I’m about to declare a Godwin’s Law-style prohibition on the phrase “working mom” and the arguments that ensue therefrom. The phrase itself, if used and understood to indicate the conventional meaning of “wage-earning mother” is fine, but it seems it rarely is used and understood this way… instead it’s used or understood to mean that only some kinds of mothers work, and that’s insulting to other kinds of mothers who also work, and then we get into arguments about what kind of work is harder, and by the way has anyone noticed that we never talk about working dads?
The recent example, of course, is the Hillary Rosen/Ann Romney bickering. Rosen unfortunately used the phrase “never worked a day in her life” which instantly turned the conversation into the old “working mom vs. stay-at-home mom” debate, and took the attention off the valid point to be made, which is that Romney has no personal point of reference (that I know of) for understanding the economic concerns of many American women: concerns about being able to afford food and shelter for their households, schooling for their children, maybe some extra money to participate in various enriching activities. I’ve moved down the ladder of economic privilege in my lifetime, so I know how blind people can be to the daily concerns of people on rungs lower down. That moment when homelessness first comes into your view as something that could actually, conceivably happen to you — even while still a distant and unlikely possibility — is not to be forgotten, and I would be surprised to hear that either Ann or Mitt Romney has ever experienced it.
The “working mom” debate… it’s just stupid, and insulting to all parents. Mothers who don’t earn wages are insulted because it implies that they don’t work hard. Then mothers who do earn wages are insulted because the response implies that they don’t raise their children. And fathers are insulted because nobody seems to acknowledge their role in the raising of children, whether they earn wages or not. Rancor for everyone!
So let’s clear this up: Every parent works hard. (I am using the word “parent” here to mean people who are invested in the care and raising of children, so absent/deadbeat moms and dads are excluded by definition, and stepparents/foster parents are included.) Parents of young children work pretty much 24/7, with maybe an hour off every now and again when they’re able to afford a babysitter or another family member takes over the childcare. Some parents do the same kind of work all day, and some parents switch it up by doing wage-earning work and then coming home for the domestic shift. Some parents have domestic helpers in the form of spouses/partners, nannies, housecleaners, or older children, and some do everything by themselves. But they’re all working, all the time.
Second point: From my observations, most if not all parents feel like they are working at maximum capacity. This is why parents say to others with more children, or less help, or additional burdens, “I don’t know how you do it!” It’s usually literally true: the parent with one child and a weekly cleaning service feels like they are run to the bone and constantly working, so they can’t imagine how a parent with three children and sole responsibility for housework copes. Conversely, a parent with three children under the age of six often looks back on the days when their firstborn was an only, and thinks how easy they had it. But they didn’t think it was easy at the time, and I don’t advise telling them you think it is. Parents, especially parents of young children, work just about as hard as they can imagine working, no matter what their situation is. (I know much less about parenting older children, but I hear parents of teenagers also fondly remember how easy they had it when their child could be physically plucked from danger.)
So let’s just stop arguing about how hard different kinds of parents work, okay? It’s not edifying, and it makes everybody look ignorant and unfeeling (and that doesn’t count the people who are actually being ignorant and unfeeling.) You want to talk about how Ann Romney may not be the best person to go to for understanding the economic concerns of working-class mothers? Go right ahead. But don’t start an argument about parenting and difficulty and what kind of work counts as “work.” We’ve had that one already, and it’s stupid.