learning the words: working mother

Joan from Mad Men

Today’s guest post is from Katy. “Learning the Words” is a series on the words many of us didn’t have in fundamentalism or conservative evangelicalism– and how we got them back. If you would like to be a part of this series, you can find my contact information at the top.

I’m the oldest of five children and we were all homeschooled (K-12).  During my junior high and high school years, my family attended a church on the divide of fundamentalism and conservative.  Fortunately, my parents have always placed an extremely high priority on education.  My mother was the first person in her family to attend college and my father is a second-generation Ph.D. scientist.  They were extremely clear that all their children were expected to get at least a bachelor’s degree before getting married.  (I think they watched several families break up because the woman wanted to “find herself” and they were determined that none of their children, especially their four daughters, would get married too early.)

As I grew up, I learned that women who continued working after having kids were “selfish” and weren’t making choices that were “best for her family”.  It did worry me because I have always been very career minded and I didn’t want to go through all the education and just work a few years before having children.  But my mother would use her mantara “an education is never wasted” and tell me that maybe I would raise a child (a son, of course) who would change the world.

This never came to a crisis point because I never meet anyone that I was interested in who was also interested in me.  (I think I may have frighten them since I could out think and out reason most of them.)  I graduated toward the top of my class with a bachelors in physics and mathematics.  I went to graduate school in physics and graduated five years later with my Ph.D. in theoretical physics (just as planned).  Then I got my dream job: teaching physics at a small liberal-arts college.

Along the way, I dealt with depression.  Fortunately my parents were very supportive and got me into counseling and a doctor’s office less than a week after they figured out what was going on.

Since then my depression has come and gone and come and gone several times.  It’s always worse when I had unstructured work time.  (E.g. after I finished my classes in grad school and was working on my thesis.)  After I got my job, the academic year would be incredibly productive and then breaks were awful, I couldn’t get anything done, I would spend days just sitting on the sofa.  So I started returning to my parent’s home to spend the summer with them and my younger siblings still at home.  These summers were significantly more productive than being on my own.

I think I might be the only person on campus who actively loathes long breaks.  I love spring break, but the four weeks between semesters and the endless summer months are far too long for me.

A few years into my job, I realized that even if I had kids someday in the future, I could never quit my job and become a full-time at-home mother.  I would become depressed in a matter of months.  And that, being depressed all the time, that would destroy my future family.  The only way I could be healthy (essential for a having a healthy family) was to keep working.

Embarrassed, I talked with my mom about it.  She agreed with me!  Staying home was not an viable option for me and that a mother working full-time was the best thing for some families.

This past week, I was at home visiting (winter break — four long weeks without school).  As is tradition, I went to lunch with my dad.  We talked mostly about my boyfriend (my first!  Of course, he’s fantastic, I have very good taste.).  But one thing he said in passing was that he and my mom had already decided (between the two of them) that I should be a working mom — it was the best thing for me and my future family.  It was very comforting to know that my conclusions are the same as two of the people who know me best.  (I tend to see my parents as free advice — some people pay millions for personal advice.  I listen and then decide what I want to do.)

I’m claiming “working mother” as my word.  It will be my way of raising healthy kids which would be impossible if I stayed at home full-time.

Note:  if you or anyone you know is struggling with depression, there is help.  Depression is an illness and you can get better.  Like most illnesses, depression will not resolve on it’s own, you need professional care from experienced doctors and counselors.  Please do not delay, make an appointment to see your doctor immediately and ask him/her for a recommendation for a counselor.

If you have a loved one struggling with depression, I can recommend that you read Brooke Shields’ book on her experience with postpartum depression.  After my mom read it, she began talking in ways that I understood and was incredibly encouraging to me.  This book changed my life and I’ve never even read it (I have no desire to relive the dark times).

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  • Extremely good and encouraging. I’m so glad you (who wrote the article) found a way to face your depression! I liked physics and mathematics too – btw.

  • This is an interesting one for me to read; I’m the child of working parents. I started going to town babysitters shortly after birth because my mother had a choice between being a ‘working mom’ and being able to afford things for her children and being a stay-at-home mom and having to fight for every cent. I feel like there was a huge value in my working mother; I never ever ever have seen women as anything less than equal to men and I never had to fight that pervasive teaching that women belong anywhere other than wherever they themselves want to be.

    There’s something that troubles me, in your post, too; you talk about your parents getting together and deciding that being a working mom is the right choice for you with this sort of relief in your tone, and I understand that to an extent, but… you’re an adult. What they decide is right for you doesn’t really mean anything next to your OWN decisions, which you of course do own. But it troubled me just a little to see your parents ‘decide’ what they think you should do, when you’re old enough to make those decisions for yourself and what they SHOULD be deciding is just to support whatever you choose wholeheartedly.

    Ugh. It’s such a nitpicky point, and I’m not even nitpicking your response so much as I was hoping you’d elaborate a little bit on it in a reply? Just because it’s so far outside my experience.

    • Caroline M.

      Good point. I think it’s understandable though. To have your parents disapprove of almost all the life choices you’ve made really, really sucks. So when you do get their approval about something, let alone support, it’s a huge relief. I agree that we as adults shouldn’t need our parents’ approval, but it’s a very human desire nonetheless.

      • True. I think I just hit a mental wall at that part.

  • EV


    I’ve come to be OK with myself. I’m not a cuddly mom. My husband is a cuddly dad. He stayed home (worked from home) with the boys when they were younger. I worked full time. He played Legos and built fantastical creatures while I organized Legos. He read books to them while I did the finances. I’m incredibly involved in our children’s (now teens’) lives. But I’m not involved in the traditional mom way. I’m not made to be that way. It’s taken years for me to overcome my programing and know what works for our family and not apologize or feel guilty about it.

    It is nice to hear about other folks being good with themselves and their natural tendencies. Thanks again.

  • Always glad to see more stories of this type.

    My situation is one that the fundamentalists like to pretend doesn’t exist – whenever I hit them over the head with my story the more compassionate ones will say, “Oh well you’re the exception!” while persistently failing to see why forcing women into the institutional vulnerability of being a stay-at-home parent is a bad thing.

    I’ll explain – when I got married the first time I was 20 years old and so excited. I wanted nothing more than to be a stay-at-home mom with 6 kids. The plan was, when they were all old enough to be in school, I would finish school in international economics / business and find a job that would change the world by working toward bringing economic development into remote areas of the world to help lift whole populations out of poverty. Lofty goals, I know, but I was young!

    Within a month after marrying my best friend, it was like flipping a switch. Over the next couple years, he was unfaithful and abusive – you name it, it happened. Finally, it sunk in that even though marriage is sacred and lifelong and divorce is the Greatest Evil to ever befall Western civilization (as if), the bottom line was that I needed to survive in order to take care of my two daughters.

    So – a divorce, a degree, and a few years into a successful career later, I met and married my husband. And you know what makes sense for our family? For me to be the breadwinner and him to be the stay-at-home dad. And for that I am an abomination of a woman and my husband is less of a man, according to certain fundamentalists.

    So yeah, sorry for being a feminist and providing for my family, putting a roof over their head and food on the table.

  • This is a really great series you’ve got going. I can’t wait for the next installment!

  • Good for you!! And kudos to your folks, for setting aside their fundamentalist views in favor of what’s truly healthy and right for their child. Not every mom is meant to be a “stay at home” mom. I argue that ALL mothers are “working mothers”. You can’t be a mother and not work. Having a career outside the home just means that you outsource some of your job- to day care and so on, but you’re still a “working” mom in both senses of the word.

    I’ve been both- a stay at home and career mom. Both are hard. Both have rewards and sacrifices. Both are fulfilling, in different ways. And both are blessed… so blessed.

    I believe God knew exactly what he was doing when he knit you together in the womb… and he’s proud, like a Daddy should be. 🙂 <3

  • OMG, I would love to talk to you, Katy. I’m also a Physicist, currently with a Masters Degree and I just finished applying to PhD programs. I was pretty burned out on school after my first 6 years and grad school was an absolute nightmare, mostly because of my family becoming abusive and controlling when I came out as a lesbian. Between that, trying to figure out my sexuality, being spiritually abused at my church, becoming depressed and suicidal, and self harming… all on top of trying to get a Masters Degree in Astrophysics at a school in a foreign country… I definitely nearly dropped out several times. Because of this, I have been pretty hesitant to go back, but I really want my dream job of (you guessed it) teaching Physics at a small liberal arts college. I don’t think I can get that without a PhD. Are these sorts of job opportunities hard to find? What was your experience with it? I’d love a little encouragement or advice because I want so badly to reach my goals, but I’m scared of not being able to survive another round of schooling.

  • Courtney

    Thank you for this! I learned my work ethic from my mom. She’s worked 12 hour shifts for the past 20 years and is finally coming up on retirement later this year. My dad’s also a really hard worker, but I always remember my mom working those extra long shifts, and then being on her hands and knees scrubbing the floors and cleaning the bathroom on her days off.

    Plus, going to daycare or other after-school programs was fun for me as a kid. There weren’t many kids in my neighborhood, but I got to play with tons of friends at daycare, and also play with lots of cool toys I didn’t have space for at home (like building ginormous house forts out of fake bricks!) Overall, I’m definitely glad my mother worked. It was more fulfilling for her AND for me, and it taught me invaluable lessons about working hard and giving everything my best effort.

  • WeI now have three grandchildren, but when the kids were small I spent the summers with them (teacher) while my wife worked, the church (Southern Baptist) couldn’t put much guilt on her because she’s worked at the state convention for over thirty years now. What was fortunate was both our parents live in town and they looked after them instead of daycare, big savings on small salaries. Wife’s mother never worked or learned to drive a car. Wife vowed growing up she would work and not be chained to the house. She felt bad about missing both children’s first steps and a few other milestones, and if they had a boo boo they ran to me, but the joy she’s had over the years working offsets a few things like that. I’m retired and she’s still plugging away, not going to retire until she’s 65.

  • My parents had six children, four early on, and then the last two later in life. My mom was a stay at home mom until the finances got really tough. Going to work was the best medicine for my mom. During her stay at home years, she was depressed, angry, and frustrated by the needs of many little children. She did her very best, but having fewer children would have been better for her. Being a career woman earlier would have helped her sanity. Once she was out in the world, working full time as a bookkeeper, her self esteem went way up and she had better coping skills. Not every mother is meant to stay at home, that’s for sure.

  • SunnySide

    Ugh, I hear you! I really could not be a stay at home mom – actually, just going from FT student working 20-40 hrs a wk to only working 30 hrs a week was terrible for me. In a way I needed the break, I was totally burnt out and couldn’t make career decisions or feel ambitious. The job is one I believe in, but it’s…a lot like childcare, actually. It’s necessary for someone’s well being, but it can be very frustrating or boring, too. Obviously I can’t keep up the old schedule, it wasn’t good for me, but having a schedule, med to high level of engagement and accountability is hugely necessary for me to function on a daily basis. So I’m going back to school for a degree that will let me do something similar to what I do now in a more challenging, meaningful way.

  • Thanks for writing about this! The decision about what to do with yourself after the kids are born is so personal, yet no matter what your decision is, somebody will still find fault. My mom and I were talking about this recently. She is of the opinion that at least some of the pressure on fundamentalist women to stay home with the kids is because of a jealous yearning (maybe not right phrase) for the upper-class lifestyle of the last 100 years, or perhaps lingering Puritan attitudes towards election (people could tell you were elect because you were prosperous).

    Back in the day, in general society, if you were of a certain social status, you were expected to go to college, hopefully meet your husband, at any rate graduate with a degree, then either get a job until you got married, or get married right after graduation. You were expected to use your education to support your husband’s career by keeping a nice home (with a housekeeper or cleaning lady if your husband earned enough), entertaining colleagues and clients, supporting a charity or so, and playing bridge and/or lunching with the wives of your husband’s peers. After a suitable interval, you would have children and superintend their education and social activities. Once your nest was empty, you continued the before-kids routine but you were allowed more choice in what to do. For instance, one of my grandmothers took up golf and became good enough to play semi-professionally.

    So (says my mom) if the wife works or has a career outside the home, this signals several things to the men: 1) The husband is clearly not good enough with God to earn enough money without help; 2) The husband is not exercising his headship properly (because otherwise the wife would stay home as she should, related to #1, obviously); 3) The children are tainted and need even more discipline and praying from the rest of the church.

    My mom was actually somewhat unusual in our community at that time in that she was a pharmacist when she married and continued working until she was obviously pregnant. After that point, she felt it would hurt my dad’s career to flout convention and return to work, so she stayed home, even though I think we all would have done better if she had worked. Fast-forward 20 years, and my husband and I were able to make our own decision about work/life balance, but my sister felt constrained to follow the traditional pattern for the sake of my brother-in-law’s career. (The minute he moved to another company, though, she was straight back to work.) And now, almost 20 years after those decision, I am reading that the pressure on couples to conform to this model that my grandparents and parents rather unwillingly bent to fit is still a significant force. It makes me despair.