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Why must women justify stay-at-home parenting as 'hard work'?

The other day, I was interviewed about child care for Midday on WYPR. In response to a question about how I feel about staying home with my son, I heard myself say that it requires an identity shift because "I used to be a practicing attorney." Then, immediately realizing how my statement would likely be construed to place more value on the work of an attorney than that of a stay-at-home mom, I added, "Being a full-time mom is really hard — a lot harder than I expected." As if the fact that it's hard somehow justifies the way I spend my days.

When I was working as a lawyer, I never felt I had to explain that what I did was hard, or worthwhile, or a valid use of time. No one — including me — ever questioned a career in law as the ultimate outcome of 19 years of elite schooling.

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Being a lawyer was safe. It was prestigious enough. People generally recognized that what I did contributed to society. And everyone agreed that it could be hard.

Which is why I made that silly addendum to my silly assertion of identity: "Being a full-time mom is really hard." The statement has been irking me ever since. Yes, being a full-time mom is really hard, often harder than being a practicing attorney. But must the worth of our days be determined by how hard they are? Comments about long workdays, sighs about having to spend the weekend at the office, and complaints of work-related fatigue are routinely spewed with half-lament, half-pride. See how important I am because my days are so hard?

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See how it's OK that I choose to stay home with my child because it's actually really hard?

What I should have said is: "This is the most important thing I've ever done and ever will do in my life. I am part of an age-old chain of people who have spent their days introducing a new generation to the world, and introducing the world to that generation. I think all day every day about the future of our society, how its citizens will and should act toward each other, what will be valued, and how it should be valued. And like parents before me and parents after me, I work tediously, with love, with my child to help realize that thoughtful society."

And, somehow, something that I do not spend a lot of time teaching my son is that for something to be worthwhile, it must be hard. Worthwhile endeavors (e.g. parenting) are often hard. But the fact that an endeavor is hard does not automatically dictate that it is worthwhile.

Still, for whatever reason, I apparently want the world to know that I have done two hard things: practiced law and parented. I know that I am extremely fortunate to benefit from the efforts of generations of women before me. I was born in a time when it is possible for a woman to be a lawyer and to participate in directing the future of society.

But actually, women have always participated in directing the future of society. It just so happens that they haven't always done it in the way men have traditionally done it.

So, I ask this question trepidatiously and honestly — highly aware of the rebuke it might, perhaps validly, invoke: When women finally earned the hard-won battle to be accepted in the work place, was the work that women had always done at home inadvertently trivialized? Might the important battle to work side-by-side with men be interpreted as a submission to existing male hegemony?

On a walk one recent morning, my son and I passed another mother with her child. We smiled at each other. Then the other mother stopped to point something out to her child. Our smile might have been a shared smile of "Wow, it's hard to be with a child all day." But I'm pretty sure it wasn't. It was a smile of "Wow, it is a beautiful day, the sun is shining, and we both have the privilege and responsibility of observing and being in the world hand-in-hand with our children. We are part of a community of women that spans generations and geographies, and societal assignment of value aside, that is amazing and that is innately worthwhile."

And, it is important and it feels good to acknowledge our joint endeavor with a smile and with joy.

Christina Schoppert Devereux lives with her family in Hampden. Her email is christina.schoppert@gmail.com.

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