The Working Mom vs. the Stay-at-Home Mom Debate

I really can’t believe we are still having this debate, but my son recently made a comment that made me realize that it rages on. This was a hot topic when my mother worked outside the home. It continued through the height of the feminist movement and when my children were little. And, now that I’m a grandmother I find it still separates women into two camps. When are we going to realize that staying home with our children doesn’t make us a good mother any more than working makes us a bad mother? And when are we going to realize that we will have strength as women when we support one another and not tear each other down?

It is estimated that over 70% of the mothers in the United States are working outside the home. A 2012 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.” Could we be any more ambivalent?

My own personal experience gave me a taste of both sides of the coin. I was home with my daughter until she was three. But, she was so attached to me that I couldn’t even go to the bathroom without bringing her with me. She had such separation anxiety when she couldn’t actually see me that she would cry for hours when left with a babysitter…even when that babysitter was her grandmother.

Nine years later I had our son and, due to economic need, had to return to work when he was three months old. I so resisted the idea of leaving him that I didn’t finalize my child care until the Friday before I returned to work. I was positive that he wouldn’t know who I was. Nothing could have been further from the truth. Not only did he never mistake his sitter for his mommy, but he was comfortable with babysitters, pre-school teachers…and all family members. He willingly went off with care givers with the absolute knowledge and comfortable assurance that I would be returning for him later.

But, did my children’s behavior have anything to do with my staying home with them or going to work? Or, was it simply a matter that they were different people with different personalities? Can we ever really know for sure? What I do know is that women have been taking a side on this issue forever.

If you, as a woman, have chosen to stay home and been fortunate to live on one income, I think that’s great! Even though I spent the majority of my adult life as a career woman, I think raising and nurturing children is a respectable and honorable ‘career’. And I say this in all sincerity and with a hope that I don’t sound patronizing.

There are a variety of reasons women do work; providing income seems to be the prevailing one. However, many of us work for the intellectual stimulation and interaction with adults. I know I felt like I was going bonkers when I was home alone with my daughter. I felt lonely and isolated and thought my brain would go to mush. In hindsight, I realize that there are ways I could have conquered those problems and many stay-at-home moms do just that quite successfully.

What’s interesting is that stay-at-home moms often feel superior to their working counterparts. And vice versa. The working mom will say that the other is wasting her intellect and make snide remarks about wishing she had the ability to meet friends for coffee. The stay-at-home mom will talk about how her children come first and how she is always there for them every day…all day. The reality is that we all get overwhelmed and feel like we are juggling way too many things. I wonder just how much of this divisiveness comes from our own insecurities. I also think that it might come from our society’s honest ambivalence to women working…particularly mothers.

Things have improved for working mothers in ways I would never imagined when I was a young mother. There are now breast pump rooms for nursing moms, flexible work schedules and even job sharing. My granddaughter’s second grade class is taught by two women…each one working 5 days off and 5 days on. It works really well.

Unfortunately, I can’t help but wonder if these changes are probably not so much to help working mothers but rather to create a a way that women can work more. In other words, are we making progress in the workplace simply because it’s good for women or rather because it is good for the workplace? This is different from other Western countries. In fact, Save The Children has ranked the U.S. rather low amongst developed countries as a place to be a mother. While we do have mandated maternity leave, it is short and unpaid as compared to Norway which is rated number one.

Could it be that we are putting our focus on the wrong thing? Stephanie Hanes wrote the following for her column “Modern Parenthood”: “Today’s mommy wars, I believe, are missing the point. The way the debate is framed, we miss out on talking about how family and parenting fits into our cultural and political landscape – whether our society is doing for children what we’d hope – and instead focus on the is-she-or-isn’t-she working.”

I think Ms. Hanes might be onto something. If we spent more energy talking about these things…in particular, does society do for our children what we hope and want for our children…then whether a mom works or not would become a non-issue. And women could be there to help and encourage each other…not bring each other down.

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Women Are Patriots Too!

As we celebrate July 4th, I thought I would write about the role that women played during our Revolutionary War. Schools devote a great deal of time teaching about our male patriots…George Washington, Nathan Hale, Paul Revere and the like. But little, if anything, is taught about how women helped support our country in it’s fight for independence. I certainly didn’t know much when I decided to do a little research for today’s blog.

What I found was that women’s roles were quite traditional and structured to revolve around domestic tasks. But with those tasks came power as well as sacrifice. While formal politics did not include women, ordinary domestic behaviors radiated with political significance. Simple acts such as drinking British tea or ordering clothes from England that before were everyday activities now demonstrated colonial opposition during the years leading up to and during the war. While women could not maintain a political position, they were able to show their support in roles that were already readily accepted in the communities…that which involved working in their home and in the businesses of their fathers and husbands.

Women as consumers had the biggest impact to the revolution. This evolved into the Homespun Movement. Women played a major role in this method of defiance by denouncing silks, satins, and other luxuries in favor of homespun clothing generally made in spinning and quilting bees, sending a strong message of unity against supposed British oppression. In addition to boycotting British textiles, the Homespun Movement served the Continental Army by providing uniforms and blankets. (On a side note…I found it interesting that while male suppliers of these products were deemed exempt from military service, there was no comparable compensation for women doing the same thing. Spinning, weaving, and sewing was considered a woman’s duty and not worthy of financial acknowledgement.)

And while everyone has heard about the Boston Tea Party, women refused to purchase tea for years prior to that event. This was a relatively mild way that women could identify their household as being in support of the patriot war effort. The earlier Edenton Tea Party represented one of the first coordinated and publicized political actions by women in the colonies. Fifty-one women in Edenton, North Carolina signed an agreement officially agreeing to boycott tea and other English products and sent it to British newspapers.

Because of the culture, most women were anonymous as patriots. But not all. Molly “Mom” Rinker was one such dissatisfied English subject willing to fight for her independence. She didn’t sit idly by while British soldiers took over her family’s inn and planned their attacks. As an older, matronly woman, she was the last one who would ever be suspected as a patriot and spy

While soldiers banned the male members of her family from the dining area, Mom was kept at hand so she could wait on the redcoats. She waited on them and listened to their conversations.

Each night after gathering her intelligence, she wrote the information on a small piece of paper and wrapped it around a tiny stone. She then wrapped yarn around the stone until she had a normal, simple looking ball of yarn. Every day, Mom would go to a lovely little spot along her favorite creek and seat herself on a rock. From this rock, she had a pleasant view of the woods. She would then subtly drop the ball of yarn and watch it roll down the small cliff. One of Washington’s men would retrieve the note and disappear into the brush. No one was ever the wiser. The British never saw her converse with anyone. She was never caught; her identity was never revealed.

A simple woman…doing simple things…yet a patriot, nonetheless.