Mommy Chronicles

A funny look at motherhood and the mayhem it causes.

November 12, 2001

The Mommy Stigma

There is such a thing in this world as a job that will forever blight your resume. Once you’ve signed up for it, everyone will know you’ve done it, and no one will look at you in the same way again.

While it sounds like I’m talking about being a porn star, or maybe a meter maid, or maybe a porn star playing a meter maid, I’m really talking about becoming a mother.

It changes everything about your life, and it also makes you either selfish or stupid.

Allow me to explain.

For some reason, motherhood is supposed to leave a woman with two choices: Either go back to work and achieve great things. Things like being able to pay the bills, for example. Or, stay at home, barefoot with babies, and throw away all the opportunities feminists ever sacrificed their perfectly good bras to grant you.

When I was obviously pregnant with Lucy, people asked me all the time if I was going to stay home with her, or go back to work. I’m sure every pregnant woman faces the same question.

As for me, I didn’t know the answer. I had a great job that paid well and supplied me with conversational tidbits during parties, which otherwise tend to make me feel like a rough-handed rube. What’s more, I never quite knew what people wanted to hear: that I was devoted to doing great things in the world, or to doing great things for my child.

I think this really stinks.

Motherhood shouldn’t be a choice between work and children, between guilt and -- well -- guilt. And yet, it is made out that way all the time. No matter what you choose, someone will disapprove.

You read about women who stay at home because they don’t want strangers raising their children. What does that say about the mothers who have to take a job because that’s the only way those children get to eat? Or about women who can make great contributions to the world through their work? Also, what does that say about the good people who work as caregivers for children, making a pittance, just because they love doing it?

The truth is, many children benefit from going to daycare. For one thing, they get to spend time around other kids. Lucy loves this. I can remember loving it too, when I was little, although it wasn’t daycare; it was just my many brothers and sisters.

Also, childcare professionals sometimes know more about development than parents do. They know how to ward off a tantrum because they’ve seen thousands of them. They know what makes 2-year-olds laugh. They often have a fresher perspective on adventure. For example, I see the cardboard boxes in my basement as something I need to break down and recycle; Lucy’s nanny sees them as mini racecars.

Finally, many women are better mothers because they’ve gotten to work. If you have a passion that’s not compatible with small children – let’s say you’re a chemist – you can come home feeling tired but replenished, and eager to see the faces that cause fizzy, magical chemical reactions in your heart. I know that without being able to write, I’d feel like there was a part of me that was withering away.

On the flip side, you read about so-called feminists who look at stay-at-home mothers as traitors to the cause of women’s rights. I read an interview recently where a whiny academic was wringing her hands because her daughter had left her career to raise her children. “Is this what we made all this sacrifice for?” she said.

Of course it is.

Raising children is vital work. The human race depends on it, and this includes hand-wringers who claim to be feminists, but who really just want other women to be just like them. It’s no betrayal to stay at home. Feminism is about choice. It would be no gain if women earned the opportunity to have a career in an office, but lost the choice to make a career out of a family.

Similarly, it’s not a luxury to stay home, as people sometimes describe it. Tending children is like running in the chore habitrail. You go as fast as you can, just to keep up. It’s diaper changes and laundry and shedding pets and grocery shopping. It’s full of sweetness and love and occasionally the blinding light of wonder. It’s also sometimes full of loneliness, despair and great, great pressure. Children bonk their heads, eat rocks and run full-tile toward worse dangers than these. Just knowing you’re totally responsible for keeping them safe and shaping their minds and personalities – things that will determine the course of their days to come – this is overwhelming.

I stay at home with Lucy, and for the sixteen hours a week we have Laramie, our precious, brilliant nanny, I work. I also work after Lucy has gone to bed at night. So I know a little bit about life from both sides.

I just wish there weren’t these sides at all. I wish that stay-at-home moms and working moms, and everyone who ever judged one as better than the other, would recognize that there is no perfect life. There is just the life you can manage to lead, as well as you can.

It’s hard not to care about what other people think of the life you’re living. It’s hard not to think, “If only I were…” But this is what really gets in the way of being a good parent: the doubt.

The children we raise aren’t objects we can perfect by doing just the right thing. They are like slim arrows we launch into tomorrow and beyond. Wind and other forces unseen will carry them places we cannot imagine, and cannot go ourselves.

In becoming parents, we are a bit like stars, blasting forward light that will travel beyond our span of years. And this is why we must not doubt ourselves and our choices. The steady light will travel unimaginably far. And from wherever you see it, it is so beautiful.


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