from my kids. I am challenged in a lot of ways at work that make me a good thinker and problem solver. I have found lots of friends who have enhanced our lives through my work. I firmly believe that my kids are independent because of their time at day care."
"As an introvert, it forces me to have adult interaction, and I’m grateful for that. It also allows me to feel like I'm a person and not only a mom. It actually felt like self care when I went back because I was independent from my children. I also love my job and that made it easier."
"I chose to work because I enjoy the change in pace and scenery, I enjoy what I do for work and the interactions I have throughout my day. It’s also a nice break from all that I can’t accomplish when I’m home with the kids. I do wish I could have more time with the kids, but my job has been accommodating when I need it most. It seems now the time away from the kids is because we are at the age where activities after school kill our week."
"I work because it’s necessary for life. I would love to be a stay-at-home mom but I have to work to pay the bills. So I guess it makes me a better parent because I can feed, clothe, and have a roof over my kids head."
"I work 100 percent by choice. I think it's incredibly important to all of my children to show them that women are strong and capable and can be anything they want to be. I'm setting the example I want my sons to respect and my daughter to be."
"I am the main breadwinner in our family but I choose to work because I feel empowered, challenged, and appreciated for my skills and accomplishments in the workforce. My achievements fuel me with self confidence and pride and I like that my boys will see that side of me as they grow up. My older son is special needs, and I see my role as mama bear advocate better suited to my skill set than daily caregiver. Working full time provides me with the opportunity and resources to best advocate on his behalf."
"Working outside the home — meaning my kids get to go to “school” — is beneficial for both sides. I get to be fulfilled at work and contribute to the family income, because without my income we wouldn’t be able to live like we do. It makes me feel like I am not just a mom, too. My kids are also WAY more stimulated for the eight to 10 hours they are at “school” than I could ever do day in day out because I’m personally not equipped. Do I miss my kids when I’m at work? Yes! But the fact I get to miss them makes me enjoy them more!"
"I love working outside the home. I have way more patience for my daughter than I would have being tested by her all day long. Aside from ACTIVITIES she wants to do starting at 5:45 a.m."
"I work both for financial reasons and by choice. I love what I do, I love being challenged and 'using my brain' and skills. I work in healthcare, and truly believe what I do helps people and all of these things make me a better person and a better mom to my kids."
"The field I have chosen is one that sets a good example for my son, and he loves coming to visit and because of it. His 4-year-old little spirit is completely comfortable around the sick, frail, and elderly and a lot of adults I know still can’t handle that. I’m teaching him how to care about others."
"I am a hard worker and hope to instill this value [in my kids] ... Because I work so much, the time we have together is quality time: no cleaning or errands in the weekends. We try to do fun things after work, too. What I don't love is that I feel like I still do the majority of the housework, cooking, bath, and bedtime, and even though I work the same hours as [my husband] or more some weeks."
"I work because I'd go crazy staying with my kids every single day. I'm just not built that way. I like the separation so that you value the time together. I also think it is healthy for them to build some independence. My overly cautious son takes risks and does things with peers that he never would have done if I was there."