Monday April 23, 2012

RICHMOND

Perhaps since time began, the term "working mother" has meant a woman who has children and a paying job. The phrase was never intended to denigrate those women who focused on home and raising children.

What is true, in the midst of what is close to an absurd "issue," is that some "working mothers" would give their right arm to stay home with the kids and others would give their right arm to not stay at home with the kids.

Both kinds of mothers can bring up great kids, and both kinds can fail miserably. So when the stay-at-home trumpets the success of her offspring, it's ridiculous. Having a job doesn't make or break a marriage or a kid, nor does staying home guarantee virtue all around.

Amazingly, with all that women have achieved in recent decades, many still don't accept that it's fine to stay home or it's fine to work.

Some of these (Lucy would call them blockheads) are men, like the Richmond town official who once remarked that we didn't need to pay market rates to the town treasurer and tax collector because these were pin money jobs for women. (But they were expected to perform as professionally as if they were in the marketplace.)

Remarkably, some of the naysayers are women, like the prominent local resident, gainfully employed outside her home, who scornfully asked at a public meeting, "What do those women who stay home do all day?" One thing they do is drive the car pools that take working mothers' children to after-school activities.

They are also volunteers. Professional women may pitch in, but the stay-at-home mom is far more likely to be involved not only at school but in a host of other community activities. More working moms may be one reason we have trouble finding volunteers these days.

Just before our first baby arrived, I quit my job, knowing I was the appointed caregiver. It was upsetting. I didn't even know this small person, and I was giving up a career I loved so I could feed him, bathe him, change his diapers, accept the fact that it would be months before he talked to me - and hope five o'clock would come quickly so I'd have an adult to talk to.

It turned out to be a fine experience, certainly enhanced by the fact that I quickly became a free-lancer who could work at home. That baby must have wondered why the other women in his life weren't attached to typewriters. His mother was. Later on, when I had to be away from home free-lancing, it was obvious that some of the stay-at-homes were clucking a bit with disapproval.

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We have a long way to go, not just on the equal pay issue, before women will be properly recognized for what they do in either milieu - at work or at home. The mother who is at home "don't get no respect," as Rodney Dangerfield used to say. And the mother in the workplace, who still has to field calls about problems her offspring are having, may put up with a lot of junk from the unmarried professional females around her.

What a stay-at-home mother deals with all day is what working mothers have to handle after their work day. And in many workplaces, no quarter is given for issues that may arise on the home front. Both have pressure cooker days, but the stay-at-home mother has little fear that a mistake will get her fired.

I've stood in both places and in between. None of it was simple, especially when a 40-hour job came along and the family had the crazy idea that mom would be gone all day, but nothing would change in their lives.

That's ages ago. In the meantime, we apparently haven't gained much in the way of respect for our decisions. It's not an "us and them" thing. It's we.

Ruth Bass, a former Eagle Sunday editor, is author of two historical novels.