Academic journal article Michigan Family Review

"Staying at Home" versus "Working": A Call for Broader Conceptualizations of Parenthood and Paid Work

Academic journal article Michigan Family Review

"Staying at Home" versus "Working": A Call for Broader Conceptualizations of Parenthood and Paid Work

Article excerpt

Every mother-to-be faces the decision of whether to participate in the paid work force while mothering or to disengage from the paid work force and make mothering her sole social role. Often this decision is portrayed in terms of whether one will be a "stay-at-home" and presumably "full-time" mother or a "working mother" and therefore one who prioritizes paid work. "The dominant culture portrayal of work and family for women in the United States classifies women as either work oriented or family oriented" (Garey, 1999, p. 6). Thus, women are socially constructed as either mothers or workers, but not both.

Popular media from television images of mothers, advice and self-help books for expectant or new mothers, and news stories on motherhood all rely on this oversimplification. From Eisenberg et al.'s (2002) What to Expect When You Are Expecting which poses work/family as an either-or question, to Iovine's (1997) The Girlfriend's Guide which discusses the "extreme difficulty" new mothers face "trying to combine it all," to W. Sears, M. Sears, R. Sears, & J. Sear's (2003) Baby Book which promotes a "better baby" through constant contact with the mother, experts continually suggest that women are mothers or workers. Recent news articles about professional women who are "opting out" of paid work in order to mother, or who struggle to balance the two, also perpetuate this dichotomy (Belkin, 2003; Warner, 2005).

Parenting advice books, current news stories, and other forms of popular media help to create a binary between "stay-at-home" and "working" mothers, so that we are unable to conceptualize both statuses in the same person. Experts in popular media as well as academia refer to this rhetoric as an ideological war waging between two camps, with the "stay-at-home" ("good") mother pitted against the "working" ("bad") mother (Douglas, 2000; Hays, 1996; Johnston & Swanson, 2004). Proponents of each side of this "Mommy War" claim that their approach is the appropriate form of parenting in current times. In addition, both sides argue that society does not see the full value of what women do as mothers whether they are "at home" or "at work." Yet, neither characterization of motherhood necessarily reflects what all mothers actually experience.

We argue, as other feminist scholars have (e.g., Garey, 1999; Hondagneu-Sotelo, 2001; Uttal, 2004), that the dichotomous construction of mother versus worker oversimplifies the complexities of motherhood and work in the current economic system which requires most adults to participate in the workforce. Specifically, it assumes that those who are at home are not participating in the paid work force and that those who are working outside the home are disengaged from being mothers. The reality is not clear cut since stay-at-home mothers have varied levels of interaction with their children, complete domestic work without receiving salaried income, and work for paid income either from the home or part-time outside the home (Garey, 1999; Hertz, 1997; Johnston & Swanson, 2004; Ranson, 2004; Uttal, 2004). Additionally, those who are full-time in the paid work force do not disconnect from their role of mother per se and, like those at home, may still consider themselves to be "full-time" mothers (Johnston & Swanson, 2004). There are various other mother/worker roles that women can occupy as well; these depend on the type of paid work in which one is engaged, the presence/absence of another parent (usually a father), and the racial-ethnic and socio-economic locations of women and families. Thus the landscape that ties the roles of mother and worker together is extremely complex and impossible to dichotomize.

If we study women's experiences as mothers and workers, we discover that there is not a rigid divide with women lining up on one side or the other as suggested by the Mommy War terminology. Motherhood and paid work are intimately intertwined and most women maintain both social roles simultaneously, negotiating the boundaries of each every day. …

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