There are huge rifts between working moms and stay-at-home moms. They form separate Facebook support groups. Real life groups have to go out of their way to say, “We welcome both working moms and stay-at-home moms.” There’s an awkward silence when you mention you’re going to be a stay-at-home mom to a group of working mothers, and there’s an awkward silence when you mention you’re going back to work in a group of stay-at-home moms.
Not necessarily a judgmental silence. Just the uncomfortable feeling that maybe we don’t have as much in common as mothers, after all.
It’s an issue of priorities, we often think — working mothers put themselves and their careers first and let the kids fall where they may. Stay-at-home moms prioritize their children. And we can know this, we can judge a woman’s commitment to her children or to her job based on where a woman predominantly spends her day.
Which makes sense — except that there are many other factors to consider. There’s the matter of finances. Having the option to be a stay-at-home mom is a privilege the working class and single moms can’t afford. (And not all women are cut out to be home entrepreneurs or start their own sustainable gardens.)
Then there’s the issue of less tangible resources — physical, emotional, and mental. In past days, extended families lived closer together, allowing extended family to look after all the grandchildren and cousins running afoot. Now it’s not uncommon for women to raise their kids states or even countries away from extended family. Some moms are new to the community and without any friends to trade date night babysitting or even let off some steam. Many fathers can’t afford or aren’t offered paternity leave, which cuts off more physical, emotional, and mental resources available to frazzled moms. All of this often adds up to stay-at-home moms unable to take a break, catch a breath, or engage in any other meaningful work until their last child turns eighteen.
While stay-at-home moms might indeed prioritize physical presence with their children over working moms, the isolation and stress of raising kids alone might not allow them to prioritize emotional presence. And while working moms don’t have the edge on physical presence with their kids, meaningful work apart from raising their children might energize these mothers to invest more emotional presence.
That’s where we need to center this conversation — on emotional presence, on present parenting. This goes beyond whether to work outside the home or stay at home. This is about evaluating and maximizing our emotional resources — and surprise, surprise, it looks different for every family.
As a teacher who loves working with kids and has a lot of patience with them, spending most of my day at home makes sense for me. Financially, we can swing it. My husband is already involved in daily household upkeep and expects to shoulder a good share of parenting when he comes home from work too, so I know I’m not in the parenting business alone.
On the other hand, I’m keenly aware of how loneliness, sleeplessness, and lack of adult conversation affects me. I’m keeping a part-time job (just a couple hours) outside of the home, leaving my baby in my husband’s care. This will give me the change in environment, the human interaction, and the independence of earning some money and doing other meaningful work that I need to keep my energy up. I would go insane stuck at home all day with a baby — and that’s not good for me at all.
But equally important, that’s not good for my baby, either.
[A]dvocacy for the full humanity of women cannot happen apart from advocacy for children. — Joyce Anne Mercer
And that’s another huge topic involved in present parenting — not merely “what works best for mama’s sanity?” but “what do my children most need from me?” We cannot effectively maximize our emotional resources if we’re not sure how much or what kind of emotional resources are needed to raise a happy, well-adjusted child.
I recently read Erica Komisar’s Being There: Why Prioritizing Motherhood in the First Three Years Matters. Komisar introduced to me the idea of present parenting. Her thesis is that in the first three years, children particularly need their mothers. As a long-practicing psychotherapist, she links the rise in ADD/ADHD diagnoses and other behavior problems to the lack of present mothering in the first three years.
It was a hard and challenging read, even as a woman who knew from the start that I wanted to be my children’s primary caretaker. It was hard and challenging because as a feminist, I want to support all women’s choices. I didn’t want to hear another reason why women have to be stuck at home and pretend to be happy about it. I want to believe that all women’s choices positively affect their children.
But Komisar’s challenge isn’t, at its heart, a call for moms to quit their jobs and stay home until their babies turn three. She recognizes everything I noted above — the financial and emotional factors that require women to work, the reality of a workforce that penalizes mothers for taking maternity leave and quitting their job for even a few years.
All mothers can be present mothers, regardless of whether they work outside the home or stay home with their children. All mothers can prioritize their children’s needs, regardless of financial constraints. But mothers cannot be blind to the reality of their children’s needs, which often don’t fit conveniently with what we need or want. And children under three need a large amount of their mother’s emotional presence, in both quantity and quality — meaning mothers of young children must rearrange their priorities for a few years to match this reality.
In other words, mothers should maximize their emotional presence in accordance with their children’s developmental needs, not merely with their own needs. Again, this looks different for every woman, as a woman’s own financial or emotional needs factors into how well she can maximize her emotional presence.
This idea of present parenting doesn’t just challenge women regarding how much time they spend working or where they spend the majority of their day. A discussion on present parenting might prove an effective guide on how many children to have or when to have children — or whether to have children at all. Hey, quiverfull movement — can a mother really be emotionally present for a large number of kids in quick succession? Are advocates of large families blind to the reality of how badly children need their mother’s emotional presence and the reality that the more children you have, the fewer emotional resources you have? Maybe, maybe not!
Present parenting also gets our husbands involved in the question of work/life balance. These aren’t just women’s issues. Many dads get sucked into their work life, thinking that buying that extra car or just putting food on the table (only in a monetary sense, of course) is needed to support their families. And some feel guilty for wanting to be their children’s primary caretaker. But this simply isn’t true — his children require his emotional presence just as much as Mom’s. Where are his priorities? How can he rearrange his career goals to be more emotionally available to his family?
Both father and mother must look at their children’s emotional needs and their own ability to meet those needs in order to prioritize the right things at the right time. This often requires creativity beyond “Dad is the breadwinner, Mom is the caretaker.”
And then it goes even further beyond individual families to our communities. Our culture doesn’t prioritize present parenting; it prioritizes the materialism of the American dream. We don’t value children’s needs, as evidenced by our largely ineffective schools and daycares and the subquality pay teachers and caretakers receive. Most of us who want to spend more time with our families simply cannot, because we’re expected to be on call on the job, put in overtime, take shorter maternity leave or let vacation days stack up unused, all to show we’re valuable workers. Our financial security depends on our workaholicism.
All of us — moms and dads and childless folks alike — suffer from a devaluation of emotional presence, whether that’s investing in our kids or in our friendships or in our marriages or in our mental health.
So, mamas, let’s lead a cultural revolution. Let’s stop talking about whether we’re going to be a stay-at-home mom or a working mom, and start talking about how we plan on being emotionally present for our children, our families, and ourselves.