Is it Possible to be a Feminist Stay-at-Home-Mom? Redefining “Women’s Issues”

25 10 2012

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Woman Work

I’ve got the children to tend
The clothes to mend
The floor to mop
The food to shop
Then the chicken to fry
The baby to dry
I got company to feed
The garden to weed
I’ve got shirts to press
The tots to dress
The can to be cut
I gotta clean up this hut
Then see about the sick
And the cotton to pick.

Shine on me, sunshine
Rain on me, rain
Fall softly, dewdrops
And cool my brow again.

Storm, blow me from here
With your fiercest wind
Let me float across the sky
‘Til I can rest again.

Fall gently, snowflakes
Cover me with white
Cold icy kisses and
Let me rest tonight.

Sun, rain, curving sky
Mountain, oceans, leaf and stone
Star shine, moon glow
You’re all that I can call my own.

Maya Angelou

In our modern conversation, the phrase “women’s issues” has become code for birth control coverage and abortion rights. How insulting is that? Sorry buddies, but this woman has far more pressing issues in my life.

I agree that both of these topics have a place in the conversation, but women are far more complex and are concerned with more than sex. Let’s try to expand that definition a bit.

Take a look at Maya Angelou’s “Woman Work,” and you’ll find that “women’s issues” extend well beyond reproductive matters.

The speaker in this poem starts out with a long series of couplets detailing her daily “to do” list. The rhyme and the rhythm in this first section creates a sense of the frantic pace of being a woman, and in particular, being a mother. Interestingly enough, even though the rhythm makes it sound a bit frantic, it also makes it sound a bit monotonous, as many days in the life of a mother can (paradoxically) seem.

If you take an even closer look at her list, you’ll see that it isn’t arranged chronologically—getting the tots dressed comes way after “company to feed”, “garden to weed”, and “clothes to mend”. This disorganization paints an accurate image of a woman with so much to do that she can’t keep things straight or think things through all the way. The way she’s running through her list makes me believe she feels overwhelmed in her many duties.

Woman in a rowing boat

Woman in a rowing boat (Photo credit: National Media Museum)

I feel overwhelmed for her just reading it. I want to go over and give her a hand.

But then I take pause. Things really haven’t changed too much for the modern mother since then, have they? Our culture has given us the script, and it reads that mothers must do everything. And do everything perfectly.

Impossible.

We cannot bi-locate. We cannot be perfect moms and perfect at work. Something has to give. We can pretend that we can do it all, but guess what? No one is happy doing that. Look around.

The speaker in the poem is a mother who works outside of the home. Check out where the two “work” related items fall in her list, the very last two:

“Then see about the sick/ And the cotton to pick.”

Her two outside jobs, tending to the sick and picking cotton, are the very last things on her overburdened mind.

That reminds me of where my work priorities were when I returned to work after having my twins. I really wanted to do it all. But I wasn’t on top of my game at work, and I wasn’t being the mom I wanted to be, either. Don’t get me wrong, I was still a good enough mother, and a good enough teacher, but that wasn’t enough for me. I had to make a painful choice.

And I know I am not alone.

Getting back to the poem for a minute, there is a dramatic change in tone and form after she goes through her list. The speaker, in contrast to the first part, is now speaking in very eloquent quatrains. She speaks poetically about her desire for a bit of rest and a return to nature. She addresses the sun, rain, wind, snow, and star shine, directly in what literary types call an “apostrophe”. What it boils down to is that she feels like she has nothing except nature. She doesn’t have any personal possessions.

Lately, I have had several conversations about the incredible difficulties women have deciding what to do after having children.

It is hard to leave a career you built, a career that you love, a career that makes you feel modern and feminist. But for many of us after having a baby, it is what we feel is the right thing to do for our families. It is the only option we are comfortable with.

I am the last person I ever thought would feel this way.

When I was pregnant with my twins, my superintendent came to talk to me a few days before I started maternity leave. I remember sitting sideways in one of the student desks as I talked to her (the only way my considerable girth would fit in the desk.) I told her I would be back in eight weeks, no doubt. She told me that I may change my mind. I was adamant that I wouldn’t. I had been there for nine years, and I had a position that I loved.

Well, I returned to work sixteen months later only to finish out the semester and resign when part-time work wouldn’t be negotiated. I am home now, and I am at peace with that decision, even though I miss having the ownership of something outside of the home, kind of like the speaker in the poem, in a way.

For me, the most important “woman’s issue” is finding a place of balance between work and home. Like the speaker in the poem, this would let mothers have the ability to both mother and have at least a partial ownership in their working world.

It would do MUCH more for us as individuals and as a nation if our employers could help mothers return to work in a more comfortable way; maybe let them share positions; work from home; who knows, get creative!

If we let Mom be present in her children’s lives more, AND let her still work in some capacity, we all will benefit, but

Especially

our children

will benefit.

This issue is more important to our nation than who is paying for the pills.

Some say that being a stay-at-home-mom is a luxury of the wealthy.

Baloney.

If you are not wealthy, it comes with considerable financial sacrifices, yes—but, for many, it can be done with creativity and serious downsizing, prioritizing.

Does that make me less feminist? Some would say yes.

Others would say No, and think yes.

No matter. I am happy with my rewritten script.

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13 responses

26 10 2012
Freeda Baker Nichols

Congratulations! Best post, best decision ever ! And your decision to be there for your children, all day every day, will reward you with dividends you never imagined.

26 10 2012
letstalkaboutlit

Thank you for the encouragement. We women really need to support each other more. There would be no stopping us if we could do that.

26 10 2012
adoptionista

Really interesting…as a lesbian feminist (currently staying home after our adoption), I struggle between where I’ll be happiest and what would be best for the kids. People think that power comes from the money-maker, but there is a lot of power held in the person making the childrearing decisions from 9-5!

26 10 2012
letstalkaboutlit

Thanks for your perspective on this. Congratulations, and good luck wrestling with the decision about going back to work– 🙂

26 10 2012
Audrey

You’re so right, there are way bigger issues for women than contraception and abortion rights. I get tired of hearing about that stuff because it can be so small in the scheme of things
Right now I’m not a mom but to me women’s issues consist of being a voice and help to other women who’s rights have been stripped from them. And some people think that’s being a strong feminist. Really it’s just conviction, and it’s powerful.
Just as powerful as a mom like you choosing to stay home with her kids. I’d like to stay home when I have kids. And I don’t that strips us of our ability to have an impact on the world, or to be strong women.
Great post, it really got me thinking. Thanks! 🙂

26 10 2012
letstalkaboutlit

Thanks for your kind words; I’m so glad I got you thinking. And right on–I totally agree with you! Being a strong voice for other women is an excellent way to display you feminism– The world would really change if more women would support each other rather than competing with each other all the time.

27 10 2012
The Slow Foods Mama

I’m right there in the feminist-stay-at-home-mum boat with you, and you’re right, it’s a tough go.

I have a hard time answering that annoying but well-meaning “what do you do?” question now. You don’t realize how tied you are to your profession until it changes to a less socially accepted one. For some reason, people – women in particular – are offended by the idea of a university educated woman staying home to cook and clean and garden and tend children.

For me, choosing to be at home has been a terrifying, liberating, empowering experience. I work paid work when I want to, don’t when I don’t. I am learning that my self-worth can be rooted in something much more meaningful and autonomous than my job title.

Government SHOULD be doing more to give women flexibility to find their own balance. Canada still needs work, but mothers – AND fathers get one year of PAID leave to raise children, their job is protected for their return, and employers are required to consider alternative working arrangements for working parents.

Good for you for following your heart. It takes a lot of courage and sets a brave example for your kids.

27 10 2012
letstalkaboutlit

Oh I agree completely! The “what do you do” question is tough because so many people give you a forced smile and patronizing “oh, that’s nice” answer. Then, always feel I need to defend myself and give my backstory-Which stinks-in other words, I tell them I am a stay at home mom, but before you totally discount everything I have to say, I was a teacher for ten years or so. Like women who never worked outside the home are somehow inferior?? Ugh. It is so strange that society doesn’t value women who raise their own children but at the same time claim that children are our number one priority.
I am so envious of Canada’s paid year of child rearing leave! That’s amazing! It is definitely a move in the right direction.
Thanks so much for adding to the conversation!

3 11 2012
taibatanjila

Hi Liz!

Thanks for following my blog 🙂 I checked yours and found this post.. I want to share little bit of my experience.. I am here in Pakistan and relating to your post I feel that its very better over here to some extent.. My mom, my aunts and my cousins are all working women and all of them are amazing mothers, not because they are very skilled or so much talented but they all had support from their families and workplace. Recently one of my cousin has joined back her school after one year, as she was taking care of her newborn. Moreover, my mom is a working woman and she has 7 children, even then she continued with great comfort, as her job is very flexible and her husband (My father) is a great man behind her. When my younger sister was born my mother took off from her office for two years and she gave a great time to her baby. So I personally feel though here in our society there are many hurdles for women but that’s not particularly our society’s problem, many others are suffering the same. But here working women enjoy a lot of benefits I think no other society would be enjoying.
I must add here, that we should accept this fact that we women are not actually parallel to men, no no I am not saying in that way.. I just mean we have different physical and psychological makeups. We women are naturally very fragile and too much sensitive, whether we accept this fact or not. I am doing my bachelors in Psychology and I have studied a lot about genders Psychology so personally I can’t deny this fact. Though many women are doing great great tough jobs, and have surpassed the performance of men at the same job, but I am sure they have had a tough time, they had to struggle more than any men, I appreciate them but I would greatly appreciate if a woman could understand herself and her needs. Women can give birth, men cannot.. They both have their own strengths and weaknesses, I can never understand how both of them are comparable. They both are mighty in their own specific jobs, and they can do their best at that. I appreciate your stay at home mom decision, may you grow a happy and blessed family 🙂 I wanted to say more but I think in doing so my comment might exceed even from your real post (wink). Loving blessings on your way..

Regards
Taiba Tanjila

3 11 2012
letstalkaboutlit

Taiba, thank you for your insightful comments. I am completely amazed to hear about the level of flexibility given to your mother in her work. She was really allowed to take two years off and then return? That’s wonderful. Would you say most positions are equally as flexible?

3 11 2012
taibatanjila

Yes really! but unfortunately there are many positions which don’t allow such flexibility, some jobs are very demanding like you can consider military jobs. People may not be agree with me, if I say military jobs are not very much suitable for women and I will be tagged as narrow minded who don’t believe in women’s strength and courage but by doing so reality cannot be changed. Many women are being so much harsh with them by doing the things which are giving them more than enough trouble.. This is the reason that I previously mentioned in my comment that It would be very appreciable if a woman can understand her needs, because its all about her most natural needs which should be fulfilled and its really not about being in a race. These are my very personal views.. loving blessings on your way dear Liz 🙂

3 11 2012
letstalkaboutlit

You make good points about the differences between men and women. We have our strengths and weaknesses, certainly. I don’t think anyone would deny that. I think women, at least women in the US, don’t usually have a problem in more traditionally “masculine” jobs until they become mothers–and even then, many don’t seem to have the difficulty I had continuing in their careers. I think the best thing for women (and the whole family) is to have many options available for flexible work while also treating women who stay at home as valued members of society, too. Thanks for the conversation–It’s a pleasure to talk to you!

4 11 2012
taibatanjila

Yeah! a woman at home is really a valued part of every society.. in my view she is responsible for growing a productive and healthy (physically and psychologically) generation.. No one can blame her for not doing anything good for others but she must be accountable for doing bad with her own family (I would say the same is applicable to a man).. Everybody should understand a stay at home mom is doing a great job for the whole society, she is constantly taking care of a scientist or may be a very talented person of future.. Thanks for your precious time, for the time you have given me here in conversation is a part of your blessed life and now it belongs to me.. very thankful 🙂

with love
Taiba Tanjila

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