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Liz Gumbinner Headshot

The Myth of the Rich, Selfish Working Mom

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I have seen the following argument about working moms far too many times to count: Well, women could sacrifice second cars and vacation homes to stay home with their children.

Feel free to scream now. Or, you know. I could do it for you.

The implication of course is that that there is this vast army of selfish working mothers out there, raking in the billions, putting their BMWs and their Hamptons houses first while their six nannies do the butt wiping and the late-night feedings. Oh, of course they're home in time to kiss the kids goodnight once in a while, perhaps on a layover between St. Barth's and Palm Springs. Really, isn't it enough just to know that they gave birth?

Oh, okay. They used surrogates so they wouldn't ruin their figures. But still.

(Screaming party? Again? Sure, feel free.)

Here are just a few reasons mothers work in 2012:

  • To pay the rent
  • To pay for electricity
  • To pay for medical care
  • To pay for education
  • To pay for clothes, and not expensive ones.
  • To pay for her first and only car which is 20 years old and it makes her feel guilty every day that she drives her children in it because of the lack of safety features.

I was reminded of this all in a Facebook thread about Hilary Rosen's editorial about Ann Romney, (thanks Erin) which has pretty much eaten the political internet this week. In it, Rosen defends her point that a millionaire stay-at-home-mom may not be Romney's best surrogate to lead the discussion on the economic challenges of working parents. Rosen wrote:

I have no judgements about women who work outside the home vs. women who work in the home raising a family. I admire women who can stay home and raise their kids full-time. I even envy them sometimes. It is a wonderful luxury to have the choice. But let's stipulate that it is NOT a choice that most women have in America today.

And of course I agree.

We have a system (and let's be honest, one political party in particular) that talks a good game about valuing family, even while offering the most piddly, pathetic family and maternity benefits of any industrialized country, as well as the least vacation time. (Note to self: Investigate career opportunities in Denmark.)

Women in this country work more than all but seven countries, and put in more hours than any country besides Japan.

Clearly there are institutional issues we have to fix to give more mothers-and fathers-the choices that they want.

But here's the thing: the discussion can't end here.

It's easy to defend those women whose work is financially essential to the stability of their families, like the 9.9 million single-parent families headed by mothers. As Belinda Hankins put it, her child's "dead father didn't have any brothers who would be forced to marry me under biblical code so... what's my choice?"

But how about those mothers for whom working may not be a financial necessity, as some might define it?

Can we defend them, too?

Those women who, according to the most judgy among us, don't "need" to work -- yet do so despite having husbands that earn good salaries. Those who work and do have two cars and take nice vacations and put their children through private schools. I know women like this; they are not the caricature I described above. Not even close.

What I believe is that if we're going to talk about choices, we need to talk about choices for all mothers.

I am the primary earner in my family, and so indeed my career is financially essential. But that's not the only reason I work. And I do work. A lot.

For some of us it is about mental health. About personal fulfillment and the pursuit of happiness, which, I believe, we're still constitutionally entitled to even after we have spawned. It's about continuing hard-won 20-year careers, which would disappear into nothingness should we even take three years off, that supportive our system is of mothers re-entering the workforce.

It's about making sure, as our divorced mothers taught us, that we always have a means of self-sufficiency, should we ever find ourselves without those money-earnin' menfolk in our lives.

It's about being role models for our children as working mothers the way we see fit, the same way stay-at-home mothers are.

It's about the fact that some of us are great mothers, but would not make outstanding be-at-home-all-the-time mothers.

It's also about acknowledging that the "takes a village" approach of leaning on parents, grandparents, sisters and amazing caregivers, works for a lot of families, and indeed does yield children who are healthy, strong, happy, stable, resilient, and 100%, arguably loved to pieces.

Are any of these less valid rationales for working than the financial necessity?

For God's sake, people. We as a community of parents have to STFU about this Mommy Wars crap and start acknowledging that there are lots of models that work for lots of different families.

And maybe, just maybe... assume a little value.

It's not hard, really.

Assume that the majority of mothers are doing the best they can, making the choices they think are the most appropriate for their families. Assume that mothers are not looking to traumatize their children, or abandon them at the drop of a hat. Assume that even if you can cite one example of some neighbor or school parent who does X, Y and Z which is really really selfish, that she is the exception and not the rule. Assume that there are great moms who work out of the house, great moms who work full time with their children, great moms with help, and great moms with none.

Assume that if a mother is working, for any reason at all, it is valid. And her children may be fine.

Because when someone insinuates that I am putting my work before my children, I have to stand up and correct them.

For many mothers, I'd imagine working means we are putting our children first.

While we're at it, stop telling stay-at-home mothers that they're wasting their educations. I can think of pleeeeenty of people wasting their educations, and none of them are mothers.

This post originally appeared on Mom-101.