Language changes and evolves with our world. Certain words and phrases become antiquated because they either no longer serve a purpose in our society or they become offensive. Most of us are careful not to offend those around us with our words, because we often demand the same courtesy. And, obviously, what’s considered offensive to some may not be offensive to others. However, there's one term that hasn’t received my attention, at least not the attention it deserves: “working mom.” Among many ways we describe women in our society, “working mom” has become a problematic term.
When I was studying Linguistics in grad school, I learned about linguistic relativity, commonly known as the Sapir–Whorf hypothesis. Sapir-Whorf claims that language influences and often determines our thoughts. Simply put, the words we use to describe people and things determine what categories we put those people and things into in our brains. This theory makes sense when we think about connotation. Many words carry either strong positive or negative connotations. There’s a reason we use different words around different groups of people. I don’t speak to my boss the way I speak to my friends, and I wouldn’t speak to my parents the way I speak to my children. We are typically careful when we speak based on the environment we are in. We are even quick to revise our own thoughts in order to change our own moods and reactions.
So why has "working mom" taken on such a life. I guess it came about as an antonym to "stay-at-home mom," which just so happens to be another term I take issue with. Since I became a mom, I've despised the term "working mom." That phrase is equivalent to the sound of a toddler whining and, honestly, serves no purpose but to annoy.
Because I'm An Individual Who Happens To Have A Job And A Kid
I speak and write often about identity. It's an interesting topic since so much of our identity is based on what other people see us as. I don't mean to say that we take on the identity others assign to us, but our identity is somewhat shaped by how people in our society view us.
So, what is up with "working mom?" I've held a job since I was 15. I was never refereed to as a "working teen," or a "working college student," or a "working young adult," or a "working wife." So why does birthing a child suddenly make me more than just an employee at my job. Being a mom doesn't affect my ability to do my job, just like being a dad doesn't affect my husband's ability to do his.
Because The Term Has A Negative Connotation In The Working World
I can practically feel the judgement when someone I work with learns I'm a parent. Prior to having kids, I've actually heard coworkers discuss how much "working moms" can "get away" with just cause they are moms.
"Ugh, she left early cause her kid got sick. I don't get to do that."
Aw, you poor, unfortunate soul. You don't get to rush home from work to take care of a sick child and then spend the night making up the work that still needs to be done because a sick child still doesn't excuse you from work responsibilities.
Women are silenced at work when it comes to talking about their children. They are afraid to bring up anything related to their children out of fear of being seen as weak or unreliable. "Working mom" carries that same agenda. The term reduces women.
Because Dads Aren't "Working Dads"
Have you ever heard anyone call a man a "working dad?" I haven't. Seems almost laughable, right? Just the fact that "working dad" makes us scrunch our faces and go "huh?" is telling of how problematic "working mom" is.
My husband is as much a "working dad" as I am a "working mom." He is also a parent. As parents we don't have many gendered differences. Well, not anymore. Obviously I was the one who carried, birthed, and breastfeed our children, but aside from that we are equal when it comes to parenting. In fact, while I spend evenings grading papers and planning lessons, he is giving our kids baths and putting them to sleep. Yet, when he meets someone for the first time, he is never asked if he works outside of the house or stays home with the kids. When his coworkers find out he has kids, they don't automatically roll their eyes and think, "pffft, working dad." They don't automatically categorize him as "unreliable" or "weak." He remains the same person, even though he is as much of a parent as I am and I am as much of an employee as he is. Hmmm.
Because Language Shouldn't Be Gendered
Women already face struggles with equality in a workplace. Some women are overlooked for promotions, are sexually harassed, or are paid less than their male counterparts just for being women. So, why are we adding a quantifier to a woman when no such quantifier exists for a man? "Working dad" isn't a thing. "Working mom" shouldn't be one either.
Because The Term Created Divisiveness Among Parents
"Stay-at-home mom," the antonym of "working mom," is just as problematic. Think of all of these unnecessary mommy wars these terms create. Is it really necessary to set women against each other at every moment of their parenthood?
"Oh, you're moms now? Let's coin some opposing terminology and give you even more reasons to feel superior and inferior."
Because Language Shapes Our Thoughts
What do you imagine when you hear the term "working mom?" I picture a woman in a cubicle. She has pictures of her kids in frames at her desk. She rushes home from work, stopping by the grocery store or the dry cleaners on her way. She may pick up one of her kids from daycare. She gets home, makes dinner, helps her kids with homework, cleans up after dinner, gets the kids to bed, kisses them goodnight, and prepares for the next day. A superhero.
I've just created an entire scenario for a woman I have never met based on a single incomplete phrase.
Right away the mom part of "working mom" bounces in the head, firing off a slew of biases and preconceived notions. People often think: unreliable, will take more time off from work, inconsistent, leaves early, maternity leave. If you say those thoughts never cross your mind when you hear the words "working mom" you're either lying to yourself or to everyone else.
Because language shapes our perception, "working mothers" are perceived differently (and negatively) than women who work and do not have kids.
Because It's Irrelevant And Rude To Add Unnecessary Modifiers To People
I don't refer to my friend as my "gay friend" when describing her to someone else. I don't call my boss as my "Jewish boss," or my hairdresser as my "black hairdresser." All of those modifiers are irrelevant. None of those words speak to the quality of my boss, my hairdresser, or my friend. Yet, if we did use quantify those people, we would right away assign prejudices. So, why is it OK to do that to women who work and happen to be mothers?
Because Women Don't Need To Be Boxed Up And Labeled
I refuse to be placed into the "working mom" box. I am so many things. I am a daughter, a sister, a wife, a friend, a colleague, a mom, and an employee. I am a teacher, a writer, a blogger, and a creator. I'm a Soviet-born immigrant, a Jew, and a middle-class, white woman. I am a person with many quantifiers and modifiers. No other part of me needs a modifier, so why the work part? Women are constantly categorized by gender specific terminology: independent woman, party girl, housewife, drama queen, guy's girl. None of these carry a true male equivalent. I mean, I've heard "house husband" used ironically, but it doesn't have roots in our society, nor should it.
So, let's stop. Let's retire "working mom" and leave it in the past with "career girl," "stewardess," and "fireman." Because women who have kids and who have jobs aren't "working moms," they are human beings who have kids and jobs, separately.