Last week, a national talk show host threw gasoline on the flames of a debate the media likes to call “The Mommy Wars” by hosting a show titled “Stay-at-home moms vs. Working moms.”
Yet many mothers are left wondering why this conversation still keeps coming up, when the truth is that this black-and-white, win-or-lose argument doesn’t really fit our lives. Most mothers live their lives the best they can, and don’t wish to cast judgment or dispersion on other mothers. In fact, most mothers recognize that this “choice” of whether to stay home or work isn’t really the choice it seems to be at all. Each family ends up making decisions about how to support and raise children based on their own unique set of factors, with the very best interests of their children at heart.
What really happens when a couple becomes a family is often more complicated than it might seem on the surface, because their decisions about combining parenthood and employment are based on a society that is framed with a lot of hidden assumptions. Kristin Maschka calls out some of these assumptions in her new book This Is Not How I Thought It Would Be: Remodeling Motherhood to Get the Lives We Want Today. Maschka notes that mothers and fathers alike are often stuck with all-or-nothing propositions, such as employment that is either too much or none at all. Forced to choose, many mothers (and some fathers) get pushed out of a job or a career that doesn’t fit with family life, while the breadwinning parent has no choice but to give up a big piece of the family life they want in order to keep the family financially afloat. In other families the choices are starker: either mom works or there’s no health insurance, no home and no food on the table.
We need to revise the mental map that “Fathers earn the money, and mothers take care of the children.” Even in a traditional family where this might seem to be the case, we are marginalizing fathers’ roles in raising their own children. And in families with two employed parents, this assumption is especially costly to mothers, who often tend to hold on to the full responsibility for the care of children (even if fathers help with some of the tasks) while having the full responsibility of their employment as well. This mental map and others add up to a blueprint for a world that may have fit generations ago, but it doesn’t fit our lives today.
I’d like to challenge us to create a better conversation, which can help us draft a better blueprint for parenthood. We can begin by calling out our assumptions about mothers, fathers and employment – and question whether they are really helping us or hurting us. We can toss out some of the old maps and replace them with new ones that recognize the true landscape we have today. Mothers and fathers alike might both be a lot more comfortable and a lot happier in a “remodeled” world.