We Need to Stop Sh*tting on Women Whose First Priorities Are Not Our Own

by Jenn M. Jackson

“Don’t marry her. She doesn’t want to work.”

I remember my then fiancé’s barber warning him about me when I mentioned potentially staying home during our marriage. Apparently, he didn’t approve. But he wasn’t the only one.

When I was engaged, I made “jokes” about becoming a stay-at-home mom. I knew my interest in doing so had to be expressed in a joking manner because I was expected to put my elite engineering degree to “good use.” But I wasn’t joking. I genuinely wanted to stay at home (if possible) when we started a family. It was the judgement of those around me that made me think there was something wrong with my choice.

Over the subsequent years, I have been a childless career woman, a working mom, and a stay-at-home mother. At each point, my role in the workplace and in my home was dictated by the needs of my family rather than the perceptions of others. Sadly though, many women are forced to choose between developing themselves professionally and building a home—not because they prefer one option over the other, but because society limits their options otherwise.

There are many women who don’t want children. There are women who only want to focus on their families. And then there are many who want children and also want fruitful, professional lives. To see a successful professional life and healthy home-making as mutually exclusive is to limit the kind of lives women feel free to lead. It positions the two as polar opposites, leaving women with a Sophie’s Choice: which part of her—the professional or the home life—gets to live?

For stay-at-home mothers, there is this unspoken assumption that, somehow, stay-at-home life is so much easier than being a career woman. When the truth is, societal pressures are tough on all women: working, mothering, or otherwise. For career-minded women who don’t have children, there are ideas that they are somehow less marriageable or flawed. The idea that these women actually enjoy their careers and want to grow in the professional world is forced to take a backseat to the assertion that a woman’s first duty is to raise a family. Frankly, it’s time we stop positioning the “career women” against the “full-time moms.” When we do, we produce a host of deeper issues which place undue burdens on women en masse.

Fundamentally, hetero-patriarchal society thrives on false limitations and narratives like these. By categorizing women who pursue careers as abandoners of the household realm, it continues the notion that work is “manly.” It makes labor characteristically masculine and therefore fundamentally in competition with home-life responsibilities.

This perception also implies that working outside of the household is the preeminent way to “provide” for one’s family. Like, somehow, being away from children and home responsibilities is more vital to their healthfulness than being there every day.

Conversely, positioning stay-at-home mothers as isolated, polar opposites of working and career-minded women helps to reproduce the idea that women belong in the home. It makes the argument that it’s not that these women choose not to work, it’s that they shouldn’t be working in the first place. These restrictive concepts are foundational to the self-perpetuating gender roles in the United States. When we imply that women who have commitments to their households are less committed to producing an honest day’s work, we are reproducing these gendered narratives to our own detriment.

A side effect of this absoluteness between the career world and home-life is the establishment of a corporate world which doesn’t have to consider the needs of working moms. It places career-minded moms in a precarious position where their commitment is questioned and they’re judged for trying to stay afloat both at home and at work. This is especially important when considering the burdens placed on working moms of color. In essence, our dichotomizing of women’s professional and family choices forces a choice that shouldn’t have to be made at all. And, in the process, it makes working harder for career-minded moms seeking a way out of the forced dichotomy.

While it is easy to simply conform to and reproduce gender stereotypes about women who work and those who choose to stay home, we have to understand that there are various reasons to do either. Like me, some women will change roles frequently as their lives change. Others may find themselves in only one camp throughout adulthood. And, that’s perfectly okay.

Choosing to work or stay-at-home is just that, a choice. It doesn’t reflect work ethic. It doesn’t automatically connote any character flaws. We have to realize that these personal – and sometimes unavoidable – choices are not ours to opine on or question. Once we get that lesson, we’ll all be better for it.

Photo: Shutterstock

Jenn M. Jackson is a regular contributor at For Harriet. For more about her, tweet her at @JennMJack or visit her website at jennmjackson.com.

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