Working Moms

 There was quite a flap last week over Democratic strategist Hilary Rosen’s remarks about Mitt Romney’s wife Ann. In case you missed it, here’s what she said:

 “What you have is Mitt Romney running around the country saying, ‘Well, you know, my wife tells me that what women really care about are economic issues, and when I listen to my wife, that’s what I’m hearing.’ Guess what? His wife has never actually worked a day in her life. She’s never really dealt with the kinds of economic issues that a majority of the women in this country are facing in terms of how do we feed our kids, how do we send them to school and how we do worry-and why we worry-about their future. I think, yes, it’s about these positions, and yes, I think there will be a war of words about the positions.”

 Needless to say, Rosen’s remarks kicked up big reactions. Twitter lit up like a Christmas tree, political pundits pontificated at length on cable news and the bloggers had a field day. (My favorite post on the subject came from Mary Elizabeth Williams at Salon.) Whether this is an authentic dust-up or merely a media contrived frenzy is hard to call, but it has reignited the debate as to what defines a “working mom” and which moms get to claim that title.

If I may offer my two cents on the matter…

First off, although I can’t claim to know exactly what was going on in Hilary Rosen’s head at the time she made this statement, my take on it is that she was speaking more to the economics of Mrs. Romney’s situation than the fact that she was a stay-at-home mom. Indeed, being a stay-at-home mom with piles of money is a far different thing than being a stay-at-home mom with limited resources. If Ms. Rosen’s statement was intended to speak to this discrepancy, then I believe it was valid and fair. Regardless of what Ms. Rosen was driving at, the whole incident has definitely stirred the decades old pot.

Nothing has kicked my ass more than motherhood. And as someone who has walked both worlds–staying at home with kids and working outside of the home–I can testify that each presents its own set of challenges. I might add that neither is nobler than the other.

There are a few reasons that I decided to stay home with my kids when they were young. Prior to having children, I was an actor who had worked a variety of day jobs. When it came down to whether or not to go back to work after my son Emmett was born, part of the decision was an economic one. Daycare was expensive and it wasn’t like I was a big earner. Whatever money I would have made in the workforce would have been completely eaten up in childcare costs. It didn’t make sense. But economics aside, I very much wanted to be home with my kid anyway and felt it was the right thing for our family. At the time, my husband agreed. Another factor that weighed heavily on my decision to stay home was the experience of losing my firstborn child. I was understandably nervous about my baby’s well being and, at the time, felt strongly that nobody could care for him as well as I could.

 My years at home with the children were a mixed bag. I loved being with my boys and we had lots of fun together. I was able to experience all the “firsts” and felt blessed that I had the space and time to fully engage in the day-to-day wonders of motherhood and family life. I loved the birthday parties, the field trips with the preschool and the lazy afternoons on the beach at Lake Washington. I really get how lucky I was. However, I also remember being exhausted most of the time. Being “on” all day with small children is perhaps one of the most physically and mentally demanding things I’ve ever experienced. I spent those years wandering around in a chronic state of semi-depletion. We didn’t have any family around, so there wasn’t a lot of respite. The other thing I remember about those days was a nagging identity crisis. I always had the gnawing sense that I wasn’t doing enough and that I was letting my career–whatever that was–fade into oblivion. Beyond the world of breastfeeding children and cleaning up poopy diapers, I wasn’t sure who I was.

 When the kids were older and comfortably settled in the neighborhood elementary school, I went back to work part-time. Although it definitely felt good to be back in the mainstream workforce, this situation presented a new set of challenges. In our particular family dynamic, the expectation was that I would still be available if one of the kids were sick and that I’d also be responsible for their care during school breaks and holidays. This resulted in a lot of harried juggling and one disasaterous summer involving a ne’re do well nanny with a nose ring and an attitude. Needless to say, I felt like I was busting ass and still failing in all directions.

I don’t know that my kids were any better off for my staying home with them and I believe that my years as an at-home mom ultimately put me at grave financial risk. When my husband and I divorced, re-entry into the full-time workforce was brutal. The time gap in my work history was like a bleeding sore on my resume. It didn’t matter what skills I had. It didn’t matter what volunteer work I’d done or how flipping much money I’d raised while chairing a fundraising committee for a nonprofit. It didn’t matter that my writing chops were in top form. The only thing that mattered was that I had been absent from the workforce to raise children.  That was a deal breaker­–a death sentence, actually–again and again. The only jobs that I was able to get were low paying ones at two different preschools. It was as if I’d come full circle; once again I was exhausted and questioning my identity.

I finally decided that if there wasn’t a job for me out there then I would make my own job. I threw my focus completely into my singing and writing. I recorded a CD and hustled like mad for gigs. I went back to school and received a certificate in Public Relations. I taught myself how to do stuff. Between evening workshops, help from friends and late hours of research on the Internet, I was able to cultivate a lot of new skills. I wooed clients and sometimes wrote for days at a time just to get things done. I took as many jazz gigs as I could possibly get. All the while, I was also parenting. At this point, the boys were both at different stages of adolescence. One was a tween and one was a teenager. In some ways, their day-to-day needs were less demanding, which made the time balance a little easier. But whatever advantages I gained on that side were tempered by the challenges of parenting a full-blown teenager. I was trying to pay bills and also navigate the extremely turbulent waters of my son’s very loud rebel yell. If that wasn’t “working,” I don’t know what is.

My fiscal days are a little easier now but I feel like I still have a long ways to go in terms of catching up on the ground I lost, economically speaking, from staying at home with my children. I understand that there are probably some at-home moms who might take exception to my sentiment that staying at home with kids can make a woman financially vulnerable down the road. My intent is not to offend but to speak honestly from my own experience. You never know what might happen.

When it comes to motherhood in this culture, there seems to be a damned if you do and damned if you don’t mentality. No matter what choices we make, we are scrutinized, judged and sometimes even penalized. I’m curious how the issue of working mothers is viewed in other countries that have more affordable day care options. Or is it even an issue?

I believe that ALL mothers are working mothers. And I actually agree with Ann Romney that women and moms do care about economic issues in this country. In fact, I’d say we care more about economic issues than we do about judging each other’s choices. If this newest flap does anything, it should remind women across the country that we need to stick up for each other, support each other and help each other. We need to continue to fight for economic equality, access to family planning and the right to self-determination. We deserve to live in a country that values us, no matter what choices we make.

We are working mothers. Let us do our jobs.