The last time I heard it, I was at the grocery store. I was balancing a baby in one arm, pulling out my debit card with the other, and wondering the whole time how I was going to get a dozen bags of groceries back to the car when the baby had clearly had enough of riding in the cart.
Noticing the beads of sweat popping out on my brow as I attempted to scan the card with my baby-holding arm, the sixty-something cashier smiled kindly at me over the conveyor belt. “Motherhood,” she said. “It’s the hardest job in the world.”
If I had a quarter for every time I’ve heard that statement (or some variation) in the nearly twelve years since I became a parent, I’d be driving something a lot nicer than my 2001 Dodge Grand Caravan. I encounter it almost every single day: on TV talk shows, in flowery print on greeting cards, on blogs and blog comments and in magazine articles. And I appreciate that it’s said with the best of intentions, often repeated from one mom to the next: a mantra of sorts; a soothing balm to pour upon one another’s sleep-deprived souls.
Is motherhood harder than, say, digging ditches? And yet, every time I hear it I flinch.
As I see it, motherhood is a complicated relationship and an awesome responsibility. The stakes are high; the grunt work that accompanies it repetitive and sometimes mind-numbing. But the hardest job in the world?
Is motherhood harder than, say, digging ditches? Cashing in tickets at Chuck E. Cheese while waiting for a birthday party’s worth of three-year-olds to decide whether they want five Tootsie Rolls and a Chinese finger trap or two plastic soldiers and a friendship bracelet:for eight hours a day? Is it harder than picking beans in a hot field? Living in space for months at a time? Climbing utility poles? Negotiating peace talks with volatile leaders? Wrestling alligators?
When I was thirteen, I spent three weeks “corn detasseling,” a rite of passage in my rural Michigan hometown. It’s the sort of work generally performed by migrant workers, but Midwesten farmers tap into an additional source of cheap labor: adolescents old enough to need pocket change but still too young to scoop ice cream or flip burgers.
Every day I got off the bus at seven a.m. and dragged my sleepy, shivering adolescent body into the dew-drenched fields. By noon I was desperate for some of that long-dried-up dew, as the sun beat down on my head. The other kids and I walked row after row of corn, blisters forming on our hands and sunburns on our noses and necks as we removed the “tassels” left behind by machines so that the corn couldn’t pollinate itself. I’d usually get home around five p.m.; drop, exhausted, into a tub full of Epsom salts, try to keep my eyes propped open during dinner and then fell into bed by eight p.m.
Compared to detasseling corn, kid wrangling is a like a luxury resort vacation. And yet there are some people who do that grueling work all day, every day, for their whole working lives. I promise you they work harder than me every day.
Personally, I prefer not to think of mothering my kids as a job, so much as a relationship – not to undermine what it is I do all day, most days, for thousands of days so far and thousands of days to come; but to give myself a break. If motherhood is my job, then I’ve got somebody to answer to, expectations to meet, performance reviews to face. And when my kids move out of the house or move on to a less dependent stage in life, I don’t want to feel like I’ve just been pink-slipped.
That’s just me. Lots of mothers prefer to think of their role as “mom” – separate from that sometimes-accompanying role of “homemaker” – as a career; even a calling, and they want it taken seriously. I get that. I just think we need to keep it real.
Maybe the bar has been set too high. Motherhood can be complicated and difficult and it’s definitely under-valued. We’re always torn between conflicting priorities (children, careers, spouses, friends, and if we’ve got time for it, our own needs). Our kids (and our culture) rarely appreciate our efforts, and parenting can be simultaneously exhilarating, lonely, and heartbreaking.
But if the work of being a mom is really as difficult as being a migrant farm worker or the leader of a nation, then maybe we’re doing it wrong. Maybe the bar has been set too high. Or maybe we’re all trying a little too hard.
The most difficult part of motherhood isn’t the actual parenting part, but managing expectations: our own and everyone else’s. By “professionalizing” parenthood, I think we’ve done moms the biggest disservice of all: it’s no longer enough to simply be available to our children, to love them and shelter and feed them and do our best at the rest of it. Now we have to kill ourselves doing it (or at least make it look like we are).
Whether we’re working outside the home or working inside the home or motherhood is our sole employment, the pressure is on to work harder than anyone else. So we find ourselves scrapping over who’s got it harder: working moms or at-home moms or working-at-home moms?
I say, who cares? Motherhood, even stay-at-home motherhood, doesn’t have to be the hardest job in the world to be worthwhile, a valuable investment of our time and energy and money. I know my family needs me. I know I do a lot for them. I know I work hard.
But working harder than everyone else? Sorry, that’s not in my job description.