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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