The XX Factor

Motherhood Is Not Martyrdom

A more honest letter might say, “I know you need to pay your rent,” or, “I know how expensive day care is.”

Photo by Zadorozhnyi Viktor/Shutterstock

A blog post called “A Letter From a Working Mother to a Stay-At-Home Mother, and Vice Versa” has almost 300,000 Facebook likes at the time of this writing. One of your Facebook friends is almost certainly sharing it right now, with a comment like, “This really moved me” or “This is beautiful.” The title is pretty self-explanatory: The author, Dr. Carolyn Ee, writes one letter from the perspective of a working mom to a SAHM and another letter from a SAHM to a working mom. The conceit clearly comes from a kind place; Ee is trying to make both working and stay-at-home moms feel like they are understood and appreciated. And yet, the post perpetuates the idea that motherhood is a lifelong journey of martyrdom—that mothers who work are guilt-ridden, and mothers who stay home are lonely and miserable—and frames the decision to work, or to stay home, as a “choice” rather than a necessity.

The letter to the stay-at-home mom sounds like it was cut from The Feminine Mystique. The SAHM is selfless, always cheerful, always outwardly joyful, but actually deeply unhappy. She never makes demands of her spouse. “I know that sometimes when your partner gets home in the evening after his work is done, he wants to put his feet up exactly when you need a break the most, and this can bring you to tears,” Ee writes. 

The letter to the working mom also feels bizarrely retrograde:

I know that you often feel guilty about having any more time away from your children so you sacrifice your leisure time. … I know you accept that work is your ‘time off’ for now. I know that when you are at work you don’t waste a single minute. I know you eat your lunch at your desk, you don’t go out for coffee, and you show complete dedication and concentration to your job. You chose to be there after all. You want to be there.

The smug tone of this blog post is why STFU Parents exists. Here’s the truth: Being a mom doesn’t make you into some separate class of hero fembot who never yells at her family and is the ideal worker. Whether you work or not, you are still going to be pretty much the same person you were before you had kids. You probably have less time, sure. But when I had a staff job before I had kids, I ate lunch at my desk and rarely went out for coffee, too.

But what rankles more is the line about “You chose to be there,” which implies that these choices are made by individual women in a societal vacuum. A lot of working parents, both men and women, would love to spend more time at home, but they can’t because their families need the money (and of course, not every parent has a partner). Other parents might like to be in the workforce, but they can’t find a job or they end up not working because the money they would have to spend on day care would be more than they earned.

Still, it’s obvious that a lot of moms who are lucky enough to have the choice to work or not work feel guilty and judged by whatever choice they make—that’s why the post hit a nerve. But perhaps if we stopped treating moms like some separate class of angelic person, that guilt and judgment would dissipate. Or at least, if working mothers weren’t holding themselves to some ever-shifting, unachievable ideal, they wouldn’t care if stay-at-home mothers judged them and vice versa.

Also, this line, written to the working mother?

I know that you spend many days caring for your children at home when they are sick, and sacrifice your pay. I know that you secretly enjoy these days, and revel in being able to be with your children.

Please. Working mothers and SAHMs may have many differences in their day-to-day lives, but we can all agree that no one likes to be home with sick kids.