Opting Out of Martha Motherhood

HOUSEKEEPING: the management of a house and home affairs

I recently read an article called “The Opt-Out Generation Wants Back In.”  Like most articles in the working vs. staying home mommy genre, it had plenty of valid observations, a few meaningful insights, and lots of conclusions that confused cause and effect.

There is much to say about this article, but I want to focus on one particular passage:

“…even among her cohort of devoted supermoms, [Carrie] was a standout.  She cooked healthful meals and concocted clever art projects, arranged play dates and drove to lessons, hosted creative birthday parties and planned inspired family vacations.  She decorated her home for every holiday.  She oversaw a large yet tastefully cozy house renovation.  She did a turn in all the top parent leadership positions at her daughters’ prestigious preschool.  And she made sure no grandparent went a year without an updated album of family photos…”

I can’t think of a single co-worker I would describe in a similar way.  Can you imagine?

…even among her cohort of devoted attorneys she was a standout.  She always brought a healthy lunch in a non-toxic glass container.  She kept her business cards in a charming macramé holder she made herself.  She frequently organized lunches out with co-workers and offered to carpool to conferences.  She brought in cakes for office birthday celebrations.  And, she kept the candy bowl on her desk stocked with seasonally appropriate M&Ms (pastels for spring, red and green for Christmas, etc.).  She served on the photocopier efficiency committee and helped plan the firm picnic.  The photos in the frames on her desk were never outdated…

That wouldn’t happen.

If I wanted to describe why a co-worker was a standout, I would describe the co-worker’s personality traits and skills and maybe use a few examples of those traits and skills in action.  I would capture the things that make my co-worker unique; the specific ways his/her personality influences his/her work. But I wouldn’t talk about how tidy his pencil drawer was or whether or not she regularly cleaned her keyboard.

We do a disservice to mothers when we describe the value of their work as the list of tasks they do.  We talk about mothers who impersonate Martha in the kitchen and have homes and gardens that could be featured in a magazine as if that is evidence of their fabulous mothering.  Those women are impressive and their artful eye and cooking prowess are noteworthy.  But…

We are confusing excellent housekeeping with excellent mothering.  The two aren’t related.  You can be an excellent mother who keeps a beautiful home.  You can be an excellent mother who doesn’t.

A mother’s ability to love her children has absolutely nothing to do with whether or not the laundry is folded.  A mother’s ability to engage her children in meaningful dinner conversations has absolutely nothing to do with the recipe featured on the plates.  Whether or not children will become good grown-ups has absolutely nothing to do with the date on which their grandparents photo albums were last updated.


11 thoughts on “Opting Out of Martha Motherhood

  1. Wow, if I had to measure my ability as a mother by comparing myself to “Carrie”, I would feel hopelessly inadequate. As it turns out, my messy yet safe home, my not always super healthy meals, my ongowing laundry pile are my own personal signs that I am rockin’ this motherhood thing.

    “We are confusing excellent housekeeping with excellent mothering. The two aren’t related. You can be an excellent mother who keeps a beautiful home. You can be an excellent mother who doesn’t.” This is so true. Thank you for sharing.

  2. LOVE it. I would love to read your description of an outstanding mom. Here are some ideas:
    – kissed every boo-boo to make it better
    – read a story with each child at bedtime, even if it was the 100 repetition
    – took a real interest in her children’s stories and recounts of the day, even if seldom had time to hear them
    – exhaustively researched dinosaurs/planets/bugs/other random interest to be able to participate in conversations about said random interest.

    1. For me, I keep returning to a Barbara Kingsolver quote I stumbled on a while ago:
      “My best revenge against all the dishonesty and hatred in the world, it seems to me, will be to raise right up through the middle of it these honest and loving children.”

      At the end of the day, that is what I think makes an outstanding mom. And, yes…the road to honest and loving children is paved with butt kissing (literally. why so many butt injuries?!?!), bug facts, attentive listening to detailed accounts of preschool happenings, and Fox in Socks(again!).

  3. I like this a lot. There is no doubt that there is more to motherhood than looking like the perfect “mom” (mom-bot?) to people that aren’t even your children! That said, I still aspire to “Carrie” status, for ME, because things like healthful meals, clever art projects, and inspired family vacations thrill me. As do seasonally appropriate M&Ms.

    1. I totally get that. I have my Martha moments, I just see them as unrelated to my worth as a mother. Your comment makes me think about what makes me a great mom from my children’s perspective vs. in the eyes of strangers. A very different set of things.

    1. See my comment above to Samaloda: I have my Martha moments, I just see them as unrelated to my worth as a mother. I like to cook and decorate and do crafty stuff. I just don’t think that is what makes me a good mom. Another woman who likes to bike, arm wrestle and rap is no more or less likely to be a good mom than I am.

      Hobbies are hobbies. I’m disappointed that some folks view certain hobbies (crafting, cooking, decorating) as essential to mothering. Craft scissors and an alphabetized recipe binder are not required to raise healthy and happy kids. They are required to make ME happy, but have nothing to do with making my kids happy or well-adjusted.

  4. Great post! I agree that much of the problem is society’s tendency to judge mothering ‘ability’ by housekeeping standards, but I also think that part of the problem is many women’s tendencies to let themselves become too defined by mothering. So many women forget about themselves in the process and become so dedicated to being perfect moms that they ignore who THEY actually are.

    1. Agree. I think part of the problem may be that women who love crafting, cooking, and keeping things tidy (because that is who they actually are). have an easier time with some of the duties of motherhood. Those ladies, because they actually like it, make it look easy and others think it should be easy for them too. We would never expect to be able to play the harp just because another mom uses it to put her kids to bed or think we should start running marathons because other moms run long distances when they have free time (Jenny I hope you’re reading this). But, I’m just not sure where “I wish I was good at XYZ…” turned into a decision that XYZ is what makes a good mom.

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