In her illuminating post the other day, Jennifer Fulwiler describes going to a party where she knew hardly anyone, and conducting a little social experiment: for the first half, she introduced herself as a stay-at-home mom, and got little more than a verbal pat on the head in reply. For the second half, though, she introduced herself as a writer; and then conversation blossomed.
But this disparity in response, Jen says, is not necessarily because people don't value motherhood as a way of life. It may simply be because saying "I'm a mom" can mean so many very different things that it doesn't really give much information at all. She says:
I know that a lot of moms who are out of the workforce feel that their vocations are undervalued by society, and there's certainly plenty of truth to that. But I think that at least some of the time, the negativity that we at-home moms sense surrounding our work is not due to people looking down on us as much as it is due to the fact that we live in a society has come to use people's work as their primary social identifier, and being a stay-at-home mom is a catch-all kind of job in terms of personality types.
I agree with her, and I'll go further and say that it's not just society doing it to us. I impose that negativity on myself, and I'm sure I'm not alone. My problem isn't that I'm "anonymous" -- it's that I have too many identities vying for acknowldgement. Every time I have to fill out a form, I have a little spasm when I get to the box for "profession." Do I say I'm a writer? Well, I'm finishing one book and waiting for my contract for a chapter in another, and I'm blogging and working on a magazine article and two speeches, so I certainly feel like a writer; but my life would not become meaningless if I stopped writing right this second. But on the other hand, my life is vastly different from how it was when I wasn't doing any writing -- when all my kids were little, and I was "just" a stay-at-home mom. But, darn it, I work hard at my writing. Why should I have to pretend I don't work, when I do? But if I write "writer," isn't that a statement that I value my work life over my home life? But then again, if I write "mother" or "homemaker," isn't that a smug little slap in the face of the receptionist, who will process my form and who is probably a mother herself? And if I'm not a busy working mom, then why is my kitchen so dirty?
Of course, my husband doesn't go through these spasms. He just writes down the name of his job ("Drunken Irishman") and moves along. But he is just as invested in being a dad as I am in being a mom. And although he enjoys his work and is good at it, he never mistakes his career for the sum total of Who He Is.
It would be nice if we, as a society, could get to the point where we could value and respect the role of mothers, and value and respect the role of women's other types of work, without being in a panic that affirming one is the same as denigrating the other. But we certainly aren't there yet. There are more and more women who are seeing the value of putting other things aside, temporarily or permanently, in order to raise children; but there are also more and more women who are saying very baldly that feminism means that women have one choice: work, or be damned.
If I were in the Swedish government, or a moron, I'd imagine the solution was to make a law against asking a woman what she does. Since that won't work, I suppose the next best thing is to renew my resolution to do two things: first, to make all my choices based on what is best for my family, and to remind myself constantly that I and my husband are the ones in the best position to decide what is best for our family; and second, to do what Jen Fulwiler suggests: to avoid assuming the worst about what other people are thinking, and to try to get to know each other based on something other than low-information labels.
It's probably a good thing that I have these spasms. They make me more careful to be sure I'm spending enough time with my kids, and also to be careful I'm not assuming I know the first thing about another woman's life, whether she's a high-powered careerist or a barefooted hausfrau.
And when the spasms get strong enough, they can actually knock me right off my high horse. Because the truth is, I'm not a symbol, or a statement, or part of a movement. I'm just some lady, trying to pay the mortgage, trying to make use of my talents, trying to get supper made, trying to enjoy my kids before they fly away. I think I'm going to give myself permission, next time I fill out a form, to get over myself.