Several years ago, when my daughter was seven, she startled me with a question: “Why do only daddies work?”
It was nighttime, and her voice in the dimness was pointed. I continued tucking her into bed, stalling for time as I formulated an answer.
“You know a lot of mommies who work,” I finally chided.
I began rattling off the names and occupations of the working moms at my daughter’s school — the ones she didn’t often see at pick-up because they were still in the office: lawyers, businesswomen, museum curators, professors. Soon, I was including women with interesting jobs whom my daughter barely knew — a neurologist at Weill Cornell, a mother who ran a large non-profit… This was my attempt, I now think, to inundate my daughter with options, to lift her in a tide of possibilities: Look at all these working mommies! They are legion! No door is barred for you!
I kissed my daughter that night nagged by dissatisfaction — with my answer, which even then I sensed was inadequate, and, also with myself.
You see, I’ve always defined myself through work. I was raised by my immigrant parents to try my hardest, no matter how mundane or difficult the task at hand, to use my gifts to the best of my ability, to achieve. Hard work and achievement was the formula for “making it” in America, one repeated like a mantra by families like mine — one imparted to scores of women of my generation by our mothers who weren’t given the encouragement or opportunities to “make it” on their own themselves.
And the formula seemed to work. It steered me successfully through high school, then college, then Wall Street, through a career switch to journalism, all the way until my husband and I had our second child, my daughter. Then, for the first time in my adult life, I stepped back. I took a job that wasn’t the “best” one I could have landed; it was a part-time one that fit my children’s schedule. And with our third child, I decided to take some time at home.
Being a stay-at-home mom is a luxury. Most families in America need both parents’ paychecks in order to subsist; single mothers keep their families afloat alone. I knew this, and I felt grateful for the time at home with my young children. But I also felt unmoored. The formula that had guided me through life no longer held. Being a good parent isn’t correlated with how “hard” you work; in fact, if today’s era of helicopter and lawnmower parenting has taught us anything, it’s that less, at the right time and in the right ways, is more. And parenting isn’t an “achievement” — it’s a journey in which parents play increasingly ancillary roles if we’re doing the job right, and where the rough stretches along the road are as important as the easier ones.
So when my daughter asked me why only daddies work, the question meant more than she could have known. In my ears, my daughter’s question contained all the insecurities and doubts, big and small, that I’d harbored since I pressed pause on my own career: Did my parents’ sacrifices mean I owed it to them to work? Did I owe it to my children to set an example? Did I owe something to my childhood self, that knob-kneed kid who worked hard at everything she did and dreamed big dreams? Was I selling out feminism? Did my husband still find me interesting? Did I?
And yet, I’d also come to realize how challenging it is to raise a child well. It is work. It’s work that’s both difficult and easy, physical and emotional, filled with moments of joy and stretches of drudgery. And almost always, the work is invisible — unless it’s outsourced to someone else (a nanny, a housekeeper, a cleaning lady, a personal assistant, an accountant, a nurse, a tutor, a surrogate, a coach). In a society that conflates value with price, motherhood — the hodgepodge of jobs that comprise it, and its countless unpaid labors of love — is undervalued, if it’s valued at all.
The flaw in my answer to my daughter that night — the long list of “working moms” I marshaled and waved in her face like a flag — is that it reinforced an extremely limited definition of what “real work” is. Real work is paid work, I effectively said. What your mother does all day doesn’t count, because she does it for free for people she loves.
Since this realization, my husband and I have changed how we talk about “work” with our daughter and sons. We tell them that there are all kinds of work, both paid and unpaid. Some jobs are done out of necessity, some out of love, some for the money and others for fulfillment — and usually, the motivations are a mix. Sometimes jobs stink, and you do your best anyway — until you find a new one. Some jobs make sense at one stage of life but not later down the road.
Most of all, we stress that there isn’t one right answer. Like parenting and marriage and pretty much anything worthwhile in life, figuring out how to put your sweat and smarts and gifts to use is a journey.