What Not to Say to a Working Mom

There is no balance. Only carefully controlled chaos.
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Recently, Amy Shearn shared a list of things not to say to stay-at-home moms. She could have just cited anything Elizabeth Wurtzel has written in the past year, but that would have been too easy. Instead, Shearn came up with a list that was funny and clever and pointed in all the right ways. Which got me thinking about questions or comments I've heard about being a working mom. I don't think anyone sets out to be rude or judgmental, but I've been surprised at what well-meaning and generally thoughtful people say to mothers who aren't staying home full-time with their children. There's a subtle hostility or judgment that comes through in some of these statements that makes me wish that everyone would, every so often, think before they speak.

(Before anyone freaks out, I completely and totally support stay-at-home moms. They work. They work hard. Their choices are valid and awesome and please stop glaring at me. There are days I envy them more than you know.)

Can't you afford to stay home?
Let's assume for a minute that I can't. Let's imagine I work to help pay the mortgage and buy groceries and send our kids to college. Where does this conversation go now? Awkward, right? Next thing you know, I'm going to be asking you how much your husband earns so you can stay home. Let's agree not to go there.

Then let's say I can afford to stay home. The question assumes the reason I work is entirely financial. Which is part of it, to be sure. If I could make money watching bad reality TV and doing yoga all day, I would. Since I can't, I work at a more traditional job -- but it's not all about the money. I value my education and the years I've devoted to my career. I think it is good for our boys to see me working outside our home so they know that a woman isn't confined to being a wife and a mother. I also know that some day our kids will be off at college or started on careers of their own and I want to keep a foot in the working world so when that time comes, I'm not staring at a big gap in my resume that makes it harder for me to get a job. I also like the equality that exists in my marriage because both my husband and I put money in the bank. That's just me. But this particular question devalues all of those considerations and, in turn, my choices. Please don't do that.

I'd give anything to get away from my kids for an entire day.
If you really mean it, I'm happy to help you polish your resume. You can be away from your kids all day, every day! Of course, along with that "freedom" you'll feel guilty about being away from them and will wonder if they're ok because they're home with a babysitter or in day care. Going to work every morning and waving to my kid from the upstairs bathroom window isn't a spa day. It's sort of like doing a triathalon. You start each day with a morning plunge into icy water, getting everyone to school/work then do an an eight-hour bike ride, all topped off with a half-marathon of dinner, homework, baths and bedtime. During your bike ride not only will you be expected to pedal hard, you'll also have to take phone calls from the school, the babysitter, and the doctor, respond to birthday party invitations, take a quick side trip to grab supplies for an art project, order groceries and a new pair of jeans and remember to return library books because it all needs to get done RIGHT NOW. If you're lucky, there's some wine left over in the fridge.

I'd miss my child too much to be away from him all day.
I know. I completely understand. You get over it. Because you have to.

The problem with this country today is that not enough moms are home raising their children.
I know! I couldn't agree more! Oh, wait. You're not advocating for paid parental leave, flexible work schedules or telecommuting, are you? You're not picketing in support for working parents (because, let's face it, some dads would like to be able to spend more time with their kids too) so they can make good choices for their families, right? You just want more moms to stay home. It's possible those families would be better off living under a cloud of financial or psychological stress to adhere to a traditional view of families, but I'm not buying it. If I see one more comment about how dual-earner families are undermining the very fabric of society I will lose my mind. Last I checked, no one in my family had shot anyone, stolen anything, cheated on a test, run a red light, or even so much as littered. Of course, I've been working all morning, so things may have changed since breakfast.

Why did you have kids only to let someone else raise them?
People have said this to me. People have said this to my friends. It's a good thing that I didn't have the power to incinerate them with my laser beam eyes. If I hear it again, I'll refer you to item no. 1 for the reasons I might work outside of my home. And then I'll just ask you to be a TAD LESS JUDGMENTAL THANK YOU VERY MUCH. I had Little Dude because every fiber of my being wanted to be a mother and we felt like our family was incomplete without another person in it. Loving and raising a child is not incompatible with having support to do that. We are grateful and proud to have wonderful people who help us -- from family to friends to teachers and babysitters. But make no mistake, my husband and I are raising our kids. We aren't home every day, but we are a presence in our kids' lives at every moment.

I don't know how you do it. It must be so hard.
It is. I don't know how I do it. But I don't think that's because I work, I think it's because parenting is hard whether you stay at home or go off to the office. I don't know how any of us do it. It's glorious and rewarding and full of love and it is the hardest thing I've ever done. Balancing kids with anything else, whether a paying job or running a household or finding time to watch Honey Boo Boo, is nearly impossible.

You must be so organized to be able to balance everything.
I have a love/hate reaction to this statement. At first, I bask in the affirmation. I believe I am organized. Then I remember -- I am one set of lost keys away from a meltdown. I have mismatched socks, my kid went to school with jelly on his face and I haven't exercised in a week. I have piles of books and clothes and god knows what else in my bedroom. I forgot a conference call yesterday and lost the planetarium permission slip. I let something slide every day. There is no balance. Only carefully controlled chaos. Pretty much like everyone else's life.

There's always time to work later, these early years are so precious.
All the years are precious. And why don't people say this to fathers?

You look exhausted.
Gee! Thanks! Wanna give me a day at the spa? And then watch my kid for me so I can relax? No? Then let's just pretend we can't see the bags under my eyes.

At least you treasure every minute you have with your son.
Well, maybe not all of them. Because sometimes Little Dude is a monster and I get home at the witching hour, just in time to force him to eat his carrots, make him brush his teeth and go to bed. Which, as any parent will tell you, is just the most relaxing time of day. This is why I keep a chilled bottle of wine in the fridge. Despite that, of course, I do treasure my time with my kids, but I have a hard time believing that would be different if I were home more.

Don't you worry you're missing out?
Every day. But then my son runs into my arms when I pick him up from school and climbs into my bed in the morning to tell me I'm the "best mommy ever," and I know it's going to be ok.


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