Equal Parenting: Working Mom = Good, Stay-at-Home Mom = Bad

06.17.08 | motherhood | 26 Comments

After I had Sally, I sat on my donut while my womanly parts tried to shrink back to a non-raw-ground-beef-like consistency. Dick swept the kitchen floor, and I wept. Has any man shown this much love for his wife, that he would SWEEP THE FLOOR for her?

Motherhood, which I entered at 23, has been a series of stunning emotional highs and crazed, irrational rages. Fatherhood, for Dick, is no big deal. He likes our three girls (they are above-average), and when he is with them, he likes to play and go to the dollar theater and teach them how to ride bikes and to swim. He’ll also fold their laundry, never grasping that each has her own particular and exclusive size of clothing.

I am a stay-at-home mom. I do the (very) occasional freelance writing/editing project, and there is this blog, which will make enough for me to live on textured vegetable protein and ash cakes in another 5-10 years. I could go out and get a ‘real’ job. I could use my brain (which used to be very good, I want you to know). But I have chosen to “stay-at-home.” Not because that is all I am good for, or because I think that is a woman’s place, or because I am afraid of the working world or because I feel pressure from church or friends or family.

I stay-at-home because a) I have a husband who makes enough for us to live on (but not to own a second car), and b) my kids deserve me. I am the first to admit that I am not the best mom, and that there are probably nannies, child care centers, what-have-you that are better at crafts, guided-free-play, and Cooking in the Kitchen with Kids, but I am their mother, and as long as it is my name they call out when they need something, I’ll be there to negotiate. This is not a devaluing of me, it is a high-valuing of them. (Quite possibly too-high, especially when they’re tired and whiny, but that’s another subject).

Is being a stay-at-home mom a sacrifice of my other ambitions? Yes. Is it a betrayal of all the strides that feminists have made in the past century? That is the question.

Other questions are also raised by Lisa Belkin’s recent article When Mom and Dad Share It All. Beth Blecherman of TechMamas pointed me to Belkin’s new companion blog, Equal Parenting, at The New York Times. They’re both quite interesting, but also extremely maddening.

A lot of the parenting issues are relevant — I don’t know any woman who doesn’t wish her husband did more around the house and with the kids. And examining why we do what we do, and how that is often influenced by blind tradition rather than conscious thought is always a good thing. But two underlying premises were so wrong-headed as to make my three-year old’s tantrum look like a warm-up for Mama.

My first issue is a semantic one. Equal parenting sounds great to me: “equality in parenting should be every couple’s goal.” In scientific terms, equal usually means “the same.” Equal rightly meant “the same” in the social sphere after Brown v. Board of Education. Using “equal” and “the same” interchangeably makes things easy because equality becomes a matter of measuring and comparing quantifiable units.

But is “equality” as “sameness” even possible when it comes to parenting? Is it possible for mothers and fathers to do the exact same in terms of parenting? My husband contributed a sperm to each of our three girls. I contributed an egg, a uterus, nine months of morning sickness, frequent nighttime urination, and excruciating heartburn. Then I contributed my breasts for over three years total. Will he ever equal my contribution?

He’s already three body parts and 63 months behind. Obviously, the only way for me to honor my feminist urgings is to leave him with the kids and return in five years, hoping that they will have taken a physical toll on him equal to my sagging boobs and flapping belly.

On the other hand, is providing monetarily for children an aspect of parenting? If so, then I am eight years and many “metaphorical poopy diapers,” as Dick says, behind on this. He should be suing me for non-payment of child support. But that sounds just a bit ridiculous, doesn’t it?

Other definitions of equal include “as great as” and “alike in value.” We had friends in Cairo who were the best equal parents I’ve ever seen. I once asked Suzy how on earth they did it, and she said that when Josh was at work at the university, her job was to take care of the kids and house, and then when he came home, they split it (parenting/homemaking) equally. ! If only they could sell this secret to NASA.

You could (and probably should) make charts and lists for when both parents are home. This could be a regular, recalibrating exercise, like the helpful budgeting practice of tracking all the money you spend in a month. Once you see where your money or time goes, cooperative partners can make adjustments to make things better for each other, working from the premise that earning money and caring for children are both valuable contributions to parenting.

My second issue is with the very notion of what qualifies as “feminist” and “modern.” I have a lovely friend from college who is writing her doctoral thesis on Unassisted Childbirth (UC). When I first encountered UC, I was aghast. I’ve had three very medicated hospital births, thank you very much. Rixa has given birth at home, alone.

Recently another blogger found her and asked if “we are living in the 1800s” and, to explain her rationale for a hospital birth said, “I guess I’m just a modern lady, huh?”

Now, UC is not for everyone: it’s not for me. But I am struck by one woman thinking that another woman’s desire to be educated and deliberate about her birth choices is backwards and old-fashioned. As if childbirth in a hospital, where, despite the best laid-out birth plan, the medical hierarchy has the first, second, and final say in when the mother can poop, much less push out the baby, is the more modern, enlightened choice. Rather, a woman making her own choices (whatever they might be) strikes me as the very epitome of feminism.

Lisa Belkin has a similarly condescending attitude towards women and men who would choose a different lifestyle to the one that she has decided is modern and “equal.” She writes, of those who might object that:

If part of the security and warmth you feel from marriage is because of the familiarity and tradition of husband and wife roles, this won’t work for you, either.

Apparently, only an emotional, instinctive need to cling to the security blanket of “familiarity and tradition,” rather than conscious thought and rational consideration could possibly be behind anyone choosing not to parent “equally.” Let’s not even talk about whether logic should be privileged over “warmth.” And how that sort of ordering of reason over emotion is a patriarchal tradition clouding poor Lisa Belkin’s thought processes.

If the only way to be modern and a feminist is to follow the herd of working women to the office, then count me out, Gloria Steinem. My feeling unworthy as a woman for choosing to stay home would be just as unfeminist as a woman feeling unworthy for choosing to go to work. Feminism is (or should be) all about choices — women being able to make their own without worrying whether other women will consider the choice modern or hopelessly old-fashioned, progressive or lamentably traditional.

As a woman, I can be anything I want to be: a working mom or a stay-at-home mom or a work-at-home mom or a Britney-Spears-wannabe mom. Just don’t tell me that the only thinking choice is the first.

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