Last year the New York Times opinion page published a piece by writer Kimberly Harrington, called, “Job description for the dumbest job ever.” What followed was a description of — wait for it — motherhood.
“You will be responsible for literally everything, including but not limited to keeping co-workers alive,” the author joked. “This position reports to co-workers younger and less qualified than you,” Harrington continued. And under “skills and experience,” she quipped, “nothing will prepare you for this.” Ha.
The depiction of the profession was largely tongue-in-cheek: “Become unnaturally intrigued by what gets stains out of clothing, trade tips with other moms and hate yourself for it.” But the author’s summary of motherhood was strikingly familiar. Like most good humor, that’s because it is rooted in truth.
Motherhood can be deflating and mundane. It is overwhelming and underappreciated. Ask any mom, and even on her best day, I doubt she’d disagree.
But it is also wholly and completely extraordinary.
My own mother reminded me of that truth three weeks ago, as I sat bleary-eyed on the couch, having just brought home from the hospital our third child, a newborn son: Motherhood is the hardest job you’ll ever love, she said.
She was right. And that truth doesn’t just apply to me.
There’s a reason that even in countries with generous maternity leave policies (which generally increase female workforce participation), many women still choose part-time work or forgo career advancement so they can prioritize motherhood. If given the option, plenty of women the world over would prefer to be home with their children full time, or at least more than full-time paid employment outside the home typically allows.
Paid family leave hasn’t yet been a hot topic during the Democratic presidential contest, but with Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders in the top tier of candidates, it soon will be.
And it’s worth remembering when the debates over universal pre-K and state-subsidized child care return, that many mothers in the United States would just as readily welcome government policies that make it easier for them to stay home with their kids than returning to work. Many families would rather subsist on a single income than hand their young children over to strangers.
Truly “family-friendly” policies, then, will empower women to make their own choices about work and home-life, not compel them to return to paid jobs that they, quite shockingly, may not find as fulfilling as the (very) latent rewards associated with “dumbest job ever.”
The policy debate is an important one, but that’s for another day, perhaps when my sleep deprivation isn’t so severe.
That brings me to some of the other challenging aspects of motherhood, some of which we bring on ourselves, like the always present, tugging need to set our own expectations for what we can and should be accomplishing as moms a bit too high.
Mothers, whether working outside the home or exclusively within it, hold fast to the notion that, ugh, “we can have it all.” Common sense — and the learned experiences of many smart and successful women who’ve tried and failed to achieve exactly that — remind us that having it all really isn’t possible, or desirable, at least not all at once.
As I was reminded after my own recent attempts to do “all the things” — grocery shopping, cleaning, running carpool — just days after bringing home my newborn, it’s okay to rely on others for help, especially in the days and weeks when the overwhelming nature of motherhood seems acute.
“In some cultures, mothers are waited on hand and foot for at least six months after giving birth,” a friend recently told me while delivering dinner so I didn’t have to cook. I meant to ask which cultures she was referring to — again, the sleep deprivation. I know, between the pressure to get back to the office, back to the gym and back to normal, American culture isn’t one of them.
But there is no culture I can imagine where motherhood isn’t hard, regardless of government policies or societal appreciations. It’s may be a dumb job, but it’s one that I’ll take any day.
Cynthia M. Allen is a columnist for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. Readers may send her email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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