Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Greedy Labels

I have plans this afternoon to walk with a friend of mine who just recently had a baby.  I was counting in my head this morning how many weeks she has left on her maternity leave, and wonder what she's feeling about her impending transition back to full-time work.  

This wondering reminded me of an idea I encountered while reading about women in the workforce.  The idea is that the work world (aka our careers), and motherhood are both greedy labels, seeking to dominate the identity of women.  

I pondered this, thinking about how I feel about work and motherhood (though I'm not a mother yet), and the variety of feelings my friends have on the topics.  I came to the conclusion that I agree with the "greedy" descriptor.  It does seem that both roles in our lives strive to be the only one that matters, leaving us sandwiched somewhere in the middle.  At work we are told that we are career women, defined by our jobs.  At home, we are mothers, and caring for our children should be our top priority.  And when we go out to mingle, we wonder how to answer the question, "What do you do?"  Do we answer, "I'm a mother," or "I'm a human resource manager at So-and So Company"?  Because answering both at the same time is mouthful.  And though we might attempt to straddle several labels at once,  often the question then is "well, which one are you?"  This is the "greedy" part of work and motherhood.

The truth, of course, is that women's identities, and the roles we play, are much more complicated than that.  True, some women identify more strongly with their careers, and others with their children.  Other women identify with their role as wife, or as friend, or as homemaker.  

This reality is what makes me nervous to label myself as a housewife, as if the only two things that define me are my marriage and my home.  Those two things are important, but I also value my role in the marketplace, in the community, and will eventually value motherhood.  

The key, I suppose, is to not let "greedy" labels get the better of us.  This is easier said than done, since it would be simpler for bosses and children and social commentators like myself to place everyone in neat little boxes, as if "What do you do?" really has only one answer.  One thing I think that is almost universally true is that young women do not want to wear one label.  We do not want our children to define our lives as much as we don't want our jobs to define it.  We would prefer to define it ourselves, and our definitions almost always include variety.

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