Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Professional Motherhood

Over at BabyCenter's MOMformation blog today there is a post by Betsy Shaw, one of its fine contributors. It was about a current poll on BabyCenter that asks, "Do you sometimes worry that you are not cut out to be a mom?" which has resulted in 77% of voters so far admitting that they worry about this. I was speedily reading along, when I suddenly came to this paragraph, which brought me to a halt:
"And sometimes I catch myself thinking 'this isn’t really how I imagined my life as a mother would be.' Then I hear, “Well how could it be? It’s not as if you spent a lifetime preparing yourself for the job.” How true. Unlike most professions, that require a regimented course of study, aided by experts in the field, before you are allowed to call yourself a “professional,” motherhood just sort of happens and y0u learn by design."
This is interesting to me. I'm sure it is the rare mom who doesn't wonder sometimes (or daily!) if she's up for the demands of parenting. (And I have no doubt that dads have the same concerns.)

But I stopped and thought for a long while about the concept of motherhood as a "profession" for which we might be unprepared. I mean, I understand what this means, which is that there's no parenting manual and we're all out there running around incredibly busy with the tasks associated with it, and it very often does feel like something one might refer to as a "profession".

But I still wonder how it is that some of us (namely, well-educated women in the middle-class and beyond, I'm guessing) have come to think of motherhood as a profession, something that extends far beyond the more basic premise of motherhood as the experience of being a female adult in a family who is raising children, something that's been integrated into women's lives since the beginning of time, and all over the world.

When did we start to look at it that way? I doubt most women in our mothers' generation had this perspective and wished they had the proper training to "get it right", worrying that one of the other play group moms was cut out for it better. And I don't think I'm reading too much into a little online poll, because the 77% results sounds about right, if not low, when compared to what I see and hear around me.

Matt summed this up recently. He asked with some frustration, "When did raising kids become such a Herculean task in our culture?"

Because - is it, really? For parents whose kids don't require unusual amounts of medical or therapeutic intervention, does it have to be such a task, one that many of us half-jokingly wish we'd gotten professional training for, beyond being surrounded by other mothers our entire lives? Or have our cultural expectations shifted in such a way that we have to give so much of ourselves to raise these children of ours that we've got nothing left for anything else at the end of the day?

It seems to me that there are many possible answers to this question. One might be that those of us who were raised in the '70s and '80s grew up hearing that we could "have it all", that the sky was the limit for women. Just do it! Many of us went to college and even went on to receive higher degrees, always striving towards a "professional" life. Whether we left our professional lives to raise children or not, perhaps we've brought that mindset to parenting - a need to excel, to keep our noses to the grindstone, and to prove our worth to others as has been expected of us all along the way.

The parenting pendulum has also swung back in favor of a more child-centered focus within our culture. More of us have a family bed, reject sleep "training", breastfeed our babies, and spend our days playing with them. We are told that the early years are highly critical for development and we pour whatever resources we've got (time, money, attention) into those years. One result of this is that we are with our kids a whole lot and they come to expect this of us, and there is no time or energy for much else.

It also occurs to me that perhaps there's been some backlash for mothers in the fight to gain recognition for the fact that raising children is hard work. Work without pay or benefits, for sure, unless you count the intangible benefits of time spent with young children, which society at large doesn't pay much attention to. I wonder if, in the fight to be seen as people who do work hard all day long and want to be recognized by society for it, we have also raised the bar on our own expectations of ourselves and each other to an unreasonably high level.

I'll be interested to hear what others think about this topic. Whatever the reasons for it, it's concerning to me that so many moms worry that we aren't "cut out" to be moms, that maybe we haven't got what it takes to do the job "right". Wouldn't it be a relief if more of us could enjoy the early years with our kids, worry less about what we're doing wrong, and revel in the knowledge that this is one "job" that doesn't include a nagging boss? We'd have so much more energy left over for ourselves, our partners, our friends, and our communities.

Because the truth is, children all over the world have been raised quite well, even without professional moms. What do you think?


CC said...

From a personal point of view, I say "Amen!" However, in my school, everyday I cringe that women and men are NOT trained before entering into this phase of life. Before we could adopt our children we had to go through many hours of classes, medical tests, interviews of ourselves and others. It was quite literally a job interview. Then I look at many of my students in foster care (or should be in foster care) because no one knows how to raise them. And then I really DO think parenthood is a profession and that not knowing anything can indeed hurt children.

Emily, as some know me said...

I think parenting classes could be useful for some people who just don't quite "get it," but I love being a mother and think I do a pretty good job of it. I don't overthink it (I don't think I do, do I? I wonder... ;-) ), I just do it. Yes, I worry and obsess about my children, but if I didn't have children, I'd worry and obsess about my dog or something. That's just me. I don't see being a mother as a profession, and I actually love love love to spend time with my children, just hanging out, talking, learning things, playing, hiking, doing whatever we do. We have a really good time together as a family and always have. As Bill Murray said in Lost in Translation, my children really are some of the most wonderful people I've ever met. I just love them, try to guide them where necessary, share as much humor with them as I can, and try to help them be resilient, happy, healthy people. If motherhood is a "job," that's my job. But it doesn't really feel like work to me.

Life As I Know It said...

Great, thought provoking topic!
I tend to agree with the theory that we are women who grew up in the 70's and 80's striving to have it all. Most of us (I am guessing) had careers before kids and face child rearing in the same way we did (or do) our careers.

Mari said...

great post! I think the only parenting book my mother had was dr Spock, and she discarded it after a very short time... After then I think she settled for me being in one piece at the end of the day :)
Professional/educated women seem to fret more about the parenting thing - is it because we are so used to studying for everything?
We also have a higher risk of PND - possibly because of the increased expectations we place on ourselves and motherhood.
There are so many parenting books there ready to tell us about the many ways we can traumatise our children for life and make us feel like we are not doing well enough. Maybe reading all these books and parenting magazines have proved to be both a help and a hindrance?

Betsy said...

Hello Jordan. Thanks to linking to my post over at Momformation. I hear what you are saying and want to explain that I hesitated at the word "professional" when I wrote it, but was in a hurry, as always, and since I had just used the word "expert" a few words back, I stuck with it. In hindsight, it's not really what I meant to convey. It's just that I find it almost funny when I hear myself, or any mother, say "This isn't what I expected," because, when you think about it, i's absurd to even have an expectation about something so all- encompassing and grand and wild as being a mom. I could go on and on about this, and maybe i will in another post. Thanks for the inspiration. I enjoy your insight.

Jen said...

I too commented on the Babycenter post and linked over to see yours. I remember asking my grandmother why my mom worked when I was a kid. She told me when she (my grandmother) was growing up, motherhood and family was pretty much the feminine "profession" of her day. She was raised and trained to be a mother and a wife. This was her job. (Considering the fact that she had seven children, I'm thinking she put in a LOT of overtime!)These days, boys and girls are being reared (at least the majority) differently, taught that they are both equally capable of doing anything they want in the workforce. When you think of a job, you think of a paycheck and benefits. When you think of raising a child, you think of no pay whatsoever, and the only benefits are the love you receive from your significant other or your child. I do have those moments of "What was I thinking?" and "Can I do this?" when my daughter challenges me and I can't think of a response that would be best at that moment. I also have those moments at work when a new project challenges me. Luckily, those thoughts are fleeting, I brain it out, and forge ahead. Maybe the fact that we're being raised differently these days lends to the outcry of uncertainty in parenthood. Teaching my daughter how to care for her baby doll will always be second behind education and her growing confidence. Great post, by the way. I really enjoyed it!

Jordan said...

I'm appreciating everyone's thoughtful comments on this - thanks! It's a big topic.

Betsy, thanks for coming by - clearly, your post was great and gave me lots of food for thought. ;-) I know what you mean about having to choose words quickly sometimes, but I also think that "professional" was a good word choice because it does describe the way in which lots of us do treat motherhood. And it fit in so well with the poll about how many of us feel we aren't cut out for motherhood at least some of the time. We're so hard on ourselves!

The way our generation approaches motherhood is something I've been thinking about for a long time and your post gave me the right jumping-off place to start exploring it out loud, so thank you! I'll look forward to more posts from you at BabyCenter.

Lori at Spinning Yellow said...

Jordan - Great discussion here! I am intrigued by what Jen said about how we are raised and are subsequently raising our girls. I feel that way about being a mom because I wasn't all that interested in learning how it was done when I was growing up. I thought, "I'll have a career", and maybe a kid. So my focus wasn't on gaining job-skills related to parenting, nor am I thinking about that for my children. But maybe I should be.

Also, notice how old forms say: Work status - employed, unemployed, or housewife? As a SAHM, I know that my collegues and I find the term "housewife" offensive, we aren't staying out of the workforce to cook and clean, we are "raising children". While my mom would think the term SAHM was ridiculous. Being a mom is not a profession to her, it is a relationship, like being a wife or a sister. I think, as you say, our generation has decided to call ourselves SAHM's to get recognition.

Last night I felt like a shitty mother, I was nasty to my kids, short-tempered and cruel. But I don't think that any amount of training could change the fact that sometimes I suck at being a mom. Not most of the time, but sometimes. That's just life and none of us are all that prepared for those days.

All that said, I do think that it would be wonderful if everyone went to parenting workshops and had access to help for their particular issues. It's like how the hospital has mandatory pre-birth classes for anyone who plans to have a baby there, but as for parenting advice? Totally optional and barely existent!

Jordan said...

Lori, this:

"As a SAHM, I know that my collegues and I find the term "housewife" offensive, we aren't staying out of the workforce to cook and clean, we are "raising children". While my mom would think the term SAHM was ridiculous. Being a mom is not a profession to her, it is a relationship, like being a wife or a sister."

is very much the distinction I've been thinking about - you said it so well. The fact that a generation ago "mother" referred to a relationship (albeit one that has always brought with it extra work!) rather than a "job".

I know Lori is responding from the SAHM angle because that's what she does, but I want to be sure it's clear that I'm not just referring to moms who are home full-time with kids. I think it's way more culturally pervasive than that.

For example, I had to laugh this afternoon when I left work to register the boys for a good intensive summer swim class - this registration had to happen in person, today, a distance from work, and took up a large chunk of time. But - kids first! And then in line I was surrounded by moms who knew each other and were busily comparing what activities their kids were doing, whether their HS kids were in pre-calc yet or not...and I couldn't help but think of this discussion!

Don Mills Diva said...

Great post - very thought-provoking. I might be in the minority but I don't think raising kids is overly, overly complicated in many ways (healthy kids anyway). It's just plain HARD work and common sense. I think people are just unprepared (myself included) by how much HARD WORK it is and that's why we question things so much. I think perhaps in the past women, sadly, were accustomed to a lot more drudgery and therefore questioned their lot less. I'm oversimplyfying obviously but you get the idea...

Shan said...

Ooh, don mills diva makes a GREAT point, in my opinion.

This discussion is fascinating to me, and I would love to go on and on about it. However, the truth is that after two 9-1/2 hour days of nonstop childcare (two very young children, zero concurrent napping, one of them sick, husband working late, zero breaks for me during the day from kid-care and kid-interaction), and am 100% depleted and have no energy, at all, to participate here. And I guess maybe that's part of why so many think of SAHM-hood as a profession--like you said, it's damn hard (I always say it's WAY harder than my previous, paid profession, and that's absolutely the truth for me even though I worked as a clinical psychologist treating teens and families with things like eating disorders, suicidal depression, and drug problems!), and the only way to convey the difficulty of the "job" is to describe it as a job.

There's so much more to say, but...I'm in a total coma right now and my brain is not working.

Jordan said...

The following came from Shannon via email, she was having trouble posting her comment:

"Now that I've had some sleep, I thought of a couple more points to add.

First, although as I said in my comment above, to me being a full-time SAHM feels much harder than my previous paid work (because of the lack of regular adult contact during my workday, lack of breaks during the day, and the demand for near super-human reserves of patience and energy), and although yes, it is what I am doing as my job right now, I don't consider it my profession. If someone asks me my profession, I answer, "Clinical psychologist." And then I add that I'm home full-time with my babes right now.

I don't consider motherhood my profession per se (and Betsy qualified her use of that word in her comment earlier), but I do think it's extremely difficult and draining, and that it often does not get the respect it deserves because our culture doesn't perceive it as actual "work." So perhaps defining moms as professionals is a way to demand legitimacy for such an important job.

I also think there is merit to the ideas a.) that those of us "strivers" by definition have high-achieving personalities, and so we naturally funnel those high expectations for "success" (whatever that means) into parenting as well as any other previous profession, and b.) that mothering--especially full-time mothering--is often much more difficult than one expects before doing it for the very reason that none of us are "trained" for it and therefore we only THINK we know what to expect! There is no way to fully understand how draining and isolating it is to be a SAHM to very young children, especially when one is used to a job with colleagues for company and daily, if not hourly, support, true lunch breaks, and time to take a breath and recharge one's batteries with a ten-minute coffee break. So when one is thrown into this life of full-time mothering, perhaps it feels just as challenging as any other profession and therefore seems as though it deserves the tag of "profession"---and, thus, those who are doing it may approach it as "professionals" as well."