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Working mom, stay-at-home mom: A debate that belittles motherhood

Our American weirdness about the working mom vs. stay-at-home mom debate, comes as much from our strange relationship with work as it does with our ambiguous, nostalgic-but-perhaps-belittling approach to motherhood.

By Correspondent / May 9, 2012

Our American weirdness about the working mom vs. stay-at-home mom debate, comes as much from our strange relationship with work as it does with our ambiguous, nostalgic-but-perhaps-belittling approach to motherhood. Rita Cheong plays with her great-grandchild, Annika Liu, as her mother, Ingrid Ahlgren, leaves for work.

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Not long after I had Baby M, I was chatting on the phone with an older female relative. (Exact relationship to remain hidden to protect the questionably innocent.)

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“So,” she said, words dripping with that I’m-being-nice-really-I-am tone, “don’t you think it’s interesting that both you and your roommate went to Yale, and now you are both stay-at-home moms?”

Pause.

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I looked down at my sleeping little baby and thought of all the swear words she really shouldn’t hear yet.

“Um, yeah,” I managed. “Interesting. Gotta go now.”

Because "interesting" was decidedly not what I heard.  Rather, from this vanguard of 1970s women-in-the-workplace feminism, I heard “pathetic.” Maybe “disappointing.” Or perhaps “waste of all those tuition dollars.” And honestly, it stung. I knew my time with this little girl felt like the most important thing in the world, but....

As Husna Haq writes in this week’s print Monitor magazine [to be posted online Friday] , Americans are far from beyond the “touchy, judgment-passing hostilities of the so-called mommy war.” And we’re not just judgmental. We’re confused.

While Ms. Haq reported that some 70.6 percent of moms are in the workforce, a related Monitor/TIPP poll found that 46 percent of Americans believe that mother’s should be home with children unless they are the family’s sole breadwinner, and 62 percent of people believe that one parent should be home with the kids. Meanwhile, 68 percent of respondents agreed with the statement that “It’s OK for moms to work outside the home, period.”

As women – particularly white women – some of these questions and the answers are even more polarized. To the statement “mothers should be home with children unless they are the family’s sole breadwinner,” 21 percent of white women “agree strongly,” while 29 percent “disagree strongly.” 

A little conflicted, no?

But the more I read about the mommy wars, the more I wonder whether a lot of our American weirdness about this topic comes as much from our strange relationship with work as it does with our ambiguous, nostalgic-but-perhaps-belittling approach to motherhood.

Which takes me back to that oh-so-helpful postpartum conversation.

See, the thing is, at the time I was working. Just not in an office. And I don’t mean “working” as in “mothering,” although I think it’s interesting that to validate the latter we always have to equate it to the former. 

I was actually working as in doing my day-job – writing. During the first year of my baby’s life I finished and sold a book proposal, I wrote pieces for top national publications, I lectured college classes, and I brought her with me to Kenya on a reporting trip. That I did most of this in my sweatpants was not a new characteristic of my work; neither, really, was the fact that I fit it into my own life schedule.

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Acknowledged, with Baby M I have spent less time on this outside work and more time taking care of her.

Oh, the critics will say knowingly: A part time work-at-home mom.

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