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Motherhood: The Invisible Profession

The hardest job I've ever had is being a mother.

In the course of my life as a psychologist, I've worked with drug dealers, gang leaders and heroin abusers; people who were suicidal, homicidal, psychotic or all three; AIDS and cancer patients fighting for their lives. But, without question, the hardest job I have ever had is being a mother to my two boys. It is also the most gratifying, and yet, I often feel I have nothing concrete to show for my efforts. I can't put it on my resume, I don't get a pat on the back for giving lectures about it, I don't get tenure for it, I can't even get good stories out of it when talking to members of the "real world." It is, in fact, the most invisible, undervalued job that I have ever had.    

Stay-at-home mothers are even viewed by the United States government as mere dependents rather than as full-fledged partners in the family "business." Ann Crittenden, a journalist and author of The Price of Motherhood, found motherhood devalued not only by a patriarchal society that historically respected only what men did, but also by feminists who seemed to view progress exclusively in terms of the ability to take charge in traditional men's roles. Women who allow motherhood to overshadow their careers are quietly (and sometimes not so quietly) scorned as betrayers of feminism. After Crittenden resigned from her full-time job to devote more time to her son, she began to feel like a nonperson. "Didn't you used to be Ann Crittenden?" someone finally asked. Mothers often ignore these vibes, finding in motherhood its own reward, as it serves up so many of those experiences that quietly make life worth living. Others who maintain their careers often have a double life, flitting ceaselessly between their two jobs, trying to keep the stress from showing.  Perhaps too, the willing self-sacrifice that is one of the hallmarks of motherhood further helps people in the outside world take our many labors for granted.

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And yet, as Crittenden points out, that outside world would crumble if mothers weren't propping it up, training and developing the human capital that creates, discovers and maintains the resources on which we depend as a society. The profession of motherhood is the glue that holds together all the goods and services that are documented in the Gross National Product.

Even the word "mother" has an all-purpose quality. It is not only a noun, but a verb and adjective as well, encompassing over a dozen definitions in the dictionary, involving creating, protecting, nurturing, developing and maintaining. I think of motherhood as a constant state, a "motherness" that pervades every sphere of my life. Even time to myself, whether work or leisure, is experienced in counterpoint to my time with my children. There is a relentlessness in motherhood that also can take its toll, especially during the baby months, when everything is experienced against the backdrop of bone-crushing exhaustion and, for the first child, the unnerving newness of the experience. Many women are unprepared for the initial feeling of incompetence that casts a haze over their on-the-job training. 

Through this haze, they must learn to be master interpreters of their child's behavior, reflexively using hypothetico-deductive reasoning to decipher the secret codes of their baby's cries, movements, facial expressions, connecting them to what had come just before and testing out their theories. Every mother is a Behavioral Scientist whose dissertation subject is her children, and who is regularly assessing the methodological errors in her "experiments." Her feelings of love are fueled by feelings of achievement, her own and her children's, as she remembers with each step all the tumbles that had preceded it. Only, her doctoral work is never complete, and a degree never awarded. Children are like the Borg on Star Trek; as soon as you've mastered one set of their behaviors, they shift to a new frequency, and the learning curve starts again. We may wait many years before we, and society, see some of the ultimate results of our work. 

In those first months, the intensity of the physical labor can dwarf all of the sophisticated psychological work going on. Amidst the trauma of a still recovering body and a screaming baby, just answering a phone, writing a message, or eating a snack requires a skill and dexterity that is new.  Even years later, I sometimes forget myself in front of other adults, and pick things up with my feet, after having grown so proficient at it.

As the child grows older, the physical work diminishes, but the psychological work intensifies.  Discipline, broken furniture, picky eating, a death in the family, conflicts with other children, the list goes on. Motherhood refers not only to what you say and do, but also to who you are, and the moral examples you set. Thus, you take on even seemingly mundane issues, like crossing against the light when you're late for school; lying to your neighbor about her awful haircut; or deciding how to respond when the nursery school arms dealer (a three-year-old named Sam, who's never without a weapon, whether it's a plastic sword, rifle or even a crossbow; since school prohibits these things, he brings paper or Lego versions) introduces your previously gun-free child to the joys of pretend bloodshed. Of course, these decisions aren't really mundane at all. They involve a child's developing moral compass, his or her future ability to gauge dangerous situations, manage social conflicts, vote on gun control laws, perhaps write those laws. They require thoughtfulness, even when making split-second decisions, a keen ability for multitasking, and flexibility.

The consequences of these decisions will reverberate for years to come, in the decisions our children will make as they take their places in the world. (When my older son was four, he aspired to be a professor of  nose picking; thankfully, his goals have evolved since then.) Quietly, in the background, is our most important job -- instilling in our kids the confidence that comes from knowing that they're someone special in the world, and the humility that comes from knowing that so is everyone else. If we do only that, we will have made an enormous contribution to the world, no matter what our other work-related contributions are, and no matter what it says on our tax returns.  

Compounding the built-in stress is the fact that the quiet accomplishments, and delights, of motherhood are just as invisible to the world around us, both for women who stay at home and those who work outside. And yet, we also know a secret, the secret of tomorrow. We know that these amazing creatures who at first seem little more than eating, sleeping and excreting machines, will one day be our surgeons, inventors, therapists, biologists, and leaders. And the people who will raise our grandchildren. There is a famous saying that it takes a village to raise a child. Well, let us not forget that it takes a child, our children, to keep that village alive.

 

Copyright Mindy Greenstein

* Click here for my new book, which is one of O: The Oprah Magazine's 10 Titles to Pick Up in MayThe House on Crash Corner and Other Unavoidable Calamities, about the sad, hilarious and meaningful ways we deal with the crises in our lives.

Mindy Greenstein, Ph.D., is a psycho-oncologist and author of The House on Crash Corner and Other Unavoidable Calamities.

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