To Work or Not to Work is Not the Question.
by Lauren Young
In her new book Opting In: Having a Child Without Losing Yourself, Amy Richards explores the tricky landscape of motherhood in the 21st Century. Richards, age 38, who is the mother of two young boys, is a well-known feminist and a leader in the Third Wave movement. She is also is the cofounder of Soapbox, a progressive speakers bureau. I recently caught up with Richards to talk about her new book, focusing on the issues affecting working parents. Here are edited excerpts of our conversation:
Q. The first chapter of your book is titled: “To Work or Not to Work Is Not the Question.” So why does the all-or-nothing approach get so much ink?
A. There are two reasons why. It’s an upper-middle class dilemma. As a society we are more focused on that demographic. We are most invested in that community—what are they doing—and base our choices on what they’ve made acceptable or not. It also masks a much deeper question: Do we want to work? The majority of us not only need to work financially. Most of us want something beyond the monotony of our homes and the joy of our children. I want to retire that question as being about that specific thing. What it is masking is the issues we have with other women. Who is a better mother? Who does society care more about? Who will my children think is a much more respectable person in society? This question has dominated because it’s masked our desire to be more competitive or confront other women. When I talk to a lot of my friends, the debate never ends, even when we have made up our minds. We each need something unique, but most of us need a combination of working and being around for our children and the household responsibilities.
Q. What options do working mothers have today? Do men have the same options?
A. We want to complain that parental leave isn’t paid, but there are a lot of employers who offer paid leave—or just leave—and there are employees who don’t take it. The problem is that we haven’t changed culture enough to start taking advantages of the options offered to us.
Whether you take six months of maternity leave or a year, I actually think it shouldn’t necessarily be right in the beginning. Yeah, maybe you want to spend the first couple of weeks at home. And maybe you can bring your baby to the office when they are so much easier and more portable. But I actually think you should take leave later on when your children are more mobile and engaged.
Q. You are an advocate of working. Why?
A. People who work definitely seem happier when they work—I say “work” very loosely.
You may not be the primary breadwinner, but if you have other responsibilities, it gives you an excuse to not be a perfect parent. If your job is to be a full-time parent and your kid is still throwing temper tantrums at age 7, there’s a lot more pressure to fix the problem. If you work, people say, ‘Oh, she works” even though it isn’t a good reason.