My entry into the competitive world of daycare and preschools came 10 years ago. It was during my second maternity leave. I was working fulltime for Johnson & Johnson in New Jersey and living in Manhattan . My first child, 20 months old, went to daycare 45 minutes away from my New York apartment, next to J&J’s headquarters in New Brunswick .
Looking for something more convenient as I nursed 10 times a day and tried to care for a toddler and newborn on three hours sleep, I discovered a lovely preschool in the synagogue directly across the street from my apartment building. Could they take my son for the four months of maternity leave?
The admissions director suppressed a smile. “You’ve probably been too busy working to notice,” she explained. “But moms sign up for this school YEARS in advance.”
Her words made me feel like an idiot, a bad mom, and a stereotype: one of those clueless, selfish working moms.
The next time I had to apply my child to preschool, I was prepared: I took the day off from work, dressed in stay-at-home casual clothes, and loitered with a pack of other moms in yoga pants as visibly as possible in front of the school during our children’s admissions visit. I practically held a placard that said “SEE? I’M A DEVOTED STAY-AT-HOME MOM! LET MY SON INTO YOUR SCHOOL!”
There were not any dads in costume there, pretending to be something they weren’t.
That was a decade ago. During the past ten years, I’ve watched the tides turn: now at some schools, particularly in the most competitive preschool markets of DC, Los Angeles and Manhattan, it’s an asset to be a high-powered working mom who can offer behind-the-scenes tours of Nickelodeon, The Discovery Channel, or the set of Hannah Montana (or a big cash donation to the school auction). But the switch in what’s more fashionable – working or at-home motherhood – distresses me just as much as the early bias I encountered as a working mother. It’s the stereotyping of motherhood that’s the problem here, more so than the specific stereotype.
With nearly 83 million moms in America today, why are there so many stereotypes about us? Heartless working mom? Overprivileged stay-at-home mom? Soccer mom? Slacker Mom? Welfare mom? Mommie dearest? We can’t each of us just be the completely individual mom we actually are?
I think it’s because, nearly four decades into the feminist revolution, America is still deeply conflicted about women and choice. This rampant stereotyping is our cultural attempt to say, okay, we will give moms choices – but we define the choices. And sometimes we moms are the worst offenders. Eager (or in my case, desperate) to feel good about ourselves as moms, sometimes we settle for the next-best-thing: feeling better than the mom next door who’s made different choices about how to combine motherhood and paid employment.
Do you ever think about the worst stereotype you’ve been slapped with? How do mom-o-types hurt or help women you know? What can we moms do to end our culture’s endless type-casting?
For me, the best solution brings me back to how I got here in the first place. My kids. Over my 10+ years as a mom, the three of them have made it abundantly clear that they could care less whether I work fulltime, part-time or not at all. What they care about is simple: That I’m there for them. That I’m a happy mom. That our home is a stable, carefree place to live.
To my children, I’m never a stereotype. I’m their mom.