Saturday, April 01, 2006

Reclaiming "Mom"

About a year after I had Geeky Boy, my inlaws were all visiting and we were all talking and my sister-in-law said in response to something about clothes or fashion or something, "I just don't want to look like a mom."

My mother-in-law and I looked at each other and Mr. Geeky piped up, "I think you just insulted the two moms in the room."

The sil tried to backpedal but it was too late. And, in truth, she'd expressed a sentiment I'm sure I myself had thought (though certainly not said out loud). It wasn't about the clothes for me as much as the whole image of motherhood. I held in my mind a rather negative image of motherhood. Partly, this was because of my own problematic relationship with my mother, but partly, it was a social construction. Mothers, while revered in some circles, very easily get labelled in negative ways. Often, one hears such postulations as "She's just a mom." There is that kind of derogatory sense that a mom, even a good one, is a lesser being.

I felt that negativity going into being a mother. I'm surprised I didn't slide into full-blown post-partum depression. Actually, I think I might have if not for the fact that I had to return to work a mere 6 weeks after my baby's birth. But work kept me sane and it gave me another identity to hold onto. I wasn't "just a mom." I was also a worker.

I no longer have negative feelings about my identity as a mom. But that identity is perhaps the most difficult one I have to contend with because the world often defines it negatively. Stay at home moms are bad because they're not "working" or they can be bad if they parent "incorrectly." Working moms are bad because they're not at home. Moms dress sloppily or shop all the time (either is bad). They obsess about their children too much or not enough. When things go wrong with any aspect of childrearing, the mom is to blame. Fighting all these stereotypes takes a lot of work. I don't like being boxed in and being thought of in a certain way simply because my body reproduced. The same doesn't hold true for men (though there are other issues there, another post's full).

So I want to reclaim "Mom" as a more positive moniker. One of my students this weekend said to me, "You really are a mom." And because I know her and know a little of how her mind works, I took it in its most positive sense. I was actually flattered by it. I think (and she can correct me if I'm wrong) that she meant it as something like the following:
  • She provides a safe place for people. People can speak their mind to a mom and know that she won't castigate them if she disagrees.
  • She listens.
  • She is patient.
  • She keeps your secrets.
  • She supports people in their growth (just as she does with her children).
  • She gives advice that will help people make good decisions about the directions they'd like to take in life.
  • She successfully juggles many things.
  • She often directs and manages a substantial budget and schedules for several people.
  • She is good at long-range planning as well as meeting daily needs.
These are just some of the skills that many moms possess or develop and then use on a daily basis. Some of them fall into that horrible category of "nuturing" skills. I like to think of them as managment skills. Being patient is just as important for managing a project or a company as it is for dealing with the toddler who refuses to get dressed. Anyone ever have to sit through a meeting or listen to someone give a report for the third time? Supporting people in their growth--good for children and also good for employees.

I still don't like to be stuck in just one box. And I don't think anyone should be. Even someone who is mothering full time has other identities that may hold equal value with their identity as a mom: wife, sister, aunt, concerned citizen, volunteer, writer, artist. I value the skills I've developed primarily in my role as a mother. I think they've been extremely useful in my work life.

As I shared some of my challenges as a parent with my students, they also shared their own misgivings about becoming parents themselves. The whole process sounds difficult to them. And I wouldn't disagree. It's absolutely a lot of work. And I'm not going to sugarcoat it with the typical, "but there are many rewards." There are. But there's no guarantee that there will be. Unlike other jobs you're dissatisfied with, it's hard to leave this one. I wonder, though, if some of the students' misgivings have anything to do with the negative connotation "mom" sometimes has. As I said at the beginning, I certainly had that in mind and that was why, in part, my sil's words stung. And is there any way to correct this image without lapsing into some kind of "angel in the house" syndrome?