Saturday, August 18, 2007

For What It's Worth: Some Notes on the Never-Ending Debate between Working Moms and Stay at Home Moms

I can't seem to shake the what-happens-to-your-identity-as-a-parent theme. I casually referred to the stay at home vs. working mum debate in my birthday post and invited some comment on what I might or might not regret about being a working mum. I have been thinking about this for a couple of days, discussing this with my other feminista working mum friends, and have a few more things to say . . .

First of all, it strikes me as odd that in the framing of the stay at home vs. working mum debate, the choice is always either/or. Either you choose your career and make that a priority or you choose your child(ren). You can't have more than one top priority and "choice"--the buzzword of liberalism--entails that you must choose against something else. This all-or-nothing framework is bizarre. It seems to me that having children entails, in part, forming a community and relationships that do not involve erasing one person in the equation. To relate to another human being does not, nor should not, entail total self-sacrifice or annihilation. Relating is fundamentally about intersubjectivity, which means that the child is both cherished, but also learns that the whole world does not revolve around her needs, but that she shares the world with others and everyone has needs; sometimes she needs to give others time and space to pursue their bliss.

Secondly, one of the important insights that feminism taught me was that women, and in particular, mothers are more than merely the suppliers of emotional and nutritional needs. Mothers are not merely their bodies, offered up for infants or spouses. Mothers are complex subjects, already enmeshed in relationships with the world. Many of those relationships and duties must be reshuffled and reprioritized at different periods of your child(ren)'s life (lives). Obviously, the demands of a newborn have led me to put most of my obligations, professional life, and friendships way on the back burner. As my daughter grows in independence, I will add more and more of those things back, but never again will my life be exactly the same. It now involves a family--a husband and a daughter--who are my community and who orient me in the world. But, to totally give your life over to either your children or your husband seems to spell disaster for not only the caregiver, but the children. If you aren't taking care of yourself, then you aren't going to be a good caretaker of others. Furthermore, why would you want to teach your children that being a mother or a parent means total self-abnegation?

Thirdly, how the working day is structured is the real problem, the real enemy--not the selfish working moms. I have a lot more flexibility than most people thanks to my career. I can spend time at home with my daughter during the day and not just the weekends. I spent a lot of time working to get such a career that would make it easier to balance work and life, but many people don't have that choice, nor does their career ambitions accomodate their need to sometimes work from home, or work at unusual hours to get things done so they can be there for their children. A lot of the working mom vs. stay at home mom debate would dissipate, I believe, if our institutions of work were structured to accomodate parents of children, rather than unencumbered selves.

Finally, why is it that in the venues I have visited where this debate is ranging on, no one guilts out the father for 'missing' all the precious moments of their child's life. When I see that the conversation is mostly women talking to women and not parents talking to parents, I have a problem. It suggests to me that what is being assumed in the conversation is that women are the best nurturers of their children, and fathers should provide the financial support to enable them to do their nurturing. This very outdated patriarchal notion does not sit well with this feminista. If we are going to be sad about missing special moments of our child's lives due to the difficulty of balancing our work and home life, then we should extend that concern to our husbands/partners.

Ok, that's what I got . . . now, what do you all think?