Submitting to the Work of Motherhood

There is a recurrent theme in many of the blogs and articles my female peers share online: I’m a mom and I’m tired.

I like these articles. They speak to my own experience and I find them refreshingly honest. But, ladies, are we really surprised? Why is it that my generation of women is so disenchanted by the amount of investment and the physical, mental, and emotional work required of motherhood, especially of the stay-at-home variety?

Part of our problem is that, somewhere along the line, the popular narrative of womanhood starting painting motherhood as a side gig, something we could do in our spare time. Parenting and educating our kids–even our newborns–became something we could outsource to a professional while we pursued other work.

Can we outsource our mothering? Sure. For the right price. (I mean, the wealthy have done it for generations.) But it’s a price many of us are not willing pay–even if we could.

I, for one, like seeing the increase in public acknowledgement of the work of motherhood. It validates what we all know: motherhood is work. It’s damn hard work. The women I know who do it full-time (in place of working outside the home) are exhausted. And the women I know who are mothers on top of another career are exhausted in maybe a more profound way. And it’s good that we’re admitting it.

For my part, I strongly affirm a woman’s decision to stay home full-time with her children. In fact, I strongly encourage it as the “Plan A” for all mothers of young children for many reasons–economic, spiritual, emotional, etc.. I know that, by saying this, I run the risk of offending some of my friends who have chosen another plan or feel like Plan A just didn’t work for them. But my goal is not to shame those women. (In fact, it took me 7.5 years of motherhood to finally stay home full-time and, even now, I still take freelance work on the side.) My goal, instead, is to validate the work of motherhood and affirm those who have submitted to it as such.

All blogs and op ed articles aside, we don’t do a good job of encouraging women in the work of motherhood. Instead, among my peers, we praise young women for pursuing professional degrees that will take 5-10 years of their child-bearing lives before they then commit to another 5-10 years of career building. And conversely, even if we claim otherwise, we perceive stay-at-home motherhood as a pit stop for women, something they do only while their children are very young, before they get to the fulfilling work they will do outside of the home once their children are in school (as if the work ends when our children turn 6).

Now, obviously, no good mother “turns off” her mothering. I know many fantastic mothers who are trying to balance both a career and home life and even a woman who works 50 hours a week outside of the home is never not a mother. Motherhood is a 24/7 job and the nuclear family is the single-most influential institution in a child’s life. This is only more affirmation that we need to respect the work of motherhood as not only hard work in and of itself, but an entirely different kind of work than all other work that a woman could choose. And we need to treat it as not equal but actually paramount to whatever other work she does.

Do I mean to say that women cannot or should not pursue professions that require investment outside their home? Maybe. Maybe not. Asserting either would be beside my point. I’m more interested in exposing our double-standard in the way we affirm other work above motherhood so that women who do choose motherhood to be their work feel validated in that decision.

And then I’d like to encourage mothers to submit to motherhood as work the same way they would any other career or vocation.

To illustrate my point: A medical student knows that she is going to have to invest the next 7-10 years of her life in pursuing her career. The road is long and will require many sacrifices. Her social life, her financial security, her 8 required hours of sleep, her diet, even her sex life. They will all take the back seat at some point to her pursuit. But is it worth it? To her, yes. There is a goal at the end: a medical career and the professional, ideological, personal, and social perks it brings.

But what about a woman’s 7-10 (or 20+) year investment in motherhood? What does she have to look forward to at the end of the road other than a ten year void on her professional resume and weird looks from the other people at dinner parties when she says she’s “just a mom?”

Motherhood supplies no PhD. No paycheck (though we could argue the financial benefits of staying home vs. working). There is no guaranteed social capital or respect among peers.

But there are the children.
Are they not enough?

Is it not enough to invest our lives in producing a handful of mentally, emotionally, and spiritually healthy kids? Kids who have been disciplined and educated consistently by people who know them and love them? Kids who are emotionally secure and attached so they can go into the world and continue to produce likewise healthy and secure children on and on into the future?

And what about the personal benefits of motherhood?

What about the way it pushes us physically, mentally, and emotionally? What about the things it teaches us about our own limits and capacity to grow and change? What about the way it exposes our best and worst selves and sanctifies us over and over again? What about the way it brings a part of us to life that doesn’t really exist when exercised any other way? What about the way motherhood binds women together across cultures and generations?

Is that not worth “taking a few years off?”
Isn’t that a kind of work worth submitting yourself to for a while?

Let me clarify what “submitting to the work of motherhood” does not mean:

It does not mean you will only be a mother. It does not mean that you stop being a wife or a friend or a teacher or a marathoner or a bird watcher. It does not mean that, when introduced in public, you have to always list your role as “mom” first. This does not need to be the only thing people know about you.

It does not mean you cannot find work on the side to help pay your family’s bills. It does not mean you should never get paid to write or to babysit someone else’s children or to sell beauty products. It does not mean saying “no” to offers to consult professionally if you have the capacity to do so.

It does not mean your husband should never help clean the house or that you can’t pay a babysitter to watch the kids. It does not mean you have to homeschool the kids or bake your own bread or knit them all winter hats. It does not mean you may no longer order pizza on Friday nights after a long week.

It does not mean you have to have six to eight kids. And it does not mean you have to have them when you’re a newlywed 22. And, it does not mean you’re less of a mother if it takes until you’re 45 and become a foster parent instead.

Lastly–submitting to the work of motherhood does not require you idolize motherhood. You need not obsess over your children. You need not talk about them constantly. And you need not lose sleep over how frequently you fail and screw it up. (Because, yes, you will surely screw it up. No one is good at all motherhood requires. I humbly submit myself as evidence of this.)

What this does mean:

Submitting to the work of motherhood means walking into the job expecting it to be hard and committing to do it well the same way–or more than–you would any other job. It means letting motherhood be the kind of work that your children are worthy of. And it means letting motherhood make you a better woman for it.

It means that, when you meet a woman who is a stay-at-home mom, you should not pity her as if this is all she could have done and you should not shame her for not having a profitable career. Instead, you should validate her decision the same way you would validate any woman engaged in valuable work–like a woman who you can learn something from.

Husbands, it means validating your wives for the hard work they do and how much easier it makes your life. Your wife lives a world that is still waiting for her to find a “real job” and she needs to know what these sacrifices mean to you and your kids. It means reminding her that her work will bear fruit (because she won’t always believe it). Practically-speaking, it means helping her find solutions that streamline and ease the labor especially since, out of necessity, most of the daily maintenance of a home will probably rest on her. (This also means ensuring she gets a legit Sabbath when–or before–she needs it.)

I hope that, if you are a mom (or wish to be), you will stop selling yourself short. The work is hard and the value of motherhood is immeasurable. It’s okay to be tired.

Mothers, do not be ashamed to commit a long, hard 5 or 10 or 20 years to working at this like it’s your job. Because it is.