What do women do? Many women are mothers. Being a mother is one of the most important jobs in the world. But women also have other important jobs…In fact, women can do almost any job.
Imagine if a handout about President’s Day began in a similar fashion:
What did Abraham Lincoln do? He was a dad! Being a dad is the one of the most important jobs a man can have, but men also do other things, like end slavery and win the Civil War. In fact, men can do almost anything!
Of course, that would never happen. We never discuss fatherhood when we discuss famous men and their accomplishments. Or for that matter, any men and their accomplishments. (And while we’re at it, when was the last time we qualified a man’s potential for success with the word ‘almost.’) Yet without fail and often in the same breath, when we talk about important women, we talk about motherhood. Apparently, even when we are talking to second graders.
Interestingly enough, the great majority of the women my son learned about last month—Amelia Earhart, Clara Barton, Susan B. Anthony, Helen Keller, Mary Cassatt, Georgia O’Keefe, Nellie Bly—never had children. In fact, Sacagawea was the only woman he studied who was raising a child during the period of her life for which she became famous. (While I complain about piling my three kids in and out of my minivan, she was hoofing it across the Pacific Northwest with a two-month-old in tow. How’s that for perspective?)
I can only assume that it was precisely because he was studying not-mothers that the curriculum chose to reinforce motherhood as the ‘most important job in the world.’ Perhaps they believed that mothers like me, who don’t work, would be offended? Or that the mothers who do work needed to be reminded which job is more important? (Harriet Tubman starting the Underground Railroad, me packing lunches and scheduling playdates: you be the judge.)
The fact is, we are lately quite preoccupied with our roles and their meaning. Many nonworking mothers are offended by the implication that working mothers are more important. Many working mothers are offended by the reminder that no matter what their profession, motherhood is the more important “job.” When these arguments take place in the grown-up world of Facebook feeds and viral rants, it’s one thing. But when they frame a classroom discussion about women, they become downright dangerous.
Our 7-year-olds—sons and daughters alike—should not be taught that motherhood is the yardstick by which we measure women’s lives. And that is exactly what we are saying when we call motherhood a job. The fact is, it isn’t one. I don’t get paid for it, I can’t be fired from it and I can’t very well decide it isn’t working out and leave it to pursue something else. It involves hard work, like a job, and I complain about it, like a job, and it even keeps me up at night, like a job. But motherhood isn’t a job. It’s something else. And it’s time we all started saying so.
Because here’s the thing: my son talks all the time about growing up and becoming a father. Yes, most of the time it takes the form of When I have kids I’ll let them wear shorts in winter, but be that as it may, he imagines a future where he will be a parent. He also imagines one where he is the starting goalkeeper for FC Barcelona. He doesn’t think one has anything to do with the other, because no one has ever conflated them.
Perhaps the rest of us—curriculum writers, Facebook friends, and mothers alike—should take note.