What makes a working mom?

Tara-Michelle Ziniuk explores how we talk about working moms.

working-moms

Photo: iStockphoto

I read a lot about working moms. I know many working moms, and I care about the policies and legislations that protect them. I know it can be tough for women to secure and retain employment. Often, the articles I read are about a particular type of working mom: Women in high-powered positions with large salaries. These are frequently women who put career first, and opted to have children later. No doubt this makes up a sizeable portion of the population of today’s mothers, particularly in urban areas.

When news outlets refer about “working moms” they’re often talking about the Marissa Mayer types, although the Yahoo CEO may not be the best example given she was criticized for only taking a two-week maternity leave. But when the media talks about Debra Harrell—another working mom who made waves when she left her nine-year-old daughter at the park while she worked her shift at McDonald’s—the language is different. Mayer is more often than not referred to as a “working mother” whereas Harrell is most often in the headlines as “mom.” Only buried within the article is there any mention that Harrell is a McDonald’s employee. Is a job at McDonald’s not enough to qualify her as a working mom?

When I pick up my four-year-old daughter from school, I see a variety of moms. Some work from home for others, or run their own businesses. There are stay-at-home-moms, some of whom left careers to be with their children. There are moms who run home daycares, or have child-care providers pick up their children so they can work day jobs. I’m sure there are also unemployed moms, and moms who work night shifts and weekends—these last two being categorically the moms who openly chat about their employment situations the least. I can’t say that surprises me, given the culture we’ve created of having a hierarchy set up on who classifies as a “working mom” and who doesn’t—and the strange notion that being a working mother trumps being a non-working mother (oxymoron, I know—we can agree that all mothers work).

I’ve never identified as a working mother, as I haven’t held a nine-to-five job since my daughter was born. In that time, I’ve gone back to school, completed an internship, worked as a freelance writer, and done part-time and contract work. I’ve mostly, though not exclusively, worked from home. I don’t make a salary with benefits, nor do I own a blazer, but I work all the time. Yet, “working mother” is a title I don’t feel I am entitled to. Before I had my daughter I had a full-time, out-of-the-house job in radio, complete with benefits and parental leave. I know that if I still had that job, I would take on the label of working mom no problem. Before working in media, I did social service work. While that was mostly part-time, I’m sure that if I worked in community health centres, drop-in programs and HIV-prevention again, I would consider my work outside of the home worthy of that label. And yet, at home, freelancing as a writer and editor, I still have this idea that my work is not tangible enough—that I don’t have a clear enough job description, and that I don’t provide enough for my family financially. I feel like I don’t count.

Looking for work is work. Struggling to support a family without a stable income is work. Shift work is work. Service work in fast food restaurants is work. An office job is work. Parenting in and of itself is work. So, if this is about the time and effort we put in, aren’t we all working mothers?

Tara-Michelle Ziniuk is a Toronto-based queer mom to a four-year-old. She started off as a single-mom-by-choice, and now co-parents. You can read more of her posts here and follow her on Twitter @therealrealTMZ.

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