I see it all the time, and I’m sure you do too. They lurk in the comments section of online parenting articles: The anonymous reactions to an essay written by a working mother that she should be at home with her children instead; the nameless vitriol spewed toward a non-working mother with time on her hands, asserting that she is “sponging” off of her husband and should be doing something more worthwhile.
Whether you are a mother who works for financial incentive or one who doesn’t, whether you see your children awake for one hour a day or twelve, or maybe you are the spouse or partner of such a mother, you can often relate to the tone of some of the comments left there.
It’s judgment that resides in those comments. Classic cases of damned if you do, damned if you don’t. These darts are not just thrown online either; they exist in the real world too, though maybe more silently. This judgment is not illusory.
You feel that pin prick of judgment under your skin. You start to feel guilt. You start to question your own choices. That is, in fact, what we are supposed to have now as women, right—choices? It was certainly the message I received growing up in the 80’s and 90’s. I’m not so sure it’s the same one I’m hearing now. The kind of commentary often seen suggests it is still not choice without social consequence in the form of judgment.
The fact of the matter is that the algorithm of why a woman with children does or does not work for a financial incentive is so complex, and often dynamic over the years, that none of us could ever fully understand it. There are the mothers who do not “need” to work for financial reasons, but do so for other emotional or personal reasons. Maybe it’s the only way they know how to be the kind of mother they want to be. Maybe it was the way they were raised as children themselves or what they saw their own parents go through. There are the mothers who have to work in order to feed their children, even though they’d rather be elsewhere. There are mothers who need government assistance to raise their children, and the reasons why are many. There are mothers who do these things while married, and those who do it solo. Maybe those solo women are single by choice and maybe they’re not. There are mothers who need extra help in the form of nannies or daycare and there are those who do not. There are mothers who will be sure of their choices from day one, and mothers who will change their minds—because they want to or finally can—and hop on a different path at one or more points during their children’s lives.
If we are living in a time where the 1950’s expectation of one working father, one non-working mother household has been banished—and goodness I hope that we are long past those dark ages—then none of these scenarios are inherently wrong. This also means that they should not be subject to judgment. For me, it is more important that parents raise their children to be kind and compassionate individuals that care about other people and the planet, period. I simply do not care how other parents pay to keep the lights on or which household members earn a paycheck. It is not my business, much less my choice to be concerned about.
Maybe it will be a long time before we can truly change the perception, or at least bad behavior, of others. Maybe we never will. Some of the policies (not) currently in place for women and children certainly seem to suggest that we have a long way to go. We need to continue working in earnest toward legislative, corporate, and social policies that allow each of us to reach the goals that we want to during our one life.
Yet, what to do in the meantime? How do we stave off the judgment of others? We need to foster a culture for women—and particularly young girls who have not yet reached this stage in their lives—where they can confidently ignore and reject personal judgment and live comfortably with the decisions they make in life and those that are seemingly made for them. To do this, we need to teach our children (girls and boys) a few things. We need to help them navigate the world of decision making, particularly how to recognize the difference between good and bad choices within the context of the kind of life they want to live. We also need to teach them that not everyone is going to make the same choices, and that that is both a reasonable and desirable outcome. We need to teach them that someone else’s misdirected resentment is primarily about their own insecurity more than anything else. We need to remind our children that so long as they make choices that do not harm others, they do not have to explain or justify their choices to anyone. Collectively, these messages will hopefully instill in our children a sense of unapologetic confidence in themselves and a supportive acceptance of others.
But there’s one more thing: We need to model these behaviors ourselves. We can start by letting go of the guilt and instead embrace the notion that we are each right where we are supposed to be, or at least working toward that goal. It’s time to lead the charge and say enough is enough. It can no longer be us vs. them, me vs. you. Now is the time for us. All of us.
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