This Mothers’ Day, like many before it, will probably prompt a lot of commentary on the hard work of motherhood. The tireless selflessness, the “always on” hours. We will thank our mothers for their love and sacrifice, as we should.
As we do that though, and as a mother who will be receiving those much appreciated recognitions from her own little posse, I want to offer some thoughts on the work of motherhood. It is work, but that work is less about the tasks of keeping children alive, though that does fuel hilarious blogs and memes.
One popular pre-internet meme – meaning it was mostly on refrigerator magnets and greeting cards – in particular captured the essence of motherhood in these tasks: “She’s a wife, mother, friend, housekeeper, interior decorator, laundress, gourmet chef, short-order cook, chauffeur, painter, wallpaper hanger, seamstress, nurse, guidance counselor…” etc.
What the creator of that “meme” was going for is the idea that moms do a lot for us. In fact, the economic impact of a homemaker has recently been unscientifically quantified. It’s significant, and not to be underrated.
However, if we reduce motherhood to the tasks, it begs the question: What about working mothers? Those who pay others to cook, clean, and drive their kids.
As women have navigated the treacherous debate over staying home or working for pay, one of the justifications for the latter seems to be, “I have no choice.”
In my reporting I have met a lot of good mothers. Whether they knew it or not, every single one of them made choices when it came to work and children. They weren’t all easy choices, because we live in an unjust world, but there was dignity and empowerment in the choosing.
Anna Castañeda was selling drugs at night so that she could stay home with her young kids during the day. When she realized the huge liability this posed for her kids, she enlisted the help of a relative so she could find work, pursue education, and a career.
Finally, there’s Rosie Castro, who chose to stay active in politics and civil rights efforts, even if it meant bringing her two sons, Julián and Joaquín, along to rallies and block-walking events. She continually chose to pursue more education to give her boys a better life. We all know how that turned out.
These mothers didn’t have the same choices as many higher income, two-parent households, in which the option to stay home or work were both financially secure. As I acknowledged before, it’s an unjust world, and it’s not getting better, at least not in this congressional term.
But, even when stuck between the proverbial “rock and the hard place,” dignity directed these mothers’ choices, and those choices were for their families. It took them in different directions, but they followed the same guiding star.
I have friends who stay home, who are really good at the tasks of homemaking. They make it fun, creative, and beautiful. They use those tasks to show their kids how much they love them, and they take great pleasure in what they do. They are also honest about the days that it is monotonous or grueling, just like any worthwhile work.
For me, working as a reporter takes some of the pressure off the work of motherhood. Not necessarily economic pressure, but the pressure I felt to be a perfect mom, and to be very good at something I was not very good at.
When I became a mother, it was immediately obvious that just like I am not good at furniture-building, volleyball, or chess, I am not good at some of the tasks of motherhood. I never packed enough diapers. I freaked out trying to get kids down for naps. I’m terrible at scheduling playdates, and my children’s socks never match – if they are even wearing them. None of it came naturally, and it was a constant source of stress.
I went into a crisis, believing that this made me a bad mother.
But something else did come naturally: I love my children. Fiercely. Like, move-heaven-and-earth-to-make-sure-they-thrive fiercely. They are fascinating little people, and I really like interacting with them. I especially like it in settings wherein it’s acceptable if they are only marginally dressed.
The best I can give my kids is my continued interest and commitment to their well-being. The tasks of the day – lunches, socks, diapers, pacifiers – still have to be dealt with, whether or not I’m good at them or enjoy them. In my case, that means delegating some things to maximize the value of others.
So they go to pre-school, have hired caretakers, and eat baby food from a pouch. My husband and I work full-time at jobs we love to provide those things. We prioritize family time, do what we can to spend quality time at every opportunity, talk to them, pray with them, sing with them, read with them. But sometimes we work late or travel. I take comfort in the study that showed quality time meant more in the parent-child relationship than quantity of time. I also take comfort in the community that loves them and contributes to their thriving.
I like that my kids will see two parents equally engaged in meaningful work and relationships. My daughter is interested in my work, just like her dad’s. Both children reach for Daddy as readily as they reach for Mommy when they are hurt or sad.
Even when I work late covering an election, or when my husband travels to project sites, the kids seem to know that our relationship to them is solid. Because that’s what motherhood (and fatherhood) is – a relationship. It is separate from the valuable work of homemaking, and yet infused into it. It is still present even if certain homemaking tasks are delegated to people who are, quite frankly, better at it.
If you ask my daughter what I do, she will say, “Mommy writes articles.” If you ask my daughter who I love, she says, “Moira, Asa, and Daddy!” Her brother can’t talk yet, but I’m hoping he’ll get the same message.
The essence of motherhood is a relationship, whether biological, adoptive, emotional or spiritual. It’s a unique relationship that is profound, heartbreaking, gratifying, and, ultimately, transformative. It transforms both mother and child into relational beings who can give and accept love unconditionally. That unconditional love is the hard work. It is there in the sleepless nights, in the teacher conferences, in the tear-streaked conversations. It is also there in the courageous accomplishments, the generous acts, and the pursuit of justice that could ultimately change the world.