Are You Coming Back to Work?
There are a few pregnant women at my office, and as their bellies grow, so do the number of questions they are constantly asked. In addition to the usual queries about gender and due dates, one I frequently hear is, “Are you going to come back to work?”
I never hear this asked of the expectant fathers.
To be honest, I don’t know if I’ve ever asked it myself. True, our culture is still acclimating to the idea that women and men can be equals both in the office and at home—but how do we close the gap between theory and practice? How do we create a world where our kids can grow up equal?
As a mom of three kids, I’ve had the benefit of being a SAHM (stay at home mom), a WAHM (work at home mom), and a WOHM (work outside the home mom). I’ve run the gauntlet of diapers and illnesses and the endless menial labor that is caring for small children. I’ve felt the glory of being a valued contributor and receiving a paycheck. I’ve felt the stigma of missed meetings and school concerts and the sense that I can never give enough to my work or my family.
I’ve fielded some pretty pointed questions and criticisms about each of those choices over the years. I’ve been asked who is raising my children since I’m not doing it myself. I’ve been told how grateful I should be that my husband provides for me so I can “stay home and relax” with the kids.
Yet, during the couple of extended periods when my husband was the stay-at-home parent, he would often be praised for being “such a hands-on dad” and “so engaged” with the kids. Which is both true and excellent. But why are his efforts worthy of praise, and mine worthy of judgment? More importantly, how can we work to change this cultural perception that the responsibility of caring for children is primarily a woman’s?
In my family, the effort begins at home.
My husband and I share household responsibilities and diaper duty. We divvy up the grocery shopping and the laundry. We come home late from the office some days and leave early on others. We grump about office politics and we sing the Itsy Bitsy Spider.
It’s always in flux, and it’s not always smooth. But I feel good that our two daughters and our son have seen both parents in varying capacities of working outside the home and being on point inside the home. There is nothing unusual to them about a mom who is at an office all day and a dad who picks them up from school, or vice versa. Stuff needs to get done, and moms and dads do that stuff. Pretty uncomplicated.
Yet in spite of this, somehow the cultural bias still creeps in. My son, in third grade, informed me I should leave work early so I could make a better dinner, because “Daddy works anyway.” My seventh grade daughter recently mentioned she wanted to first be an astrophysicist, then a mom. In her mind, she couldn’t be both at once.
Moments like these are a great opportunity to unpack those perceptions, and talk about how we might want to reframe them. And it doesn’t have to be a lecture: sometimes asking open-ended questions can help kids think more deeply about an issue.
“Do you think women have a harder time finding employment if they have or want to have children?”
“Do you think men need a job to be respected? Why?”
The real work is not just juggling chores and meetings and date nights, or arguing the merits of SAHMs vs. WOHMs, or maintaining the facade of Having It All while quietly dying inside. The real work is learning to see and demand our own full potential as a person, male or female—and making sure our kids can see theirs, too.