The working mother’s dilemma?

Before I became a mom, I gave very little thought to the fact that I was going to return full-time to law school after having my son. I had a supportive partner. Tons of women have done it. More & more women are doing it. I had no idea there was something called the “Mommy Wars.”

As a pregnant full-time law student I didn’t have much time to think about my decision to have a baby while in law school (not to mention that it was all too abstract when I was running from prenatal check-ups to client meetings at my clinical practice) and as a full-time mom and law student I certainly don’t have time to worry about “Mommy Wars” happening out there in popular culture (from which I am woefully disconnected).

I came face-to-face with the guilt-inducing debates, however, doing research for a paper and now find myself reading various opinions on the matter of working moms as I drift off to a short-lived sleep (that strange insomniac hour when I can no longer concentrate on work but can’t quite sleep…).

In researching employment and immigration I inevitably encountered the issue of domestic work which led me to a fascinating (though highly problematic–see below) literature on working mothers and nannies. Some of this work is deals with real problems of globalization & immigration & work conditions (all issues close to my heart). But a lot of it is much more mundane and has to do with ideal images of motherhood and what I see as the creation of a culture of guilt.

I read “The Nanny Dilemma” by Susan Cheever (collected in the book “Global Woman,” eds. Barbara Ehrenreich & Arlie Russell Hochschild) & immediately it rubbed me the wrong way. It was interesting & made many strong points, but I had this funny feeling after reading it. I realized that I didn’t like it because it made me feel guilty.

Of course, sometimes an uncomfortable feeling of guilt can be a positive thing—a challenge to shake things up, to rethink the norm—but here I felt the guilt being foisted on me. And this is something I’ve noticed in my limited run-in with the motherhood/work debate.

By phrasing the fact of childcare as a “dilemma,” by talking about the “excruciating decision” we (mothers) make in turning kids over to the nanny while we return to work Cheever seems to suggest that this is how we mothers should feel. And it’s not just Cheever, other writers I’ve encountered on the subject seem to express guilt most of the time. The popular culture is sending a pretty strong message—Yes, you can work outside the home, but if you don’t feel that tinge of guilt that you’re probably not a good mom. It’s not that anyone is saying working out of the home is wrong, it’s that there’s an expectation of guilt.

Cheever also suggests that she made the “excruciating decision” in order to give her children a better life. But what about those of us who have no choice because of finances or debt (thanks, law school loans!)? Or what about those of us who just feel like we’d be better moms if we got out of the house for at least part of the day? Or what about those of us who value our careers and or individual identities almost as much as we value our children?

I don’t feel guilty when I leave my son with the childcare provider so that I can finish law school. And I don’t like anyone suggesting that I should.

I think there’s this misconception out there (yes, still!) that the nuclear family is the only model for family life. But there’s a growing literature that talks not about the family but about the household, which is something that’s much more flexible and which can accommodate many different formulations. A household can grow or contract as necessary, so that it would actually make sense that it might include a grandparent, a friend, or a nanny when there’s a small child and others are contributing in different ways to the household.

Of course no one can replace me as my son’s mother, but I think we load too many expectations on ourselves (not to mention on others) when we accept the assumption that a family can only be one thing, structured in only one way. My son’s well-being is all that matters… and in that case I may not be the best person to play caretaker 24/7!

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1 Comment

Filed under Attachment Parenting, Feminism, Living, Mothering, Parenting, Partnership, Studying, Working

One response to “The working mother’s dilemma?

  1. Pingback: Leaving the little one to go take the bar exam | Mom, JD

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