Parenthood: Work, Or Something Different?

Sep 06, 2008

As the world continues to examine the resume of Alaska governor Sarah Palin, Americans are heating up the blogs with debates on balancing family life and professional life.

But—distinct from current blogging on the subject—often in this area there seems to be a disturbing linguistic implication, in both print and speech: that parenthood, in contrast to paid work, is something other than…well…work.

Surely at some point you’ve heard someone say of a couple, “No, he works; she stays home with the kids”, or “he’s a stay-at-home dad; she’s the one that’s working now”, or something along similar lines.

And you know, I can’t ever help but think, on hearing such statements: “Are we to understand that she ‘stays at home with the kids’ as some sort of low-key hall monitor, only tearing herself away from All My Days of Our Restless Life to Live in Another World if she smells smoke or detects flooding?” Or, “Is he zoning out on hot chocolate and Speed Racer reruns while the kids re-enact Death Race in the driveway?”

In truth, I don’t think this imprecise manner of expression we practice is, in most cases, born of disrespect for the vocation of parenthood and what it involves. But I do wonder whether, as we persist in using it, we might not be leaving the door open to such disrespect among people and institutions hoping to belittle this singular calling for whatever selfish reasons they might entertain.

And of course, what is our use of language here teaching the very young, for whom all language is new, and generally to be taken literally? Think about it: “Mommy has no desire to work, son. She’d rather stay here and take care of you!

Now if, when we say “to work”, we actually mean “to do paid work”—otherwise known as employment—in these instances…Well, it might just be worth specifying same, for the sake of clarity on all fronts. I mean, really: If a parent of young children doesn’t have a job that a) is called “a job”; and b) pays money—do we truly imagine that this parent-person is engaging in no labor at all? I hope not!

My solution to our little semantic conundrum? In addition to specifying whether I mean “paid work”, or “other work” in my communication, I’m trying to polish up a shiny new expression for just these sorts of discussions. This new expression will allow me—and anyone else—to smoothly and accurately reflect an understanding of this one fact: that there is no form of human labor more difficult, critical, or lacking in concrete reward than shepherding youth into well-adjusted adulthood.

My handy-dandy new expression, in action: “workforce mom”, to be used instead of “working mom”—as in, “No. She’s not a workforce mom,” rather than, “No, she’s not a working mom…”

A tiny adjustment in lingo; a big shift in the fundamental assumption suggested by that change.

Because if she’s somewhere on Planet Earth, and she’s a hands-on mom…we all know she’s on the job, whether she ever sees a paycheck with her name on it in this life.

What a mother does perhaps instinctively, or in connection with duty, or by heavenly mandate, or out of the love which knows no bounds…is still work.

And the new expression is perfectly adaptable for proud, participating pops in Parentland, too!

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