Being a working mother of a toddler, I’ve started to read a lot about working mothers. Here is what I have gleaned thus far; mothers working will be the death of civilization as we know it, and, on a side note, when mothers work they are not just terrible mothers, but terrible employees too. It reminds me a bit of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse; pestilence, war, famine and death. I wonder what horse working mothers would ride? Would it be pestilence or war? The women’s movement has often seemed like a war over who will wield power in public and private life. The gains women have made to have a legitimate voice in our homes and our communities are countered with a backlash of opposition. The ridiculous notion of “legitimate rape” and attempts to revive the abortion debate are just recent examples. But I have also seen the phenomena of working mothers described as a type of pestilence; we are the plague that will destroy society as we know it.
There is no doubt that the women’s movement has impacted society in remarkable ways. The average age of mothers at the birth of the first child has increased by almost a decade in one generation. The number of mothers working (by necessity or not) has increased dramatically, with the numbers of stay at home fathers increasing as well. These changes have had ripple effects on private and public life. On the public side, employers have, by necessity, had to adjust or risk losing a significant portion of their workforce. The profession of law is a good example. The research suggests that after five years of working in private practice, where the culture expects an 80 hour work week, women, and increasingly men, leave in droves. There are committees that have been created to try to quell this exodus. So far there have been no workable solutions proposed, because to work it would involve restructuring the entire firm’s method of making money.
On the private side, both women and men have had to create new scripts and modify gender role expectations. What does it mean to be a mother when she works full time and is not fulfilling traditional gender roles? What does it mean to be a father when he is a stay at home dad and also defying traditional gender roles? I had not realized how powerful gender role expectations were until I challenged them. One side effect of that challenge, however, is guilt. It’s not just the guilt of being a working mother. Instead of the four horses of the apocalypse, I suffer from the four guilts. The first is the working mother guilt in relation to my family, that I am missing out on the mundane routines of everyday life with a toddler, minutes and hours that are irrecoverable. The second is the working mother guilt in relation to my job; I am not able to give as much to my career and my employer as I should. The third is the older mom guilt, that I will likely be dead by the time my daughter is my age; I will be too old to appreciate and know her children, if she has any. The fourth is the guilt that she will be an only child, and will truly be orphaned when Dave and I are both gone, having no siblings with whom she has a shared history of our family.
My four guilts, if I let them, would likely suffocate me with their combined messages of how terrible a person I am. How do I deal with them, you may ask, and prevent them from sucking the very life out of me on a daily basis?
I strongly believe that a lot of our personal misery is as a result of the meaning that we make of our lives, our choices, our roles etc. There are powerful messages all around us that try to influence how we make meaning, but it is possible to defy them – I like to engage in small acts of protest whenever I am faced with a meaning that is soul sucking, instead of life affirming.
In relation to the first guilt, today’s topic, the meaning that I have made out of my life and my role as a working mother is this. Maya’s introduction into my life was a miracle. I was told by specialists that she would not be (without heroic and expensive efforts), and I spent two years mourning her loss. The whole time I was in mourning, however, that message did not make sense to me. Since I was a young child and envisioned my future, I had always envisioned a child. One child. In this future my job was unclear, the man with me was unclear, but the child was a certainty. “How could this be? How could I be childless?” I wondered. I had trusted in that future. And then, when I least expected her, when I had come to terms with my barrenness, she was created in a relationship of love and healing. She was created after I took a stand for myself, by leaving my husband after being told “You’re too masculine, too driven, too much like me. (I think his exact words were – “You’re me with a cunt. I don’t like it”) I know plenty of women who can raise children, work full time, make the meals and clean the whole house without any help. My time is too valuable to help. What is wrong with you?” I told him to go find a woman like that, if they were so plentiful, and he did. And I was freed.
I have noticed that every time I take a leap of faith into the unknown in order to be true to myself, it has been acknowledged. By what, I’m not sure, but I believe that somehow we are connected to an energy, something undefined, unknowable. It is important to me that Maya see her parents being true to themselves. My truth is that I have always believed that I have something I am supposed to do in this world beyond being a mother. I have something to offer, even though I’m not entirely sure what it is.
Maya is growing up seeing both her mother and father follow their dreams. She is in a family where dreams are supported, even if it results in a non-traditional looking family, where mom works outside of the home and dad works inside. My life, despite my honest efforts, has not been traditional. Why would I expect that I would be a traditional mother? I actively protest the socially constructed meaning that by working I am a terrible mother. Yes, there are days when I feel tremendous loss and grief when I’m not with her during the week. There are days when I believe that if I won the lottery I would quit my job tomorrow and never work again.
But the truth is, working is who I am just as much as being a mother is who I am. I have worked in some form or another since I was 14 years old. When I was a child, the women in my family told me I could be anything I wanted to be. They hadn’t had that choice in their lives, theirs had limits. Although they all went to university, it was with the understanding that the most important degree was an MRS. I grew up understanding that work increased one’s personal power. I once told my mother I wanted to have lots of money when I grew up. She responded with “Well you had better marry someone rich!” I responded with “Why would I do that? I’m going to make my own money!”
I am increasingly aware of the millions of shoulders I am standing on, the shoulders of women who sacrificed and who fought for the choices I have the freedom and support to exercise. I honour those women by being the best mother I can be, and the best woman I can be. The best woman I can be involves work. I don’t believe the two are irreconcilable. Maya will grow up not just knowing in an abstract way, that women can dream without limits, and their dreams can be realized, she will see it in action. And this, perhaps, is the best gift I can give her as a working mother.