The Mother of All Holidays

President Woodrow Wilson proclaimed it a national holiday in 1914, and it didn’t take long thereafter for Hallmark Cards to make it a national celebration. Today, Mother’s Day is the third-leading retail holiday in the country, according to the National Retail Federation. Consumers will spend close to $24 billion on flowers, cards, jewelry and other bric-a-brac to celebrate motherhood this May.

For one Hope College professor though, acknowledgment of the sacrificial nature and special identity of mothers goes far beyond matriarchal tchotchkes and trinkets. Influenced by her own spirited maternal role models, and after becoming a mother herself, Dr. Deb Swanson, professor of sociology, delved into how women define good mothering practices in their roles as either stay-at-home or working moms. What she found was not completely unexpected. Her work has shed more light on the complicated nature of motherhood in 21st century America where 70 percent of mothers with children under 18 participate in the labor force,75 percent of whom are employed full-time outside the home,according to recent U.S. Department of Labor stats.

Swanson’s work also confirms this: Motherhood is not for wimps.

Swanson’s research sheds more light on the complicated nature of motherhood in 21st-century America where 70 percent of mothers with children under 18 participate in the labor force, with over 75 percent employed full-time, according to recent U.S. Department of Labor stats.

Inspired by strong women in her family — one great-grandmother who was the rare female high school graduate in the early 1900s in Iowa, another great-grandma who was the first woman to secure her own bank account in Corning, Iowa, and her own mother who was discriminated against while applying for a nursing job because she was pregnant in the 1960s — Swanson became even more fascinated about the changing identities and roles of working mothers when she became a working mom herself.

Dr. Deb Swanson, professor of sociology

“I approached motherhood like a good academic. At the time I thought, ‘Now my identity has changed, things are weird, I’ve got to figure out what to do,’” remembers Swanson. “So, I went and got some books. But I couldn’t find the book to understand how things had changed in my life due to these kids, so I decided to do research, which is the second thing academics do. If you can’t find the book, you go do the research.”

Along with colleague Dr. Dede Johnston from Hope’s Department of Communication, Swanson interviewed 100 women in the Holland area about their definitions on being a good mom, where they found support, and how children changed their identity. The women who participated in the study were employed full-time outside the home, worked part-time outside the home, or were stay-at-home moms.

After collecting all their qualitative data, this is what Swanson and Johnston found:

  • Stay-at-home moms felt a strong moral imperative to stay at home, were sure about what they did and why they did it, but they were lonely. They missed adult interaction.
  • Full-time working mothers, on the other hand, always questioned what they were doing. They constantly juggled their various identities between work and home. “Yet what they were sure about was that when they were home, they were with their kids,” says Swanson. “Their house could be a mess, supper might not be on the table but they seemed to say, ‘when I’m at work, I’m at work and when I’m home, I’m with my kids.’ And they actually spent at least as much time one-on-one with their kids as the stay-home moms who were busy with their domestic work. But what (the working moms) felt was a lot of guilt.”
  • As for the part-time working moms, you’d think they’d have the best of both worlds — work away AND stay at home. But not so much. “Part-time working moms felt like they were doing the best thing for their kids and for themselves but their marriages suffered because their partners expected them to do all the work at home,” explains Swanson. “Their spouses wanted the benefits of a stay-at-home mom but the finances of a part-time worker.”

“In the end, each situation has pitfalls and each has advantages. So, whatever choice women make, let’s support them so they can do what they feel is right for them and their families. Save your judgment, use your compassion.”

While clear roles and expectations, along with loneliness, existed for mothers in the first two groups, assumptive and nebulous expectations clouded mothers’ identities and joy in the third.

What did these outcomes tell Swanson then? What is the take-away here?

“Too often I heard how women — no matter their choice — felt compared and judged. Too often our culture is set up to pit women against each other when we really should be supporting whatever choice women make,” she concludes. “In the end, each situation has pitfalls and each has advantages. So, whatever choice women make, let’s support them so they can do what they feel is right for them and their families. Save your judgment, use your compassion.”

That may be the best Mother’s Day gift for all.

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