Homing in on how we misapply labels to parents

04/22/2014 3:11 PM

08/08/2014 10:23 AM

I took a day off work recently to knock off 20 or so items from my to-do list. I knocked off two.

I abandoned the list early, when it became clear I’d be spending most of the day driving places I didn’t know I needed to be, in traffic I didn’t account for, to retrieve things for people who are not me.

My daughter forgot her homework, so that needed delivering. My son’s library book was overdue, so that needed returning. We were out of freeze-dried strawberries, so those needed purchasing. (A lack of running water causes less distress in our home than a lack of freeze-dried strawberries.) And so on.

None of this is remarkable in the least, except that it occurred a few days before a new report from the Pew Research Center found that more American mothers are “staying home.” From Reuters: “Twenty-nine percent of U.S. mothers, or about 10.4 million women, stayed at home in 2012.”

No, they didn’t.

They carpooled and chaperoned and volunteered and grocery shopped and museum toured and dentist visited and soccer practice/swim lesson/play rehearsal/chess tournamented their way through a calendar of days that puts your average Excel spreadsheet to shame.

So did their work-outside-the-home counterparts. In different shifts and at different hours, but believe me: No parent, paycheck-earning or not, stays home.

It’s no surprise that researchers lack the language to describe modern parents. We’re all befuddled.

Liz O'Donnell touches on it in “Mogul, Mom and Maid: The Balancing Act of the Modern Woman” (Bibliomotion).

“I never ask a mother, ‘Do you work?' ” she writes. “I ask, ‘Do you work outside the home?’ But if they respond, ‘No, I am a full-time mom. How about you?’ What should I say?”

It’s tricky.

“I could say ‘Part-time mom here. I was full-time, but I scaled back. I wanted more time to spend with my employer.’ ”

She jests, of course. But I understand her sensitivity. Parents who earn paychecks don’t like the implication they stop parenting when they report to work.

“I am always a mother,” O’Donnell writes. “I sit in my car during the morning commute worrying about my son’s spelling test and my daughter’s new friendships. I take a call from the school nurse in the middle of a team meeting. I e-mail their soccer coaches, and schedule play dates from my desk.”

Parenting is shifting and evolving in ways that are as world-transforming as they are rapid. Child rearing looks almost nothing like it did a few decades ago: All-in dads are the norm, not the exception; researchers say parents spend more time teaching, playing with and caring for their kids; social-emotional learning is an actual phrase that parents have to master.

And medical advances, global adoption and social progress on the domestic front mean more people get the opportunity to do it: single women, gay couples, couples with fertility complications.

It’s progress, all of it, and it’s hard won.

But we’re still talking, endlessly, about who gets paid and who doesn’t. We label parents based on a personal, extremely complicated decision about employment. In so doing, we often lose sight of the fact that we have one huge thing – our biggest thing – in common. We parent.

Maybe it’s time to change the subject.

I once had a conversation with professional storyteller Susan O’Halloran, who uses narratives to bridge cultural divides.

“There’s no such thing as race,” she said. “It’s a social construct. There’s no gene that makes you a black person or a white person. Penguins have more diversity within their species than humans. We’re all the same under our skin.”

Commonality – a sense of belonging to each other – is a powerful thing.

Maybe instead of asking, “Do you work outside the home?” we look for ways to connect. “What are you reading these days?” “How do you like your kids’ school?” “Can you even believe the price of freeze-dried strawberries?”

It’s worth a shot.

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