Mothering, like all parenting, is work. If anyone was unaware of this fact before the pandemic, 18 months of watching moms nearly drown under the weight of the effort has driven the point home.
This cultural reckoning is just one of the reasons that now is the perfect moment to drop the term “working mother” from our lexicon. It’s not only a redundancy, but the stamp of “working” or “staying at home” are binaries that don’t fit today’s economic and cultural moment.
Until 2020, both of us fully embraced the term “working mother” as a way to distinguish the ambitions, interests, and identities of mothers in the paid labor force as separate from the act of parenting. Both of us work for pay and understand that our society does virtually nothing to support the realities of managing employment and the caregiving required to have children in America. The irony of the last 18 months is that it took a global pandemic to make the two of us aware that we had subscribed to a narrative that damages all women.
The idea of women who did not work is actually a contemporary one. “Throughout history, women were not seen as economic dependents,” says Stephanie Coontz, the director of research and public education at the Council on Contemporary Families. “Getting married and starting a household was like starting a business in which the ‘housewife’ was a productive partner and co-provider for her family. It wasn’t until the mid-19th century that the adjective ‘working’ was applied to some mothers, with the implication that the only work that counts is done outside the home and for wages.”
The first mentions of the term working mother did appear in the mid-19th century, but the idea as we understand it now did not come into vogue until the 1970s and 1980s, when many college-educated white women returned to the workforce soon after giving birth to their children. Despite the fact that women from lower income families often had no choice but to earn an income, the media scrambled to cover the “trend” as a departure from the relatively new, post-WW2 ideal that a mother’s place was at home, and that real “work” was done by male breadwinners.
We now realize that our feelings of superiority came from buying into a sexist narrative. Paid employment isn’t the only kind of valuable work and it does not make someone a different category of mother.
The new discussion of “working mothers” for the most part centered on the needs and experiences of a growing number of white, middle class women with professional ambitions, making this demographic the default “working mom.” This largely excluded immigrant mothers, mothers of color, and mothers from lower economic classes who’d been working for pay for centuries in sweatshops, as domestic workers, and in small family businesses while raising children.
“As the press began to report that more and more mothers were employed, they didn’t know how to distinguish between the groups, so they created the division between ‘working’ mother and ‘stay-a-home’ mother,” says Coontz, the author of the upcoming book For Better and for Worse, the Problematic Past and Uncertain Future of Marriage and Gender. “Contrasting ‘stay-at-home’ mothers with ‘working’ mothers devalues both groups. The first label ignores the economic value of mothers’ caregiving and home production, while the second one undercuts the female worker because it suggests her identity needs to be modified by the fact that she is also a mother.”
The terms also allow “working mothers” like us to buy into a capitalist narrative that work must have dollars attached for it to have value. We would now like to publicly reject this. We now realize that our feelings of superiority came from buying into a sexist narrative. Paid employment isn’t the only kind of valuable work and it does not make someone a different category of mother.
There are 4.5 million fewer women in the workforce than there were at the start of 2020. Millions of mothers, faced with impossible “choices,” have been forced out of paid work, but this bleak new reality is rooted in reality that was in place long before Covid began to spread. According to a survey conducted by LinkedIn, before the pandemic, nearly 50% of mothers took an extended career break beyond parental leave at some point, and many mothers seek out freelance, part-time, and flexible work, in no small part due to rampant bias in workplaces that stalls the careers and hampers the lifetime earnings of mothers.
We can start with a default assumption that every employee has caregiving responsibilities that must be supported, rather than penalizing these realities and questioning someone’s competence and commitment because they have a life outside of work.
If the old “mommy wars” pitted working mothers against the “stay-at-home” kind, then the new mommy war should be mothers banding together against an indifferent government and the forces of capitalism that seek to economically marginalize all of us.
One solution to improving the lot for all moms who work for pay is to open the umbrella and advocate for workplaces that are more hospitable to all “employed caregivers.” We can start with a default assumption that every employee has caregiving responsibilities that must be supported, rather than penalizing these realities and questioning someone’s competence and commitment because they have a life outside of work. As workplaces start to have holistic conversations about their future policies and office culture, now is the time to really dig into the assumption that the ideal worker has no one to care for or someone else handling those “distractions” at home.
It may still be useful to have a term that captures the experience of mothers who have some kind of paid job outside of caregiving. There are still unique challenges and burdens of navigating motherhood in workplaces, like unequal pay, and job and pregnancy discrimination. But using the word working to modify mother doesn’t do any of us any favors.
What can we replace it with? Labor force moms, paycheck moms, employed moms. All of these shed some of the baggage the term “working mom” carries. Or perhaps just moms. You never hear the terms “working father,” “working daughter who’s managing eldercare,” “working uncle who spends every weekend with his nephews,” or “working sister who manages a sibling's mental health crises.” If non-moms start to be more transparent about their caregiving needs, and employers begin to work to support all “employed caregivers,” maybe we will have less need for categories that artificially divide us.