Wednesday, June 19, 2013

"Girls Don't Work"

Last week, while visiting my dad in North Carolina, my four year old son asked me if my step-mom could accompany us on an excursion to the pool.

"Nana has to work," I told him.  "We'll see her later."

"Girls don't work!" my son quickly replied.

I was at first speechless, and then retorted without much thought: "Of course girls work!  You know how Mommy is at the computer sometimes?  Mommy is working!  And your teachers, your teachers last year were girls.  Being a teacher is work, right?  And the lifeguard at the pool - she's a girl, and she's working!"

By that point my son's attention had turned to other things, and he was making flying noises for his Buzz Lightyear toy.  He had moved on.  But I couldn't seem to.  The sentiment haunted me all day.

I couldn't help but think:  In becoming a stay at home mom, what have I done?  

I decided to leave my full time job mostly for my own reasons - to alleviate stress, to focus on motherhood, to be able to spend more time watching my son grow - all reasons that would benefit me.    But I'd be lying if I didn't say there was a part of me that thought it would also be best for him.  Best for him to have me pick him up from school, me take him to playdates, me care for him when he was sick, me be his constant presence.  I guess in some ways it was an egotistical sentiment, but I really thought that I could do the best job for him over anyone.

But had I created a budding male chauvinist in the process?

I guess I can see where he has developed his beliefs...  Daddy goes to work every day.  He is gone all day (and then some at times).  Mommy does not go to work.  Mommy stays home with him all day (and then some at times).  Just as I had hoped and planned, I am his ever constant presence.  And while I do work - I freelance, I teach, I write a blog, and I take care of my children on a daily basis - it's not the kind of "work" that daddy does.  I don't leave the house, for the most part.  And I don't spend the majority of my day working for money.  In fact, I spend the majority of my day "working" for my son, a job he doesn't think of as work.

I know there are a lot of mothers that continue working outside of the home for, among many other reasons, the opportunity to show their children that women do work, and that women are equal to men in that regard.  I've always respected that, but didn't really find it necessary.  Surely I don't need to work outside of the house just to instill a feminist ideal in my children?  Because after all, feminism to me isn't just about women working.  It's about women having choices, and options. The choice to work, the choice to have children, and then the choice to focus on one or the other.

But I'll be honest - I am humbled by my son's comment.  It doesn't make me want to rush out and beg for my job back at my former law firm, but it is a huge wake up call that I need to actively instill my own value system in my son.

I need to talk to him about the choices I have made, and why I made them.  I need to talk to him about the choices that Daddy has made, and why he made them.  I need to tell him that it doesn't have to be so all or nothing - with Daddy out of the house all the time, and Mommy being his ever presence.  But that it is hard - so hard these days - to find an in between.  I need to explain to him that  roles in a family - whether they be breadwinner, caretaker or some permutation of both - don't have assigned genders.  I need to tell him that when he grows up, he needs to work to make this world more balanced - for women and men.

It's hard to be a woman in this day and age.  So much is expected of us, and in some ways, traditional feminism only puts on more pressure.  If we make the choice to work, we are an awful mother.  If we make the choice to stay at home, we have wasted an education and are providing a poor example.  Whatever choice we make, we can't win.

But it's also hard to be a man too, and in some ways, there is less freedom for choice.  There is a stigma for wanting to "lean back" for the sake of parenthood, and most men don't do it.  Most men, whether they admit it or not, feel pressured by the sentiment inherently shared by my son - that "boys work," and that beyond that, they should work hard.  Don't go part time, don't work from home, and don't even take the paternity leave that is given to you, if you're lucky enough to get some.

On the face of it, the example my husband and I set for our children doesn't go very far to break these stereotypes.  In many ways, we are a traditional 1960's family.  Daddy works.  Mommy stays at home.  And so far, that seems to be what my son has picked up on.

But it's our job to show him it's all more complicated than that.  We need to talk to him about the fact that not only does Daddy get 4 weeks paternity leave, but that he takes it, and would take more if he could.  About the fact that even though Mommy stopped working at a law firm, Mommy does work, and that there are many different ways of working.  About the fact that when we are all home together, that Mommy and Daddy are co-parents and share the work equally. About the fact that things are far from perfect, and when he gets older, if he wants, he can work to change that.  About the fact that, like girls, he can be whatever he wants to be, whether that be a stay at home parenta full time employee outside of the house, or something in between.

At the tender age of 4, I still have time to teach these things to my son, and for that I'm grateful. He is still so innocent and malleable, and probably has forgotten what he said about my stepmother and working and for all I know, doesn't even feel that way today.

But it's a reminder that as a mom, I've still got a lot of work to do.


  1. You write "It's about women having choices, and options. The choice to work, the choice to have children, and then the choice to focus on one or the other." Is there a reason that women can't focus on both? After all, that's what feminism is about, that not only are individuals to make choices, but, just as importantly, to define what those choices are. Keep that in mind.

  2. Feminism IS about choices. It is about equal rights to self-determination. It is not about woman juggling all things at the same time. When a family has a kid, both mom and dad can still choose their occupations--and to pursue a career goal is great. But for both, there are now practical needs: 1) income to provide for the kid and 2) daily caregiving. Deciding which occupations "count" as working, or job, or career, is confusing to grownu ps, so of course a 4 year old is confused. But he is a blank slate. Don't confuse his limited experience of having a stay at home mom with being influenced by stereotypes. I'm sure Tina Fey's toddler might think all girls are on TV. Your choice to be a caregiver teaches just as much as your choice to be a lawyer. And it powerfully establishes a value, a priority, that caregiving is an occupation your family values highly.

  3. I work full-time, outside of the home and while my 4 year old son may not say the same thing, he did tell me one day that "Daddy's don't cook." I was just as floored as you. Yes, I'm the primary one in the kitchen, but my husband often makes my son's breakfast. I never even stopped to think about what message that is sending him. I really fumed about it and discussed it with my husband. We're working on having my husband more involved during dinner time.

  4. I think the most important thing is to make sure that kids have as much respect for your job at home as something that is done at an office. After all even if he ends up in a family where he or his wife stays at home, you want him to respect that as equal work and contribution to a household.

    And I can also confirm the previous comment about how children's views are fairly narrow even when they are seeing plenty of other examples. It might just be something that hasn't been thought out or developed. My dad is an Olympic athlete and it took until I was in elementary school before I realized that it wasn't something that every dad did. While mine is a funny story of child ignorance despite having plenty of examples to the contrary, your son's comment may just touch a much more sensitive nerve.

  5. in my experience, a parent can tell or explain whatever they want to achild, it is what the child sees the parents do that forms value systems and beliefs.


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