Is being a mother an important job?

<p><a href="http://www.freedigitalphotos.net/images/view_photog.php?photogid=371">Image: Michal Marcol / FreeDigitalPhotos.net</a></p>

At a school careers day a while back, my daughter knew what she wanted to dress up as: “I’m going as a mother!” she said.

Of course that’s FINE. But we talked about how mothers can also be other things, like, y’know, Freudian analysts. In the end she decided to go as Amelia Earhart, whose flying attire is jauntier than that of mothers or shrinks.

But in recent years – and indeed recent weeks with the emergence of the “Tiger mother” – the “job” of being a mother has been hotly debated. The mother’s role in her children’s lives and development has been analysed, focussing on one question in particular: How do you best do your job as “mother”? Often it’s described as being the important job in one’s life.

And like any job, there are targets to hit, career goals, as it were. Your success is measured by your children’s success and the desired result – violin virtuoso, scholar, what have you.

There’s been so much emphasis on the “mother” in that concept and what she should be doing that we’ve overlooked the obviously dysfunctional word: “job”.

We would never say our marriage is our most important job or we’re making a career of our role as sister or daughter is. So why define the relationship we have with our children, with all its emotional nuances, as a results-oriented role that we apply ourselves to? All relationships require work. But I don’t want to reduce a rich and varied interplay of personalities and responsibilities into some kind of vocation I’ve hired myself into.

This attitude also promulgates the idea that the only opportunity to teach kids is at the piano or over a stack of schoolbooks. Yet some of my most vivid “lessons” from my parents came from watching how they conducted themselves and how their values played out within the family and without.

One time, I remember my father and a colleague discussing a university official in their department where they taught design. “He doesn’t know much about art,” they scoffed. “He’s all politics.”

I knew in that sentence the importance of study, of earning your position, of focusing on things of value and aligning yourself with people who share your values.

Defining parenting as a job ignores the profound influence parents can have on their children by being role models and being present. There’s another thing I don’t like about the idea of parent as job description. With jobs you’re always looking forward to your time off.

I’m a journalist and blogger. Previously I was The Times’s online lifestyle editor and Alpha Mummy blogger. Now I’m co-founder of BritMums and BritMums Live! – our annual blogging conference that draws hundreds. Follow me on Pinterest, Instagram, Twitter and Google Profile+

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10 Comments

  1. February 9, 2011 / 12:33 pm

    I certainly don’t regard being a mother as a “job” but it is it a “life choice” that I happily made and is the most rewarding part of my life, the part where (at times) I feel the most relaxed, the most frustrated, the most challenged and above all it is the most important part of my life…love my little devils!!!

  2. February 9, 2011 / 2:07 pm

    Very interesting piece. I’ve always felt that the relationship with my kids is more important to me than my ‘acheivements’. Being the parent of a disabled child has also taught me that there’s no magic formula with kids: namely that effort put into hothousing kids is directly proportionate to their success. In fact, I’ve found quite the opposite to be true with a disabled child- whatever I do I can’t change her condition.

    On the other hand, I don’t think our role as mothers is valued very much outside of our families (and even within in them if you listen to my kids comments on my tea-cooking capabilities on any given night!)

    Rachel

  3. Jennifer Howze
    February 9, 2011 / 2:08 pm

    Lorraine,

    I definitely see it as a choice that has its rewards and its compromises. I just don’t think it means a mother’s entire life should be devoted to steering the ship of her child’s experience. There’s also that pesky idea that somehow if you do X, Y and Z you’ll get this perfect child who’s gifted, intelligent, pursuing the career you’ve picked for them, etc. It entirely ignores the human element!

  4. Jennifer Howze
    February 9, 2011 / 2:19 pm

    Rachel – Thanks for your comment. Your comments as the parent of a disabled child are especially enlightening. There is “magic formula” and we have to allow that our children are separate people who don’t automatically conform to what we might want them to be.

  5. February 9, 2011 / 2:32 pm

    Another parent of a disabled child here. If parenting was a “job” then the time off would be around 4 weeks a year, one would pay tax and national insurance and be awarded with a Christmas bonus. As it is, one is awarded with tantrums, adolescence and grunts, sleepless nights, empty purses and washing on a daily basis. I’d be a millionaire if it was classed as a job. But I have all the riches I could ever need. Jobs, money and time off doesn’t come close to having the unconditional love of a beautiful child.

    CJ xx

  6. February 9, 2011 / 4:48 pm

    The whole “mother=job” discussion irritates me for some reason; people should just get on with it. As the mother of two planned children and one complete (and late) surprise, I just try to do the best by them. Sometimes I don’t even try that hard.
    I don’t think they see what I do as a job, nor should they. I’m their mother, they are my children; same with with my mother and her mother. A lot of us were raised by loving, caring competent parents, but how many of us ever viewed either parent as a “role”? And did it matter?
    I think if any woman is really bothered about her work as a mother being identified and appreciated, better not have kids. After all, they didn’t ask you to give birth to them.

  7. February 10, 2011 / 3:57 pm

    EXACTLY. RIGHT. Not a job. Love CJ’s response. I posted last night about how work is a doddle compared with being a mother. How funny, must be something in the air…

  8. April 1, 2011 / 6:12 pm

    I love your thoughts on this. Yes, we don’t look on being a sister or daughter as a job, so why a mother? And yes, the most important things we teach our kids are nothing to do with piano lessons or gymnastics classes. You’re so right.

  9. April 1, 2011 / 8:26 pm

    Iota! So nice to see you. I hear you’re coming to CyberMummy too. Hurrah!

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