Tuesday, March 28, 2000

Is parenthood a career?

Many parents who spend most of their time caring for their children, in lieu of paid employment, speak of parenthood as their career. In some ways, the description is apt: we work long hours, doing physically, mentally, and emotionally demanding tasks. A lot of us also engage in "professional development" by reading extensively about child development, psychology, health, nutrition, and education, and attending parenting support groups and conferences.

Despite these parallels, I feel there is a danger in analogizing parenthood to a career. Treating parenthood merely like a job can lead to the misconception that, like other jobs such as programming computers or fixing cars, it doesn't matter who does it, as long as it gets done. In some jurisdictions, this leads to low-income parents being pressured to place their children in the care of strangers, so that the parents can seek paid employment. If raising children were only a job, this wouldn't matter. But of course it does matter, a great deal, to the children and parents involved. This is because parenting, while hard work, is not a job, it is a relationship.

Nonparents seem to have trouble understanding why I insist on staying at home with my toddler, at considerable economic hardship, instead of seeking paid employment and placing my son in daycare.(1) After all, they seem to think, anyone could feed Nicky(2), change his diapers, play with him, read him stories, so what's the big deal? (Indeed, before I got pregnant I had planned to return to full-time employment when the baby was three months old, and put him in daycare.) But to Nicky, it is a big deal. He has always been more separation-sensitive than many babies. He wants mommy, and when I tried placing him in a daycare setting for an hour and a half a week so I could attend a mother's support group, he made this need loud and clear. Now that he is older, he spends more time with daddy, 16 hours a week, but he still needs familiar, safe, people, and lots of one-on-one adult attention. And it matters to me that he spend his infancy and toddlerhood forming deep bonds to me and his father, not an employee (which is not to denigrate parents who are comfortable sharing their children's love with a good, qualified, loving caregiver).

Right now, I consider motherhood as my primary occupation, as it occupies the vast majority of my time (152 hours a week). But motherhood is not my career, it is a relationship, one that will last our lifetimes, regardless of how much time it occupies.


(1) Actually, I have chronic health problems which interfere with my seeking employment, but I would probably not want to seek employment anyway.

(2) They wrongly assume that at his age (21 months), he is no longer breastfeeding. Actually, breastfeeding is an important part of his diet (we do not use nonhuman animal milks for ethical reasons) as well as being a signifiant source of comfort.

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