Family values

Recently a friend shared with me a blog about mothers. It was written by a father and husband in defense of his wife who is a full-time stay-at-home mom, now known by the acronym SAHM. Apparently a few less-than-tactful people he knows have asked him what his wife did all day, since she didn’t work. The author felt the need to defend his hard working, dedicated spouse from what he perceived to be a put down of her noble choice to forego a career and to devote all her talents and energy to raising their four children. His response to the insensitivities of others was almost as insensitive. His defense of stay-at-home moms included comparing their superior motivations and hard work to the selfish and self-serving motives of those mothers who work outside their homes. The undertone of “my wife works harder than yours” really irritated me.

While the essayist’s defensive response to his wife’s critics is sort of charming and sweet, the criticism of women who make different choices is not.

I understand both sides of this debate. I worked outside the home when my daughters were small. I was lucky to have a mother who was willing to provide much of the care of my older daughter. My second daughter went to the local day care as a toddler. I was fortunate to work for their other grandmother who, because she was a mother and a business owner herself, allowed me to bring my baby to work and was flexible about allowing me time off to tend to my little ones’ needs.

When I quit working in town to become a full-time farmer, my children were almost grown. Still, I understand becoming defensive when asked what you do all day since you quit “working.” I doubt if my self-employed husband was ever asked what he spent his time doing since he didn’t have a “job.” A friend of mine suggested using humor in response to that question instead of getting mad. She said her response to the question was, “Oh, I lie on the couch all day, eat chocolates and read dirty novels.” My response sometimes has been to answer with a puzzled, “Excuse me?” Both answers make the asker realize the silliness of their question.

I know wonderful parents, both mothers and fathers, who work full-time at home raising their children. They are wonderful, loving, creative caretakers. Not only are their children blessed by being with their parents every day, but the parents are blessed by experiencing first hand the wonders of seeing their infants grow into little people. It takes a special person to give the kind of time, imagination and patience needed to be with small children all day, nearly every day.

I know wonderful parents who get up early, take their kids to day care centers, to sitters or to school, work hard all day and still give their children what they need, emotionally and physically. Some parents work just to pay the bills. Some work because they love their jobs. Some work to provide their families, not only with extra income, but because their jobs provide their families with health insurance.

I know stay-at-home parents who are not good parents and have miserable children. We all know parents who work outside the home and neglect their children. Where you spend your day does not by itself determine your effectiveness as a parent.

Each of us makes decisions about working or staying home based on what we feel is best for us and for our children. For some that may be working at a job that gives us a feeling of self-worth and accomplishment while providing for the financial needs of our family. For others staying home with their children is the right answer, giving fulfillment and providing a different kind of support.

We are fortunate that we can make those choices. There was a time, not so long ago, when women were not given a choice. It was assumed that we would stay at home and be homemakers and stay-at-home mothers whether we were suited to the job or not. Single mothers who had to work to pay the rent and buy groceries were made to feel that they were shortchanging their children even if they had no other options. Women were not encouraged to go to college because, “Education was not necessary if you were just going to stay home and cook.” Women’s work was not valued in spite of flowery verses filling Mothers’ Day cards.

It was the women’s movement of the 1960s and 1970s that placed a dollar value on the work women did in their homes. It was the now disparaged “feminists” who said that women’s contribution had an economic and social value. Women were encouraged to make choices that suited their skills and aptitudes, not only their gender. Feminists argued that the work traditionally done by women was just as important as the work done by men. Feminism did not tell women they had to abandon all that is feminine to have value. Somehow along the way, however, we missed the point that women’s and men’s roles should be of equal importance. Instead we came to believe that we all need to be more like men, working in a man’s world, to be valued and important.

Feminists allowed their movement to be subverted. We have not raised up feminine attributes and with them the value of women’s work. We have allowed young women to believe that success is found only by being more like a man. The sad part of our missing the real point of feminism is that not only are women discouraged from full-time child care and parenting, so are men. Stay-at-home fathers are disparaged to even a greater extent than are mothers who make that choice.

Because we still devalue what is seen as “women’s work” and feminine characteristics, we have pushed our society to a more masculine way of dealing with problems. We praise and reward those attributes traditionally seen as male: competitiveness, aggressiveness, pragmatism, strength. We devalue nurturing, cooperation, serving, tenderness.

If we value families and parents who make the choice to sacrifice their careers and leave the work force to raise their children, then we do a poor job of encouraging them. Why don’t we encourage families as the Norwegians do and pay women to stay at home with their children for the first year of their life? Norwegian men, too, are given a paid parental leave when they become fathers. If we really value families, then we should find a way to provide high quality, affordable child care for children whose parents work outside the home. We should allow all parents the kind of work flexibility I had when my children were little.

Women, and the men who love them, should get over being defensive about their choices. Mothers and fathers make choices that are right for them and for their families. Parents need to support one another, not get into arguments about who works harder or who has made the “right” and the “best” choices. Parenting is difficult enough.

Copyright © 2013 Janet Jacobson and Sustaining the Northern Plains