Perfect Madness: Motherhood as a Job

by Sharon Bially on November 5, 2010

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Last week’s post on Why all the Guilt? generated this fascinating snippet in a reader’s comment:  “My job is, first and foremost, as a mother.”

I’ve heard this often.  In fact, it seems to be a pretty universal mantra.

At the risk of inspiring you to send hate mail containing lethal explosives, I’d like to state my opinion on this (*dives under the desk and prepares for an onslaught of shrapnel*):  Being a mother is work, but not a job.

Disclaimer: This is my personal opinion.  I’m not suggesting it should be yours.  On the other hand, I do think that language and mantras of this sort – buzz words, phrases we assimilate and pass along to others knowingly or not – have a tremendous impact on our thinking and how we define ourselves.   So please, hold those detonators for a moment and kindly, generously, hear me out:

We all know that being a parent is work.  Family life is work.  Twenty-four-seven, year round.  But the difference between this work and a “job,” I think, begins with the fact that “jobs” usually advance some sort of an agenda.  They contribute to the achievement of specific goals.

The work of raising a family, on the other hand – our instinctive role as parents – comes from an amorphous place linked directly to our essence, our existence.  It consumes and defines us even when we’re separated from our children.  It flows through our veins.  It has no end point and contains no promise of achievement.

To call this a “job” is a dangerous simplification.  In doing so, we run the risk of viewing our children, their environments and their lives as our “projects.”  Our goals.  And of feeling that we must develop them, shape them and deliver them to the world as a product we naturally want to polish and perfect.  But they’re not, and in the end, there’s painfully little about them that we truly determine.  This notion, I believe, lies at the root of what author and blogger Judith Warner has described as the Perfect Madness of modern motherhood.

It also brings us right back to guilt – and beyond it, to something far more crippling: the loss of self-esteem that comes from working on a project that we just can’t control.

Okay.  Go ahead.  Throw those bombs.

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{ 15 comments… read them below or add one }

Tracy Hahn-Burkett November 5, 2010 at 10:21 am

Sharon, connecting the dots in this manner is very thought-provoking. You’ve made me pause for a minute and ask: what are the consequences of regarding motherhood as a job? I certainly know women who view motherhood in this way. Are they, inevitably, the women who will be the helicopter moms who just can’t let go as their kids grow up? The ones who call their kids’ employers later on in life, whose kids can make decisions on their own? Will they be the moms who never again have identities of their own?

And if your kids are “your project,” then can you recognize when it’s time to complete that project? It’s tough for any parent to step back, but perhaps it’s even harder when you view shaping your child as your sole, full-time mission. At some point, you’ve got to recognize that part of your job is to gradually turn that responsibility over to someone else; i.e., the child.

I’m not willing to say that motherhood can’t be sufficiently fulfilling for some women to the extent that they don’t feel the need to take on any other “job” outside of that role while they’re raising their kids. Maybe moms with other interests, be they professional or in some other category, can manage a transition at an appropriate time more easily than others, so they can make this work. I know some moms who adore “just being moms.” It works for them. But maybe there’s a need to preserve something for themselves, too, even if it’s just with an eye to the future, so that when their children make the inevitable break toward independence, those moms have a way to retain an identity of their own and their children are able to accept responsibility for their own lives.

What a great topic.

Tracey Baptiste November 5, 2010 at 10:49 am

There’s another aspect to this as well. I think we moms tend to joke about motherhood as a job, being the chauffeur, cook, butler, etc. But it’s also a dangerous thing to oversimplify it as such.

A job is something you do for satisfaction and financial gain and social standing. A job is often something you don’t love, but feel that you must do or else you can’t buy those lovely groceries the children like to eat. A job is something you can quit.

A job is something I do for a living. Motherhood determines what I do in the rest of my life.

So no bombs here. Good post.

Rima November 5, 2010 at 11:02 am

Sharon — Wow. Yeah. I totally see what you mean. When I called motherhood a “job” I wasn’t even thinking in that respect. I think part of it comes from the fact that OTHER people view it as my job. My husband always refers to it that way, even in passing (by saying he is “off duty.” When am I off duty? NEVER.)

I absolutely agree that women need to preserve something for themselves. My mother did not do this — we kids were her world — and when we up and left, she floundered. She suffered from depression and all kinds of self-esteem issues. I don’t plan on going there. But I think society has a very difficult time accepting this — they see us mothers who view things this way as selfish.

M. McGriff November 5, 2010 at 11:17 am

I have no bombs in my hands! Promise!

I’m not a mom yet but I do plan on being one real soon so this comment is from a non-mom.

With that being said, I like your analysis of motherhood being a job. It’s definitely an oversimplification because a job is something you don’t have any emotional stake in. A career on the other hand, it something that you want to grow and succeed. I think being a mother is a wonderful thing to be and wouldn’t your child need a terrific role model to look up to? Tending to your children and much as yourself is mutually beneficial in my opinion.

M. McGriff

Wife on the Roller Coaster November 5, 2010 at 4:56 pm

When I first started reading this post, I was wondering where it was going, and quite honestly, I was ready to go on the defensive. But I really like your take on motherhood as a job. See, this is why I love blogging…to read other points of view that I never thought of.

A couple of months ago I went back to work after being a stay-at-home mom for 6 years. If I had read your post while I was still a SAHM, I might be throwing those bombs you mentioned. :) But now that I’m working, I can finally understand the real difference between my job and my role as a mother. It’s completely different. I used to call parenting my job, laughing while calling my kids my employers. But no more. I don’t want to think of being a mother as a job, something I HAVE to do. I love my kids, I love being a mom, and I’d like to think of motherhood not as a job but a responsibility I wouldn’t trade for the world.

Thanks for a great post!

Carla November 6, 2010 at 5:56 pm


No bombs here, but I do want to add one more opinion! :) I think it’s important to have goals and plans for achievement as you raise kids. It adds meaning and dimension to something that can sometimes seem like a never-ending job. For example, by the time they’re adults, I want my children to be competent, caring, responsible, and able to contribute to communities. To accomplish that I want me preschooler to learn to read and to practice resolving disputes without hitting (as well as many other things!). But focus on the reading and problem-solving for an example. So, I read stories with my little girl and we look at pictures and talk about the story. When she gets mad at a friend and starts screaming I suggest a more appropriate way of acting (and have consequences if she doesn’t go along with my great ideas!). They’re little goals, but when she identifies letters on her own, sounds out a word, or solves a problem on her own I get some satisfaction out of knowing that she’s learned something we’ve been working on. If I didn’t have any goals for my responsibility as a parent I think I would be frustrated and upset a lot more often. As it is, I often see situations that could otherwise make me mad as a chance to teach something.

I completely agree with the posters who said it is important to maintain an identity in addition to being a parent–especially if you’re staying at home! Raising your kiddos is important, but I think that if you don’t know who you are without your kids you will struggle raising them and figuring out life when they grow up.

Nice job on bringing up a thought-provoking issue!


Maria Droujkova November 9, 2010 at 5:29 pm

I think of motherhood as an enterprise. The idea of a “job” is problematic in many ways, and I don’t like it at all. I hope it will become a thing of the past soon.

Allana November 9, 2010 at 5:36 pm

I agree. The term, “job”, has a connotation of earning money, or working to obtain necessities for living. Motherhood is not a “job” in that sense. Jobs are often associated with bad bosses, miserable employees or co-workers and other drudgeries. Caring for and raising children has its bad points but it also brings joys and fulfillment that no job could ever give. Plus the fact that you are eventually releasing another human being into the world for better or worse, with the potential of making a huge impression in the state of things. Very few jobs give you that!

Renita Hosler November 9, 2010 at 6:02 pm

As a mother, the words “work” and “job” are not equal or synonymous in meaning. My job pays me for my expertise and when I tire of it, I can move on. There are also certain benefits I negotiate when I take a job. These include vacation, health benefits and other employee related items. I can always change my job location and prospects at anytime.

It takes great skill and I have to work at being a mother or parent. The work here involves negotiation skills, structure, disciplinary actions and a chance that I will raise a healthy, well-balanced child that can survive life’s hard knocks as well as relish in the natural highs. I can never walk away from being a parent.

Postpartum Progress November 9, 2010 at 10:14 pm

Hmmm. I don’t know that I care so much about the terminology, although I totally get what you are saying about children not being projects.

Motherhood to me is a lot of things, and there are parts of it I find to be very job-like … carting them around town, going to endless orthodontist appointments, having to buy presents for other kids’ bday parties and the like. But laying in their beds, kissing their foreheads and talking about their days is not a job for me. It’s a gift TO me.

carina November 10, 2010 at 10:33 am

I figure I will weigh in here on the subject as I think its a very good point and brings up the very different ways to look at being a ‘parent’. I am an ‘older’ mom and still find it hard to believe that I am actually a parent! I spent so many years working at many jobs which I loved. But now that I have kids I feel as though I am doing my LIFE, I think that when you become a parent your life starts to happen and it’s wonderful. I always felt that jobs were about learning (maybe because I never went to college) but now my family is my life, and we just do it with no agenda.

When I go it Ikea and see all of those pregnant women walking around with their significant others I just think it’s beautiful how these people got together and are now starting a family. So I don’t think it’s a job at all and have never felt that way, it’s LIFE!

thank you for bringing your blog to my attention, it’s terrific.

Lisa November 10, 2010 at 11:39 am

I have to disagree with one point, in that the role of mom doesn’t involve goals? I DO believe that motherhood is not a JOB. It is a ton of work but it is simply not a job and trying to convince me otherwise is pointless. I have a job and I’m a mom they are two very different things.
However I do think there are goals in being a mom but I think too many people have lost focus of that. The goal of being a mom is to raise good, responsible adults who will contribute positively to our society. The fact that very few people these days seem to see that is why we are losing control of this generation. Obviously this is a very long term goal and one that we really don’t have 100% control over…however I think so many moms, especially sahm’s have made their goals getting through the day. And trust me I’ve had plenty of these days myself but if this is how you’re running your home day after day, you are losing sight of the long term goal and may be one of the many mothers out and about whom I’d love to give a good kick in the ass because you are raising self centered, rude little jerks!
That is all! Oh ok, and to those SAHM’s who whine about all you have to do, cooking cleaning taxing etc…I am a mom of three and do all that too, I just have 40 hours less a week to do them than you do!

Barbara Curtis November 10, 2010 at 6:32 pm

Thank you for asking me to comment. I wrote on this subject in my book, “Lord, Please Meet Me in the Laundry Room” –

It was the kind of splendid September day when sending kids to school just feels wrong. Luckily, that year I was homeschooling and calling the shots. Plus we were living in California then, an hour from the Pacific Ocean. For all I knew, it could be the last day of summer, and we wouldn’t want to miss that. So it was off to the beach with five children under eight – Josh, Matt, Ben, Zach, and Sophia.
Obviously, one of those easier-said-than-done kind of things.
But I was highly motivated – and so were the kids. Together, we cleaned up from breakfast, prepped the car, then gathered beach blankets, umbrella, towels, swimsuits, diapers, sunglasses, sand toys, first aid kit, sunscreen, a cooler full of snacks and drinks – ay yi yi yi yi! Hello, motherhood – goodbye spontaneity.
I loaded the assorted car seats and strapped, snapped, and buckled five wiggling bodies into Big Blue – the 1989 Suburban we grew out of only a few years later. Back then, we’d never have dreamed that Suburbans would be trendy by the turn of the century. For us, it was the only vehicle with the right number of seats for our family.
Finally we were on the road, singing away with Raffi (back in the pre-Wiggles days) and counting down the miles to Heart’s Desire.
Heart’s Desire was a beach on Tomales Bay where I took the kids when Tripp wasn’t there to make sure we didn’t lose them to the crashing waves or undertow of the ocean. Heart’s Desire tickled the kids’ toes with just the teensiest ripples lapping at the shore. Josh could walk out a few hundred feet and still not be over his shoulders. It was kind of like a great big swimming pool – only with sand and occasional seasonal jellyfish.
With everyone else in school, the whole beach was ours. I staked out our territory close to the water, situated Sophia in her walker, hauled everything down from the car, and set up camp – ready to serve as personal valet, sunscreen slatherer, weather advisor, recreation director, swim instructor, lifeguard, EMT, food concessionaire, manners consultant, bus boy, interpreter, peace negotiator, psychologist – not to mention lost-and-found.
Five hours later, I hauled everything back to the car, strapped, snapped, and buckled five sunscreen-and-sand-coated no-longer-wiggly warm, limp bodies back into Big Blue, and headed for home.
The sun through the window was soothing, and the car was full of contentment. It had been a wonderful day and I was pleased with myself as a mother.
Then from the back seat, I heard Zachary clear his throat, and in his deadpan four-year-old Eeyore voice ask, “Mom, when are you going to get a job?”
“This is my job,” I said, maybe just a little edgy.
But homeward bound, as the kids fell asleep one by one and I was left alone with my thoughts, I began to see the beauty of Zach’s question: somehow – even though it could be hard work and even though I had my testy moments – my kids didn’t think of motherhood as a job.
And I decided that was a good thing – because it’s not really a job at all, but a calling. And callings just don’t look like jobs, because they require more of a person than a job requires. Think of missionaries – for them it’s not about the hours or money or status or rewards. They are just obedient to their call.

It goes on – you might want to pick up a copy of the book. It’s got a lot of authenticity. I’m a mother of 12 10-41 and grandmother of 12 (so far). My youngest birth child is 17 and was on American idol this year. her next older brother and three younger ones have Down syndrome – the last three are adopted. I’ve homeschooled, public schooled, private schooled. I feel like I’ve been beaten up by motherhood and come out smiling.

Currently I work at home as a professional writer/blogger/speaker.

Galit Breen December 3, 2010 at 2:08 pm

this was so thoughtful and gracefully done, why would you need to hide?! i guess b/c we all take mothering as so, so very personally and emotionally. i’ve used those words. and meant them. but you, you have thrown a wrench in my logic. and you know what? i appreciate it! thanks for the food for thought. and for all of those TRUTHS that you speak of!

Nina Badzin December 6, 2010 at 2:50 pm


Clearly you are on to something here with all the thought provoking and thought-provoked comments. Your post resonated with me . . . I agree with you completely. Motherhood is work but not a job. So well worked! I have to fight with myself constantly to get over the guilt of taking time for myself to write because it takes time from the kids. Maybe if I had a career that involved MONEY I’d feel differently (and of course I’m hoping to get paid eventually), but when I run into other moms I know who are with their kids when I’m with my laptop, I feel bad for a few minutes. Of course I rise above it because the time to write is what keeps me SANE. I like having a job in addition to being a mom.

Great post and maybe a topic you should continue exploring on your blog. I might say my two cents about it on my blog and link back to your post. Thanks! Nina

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