Women, Work, and Shame
If you are a SAHM interested in thinking about the role of women in the home as opposed to the workforce I strongly encourage you to check out this post. It will be a far better use of your time than what you will find here. Thanks!
I am ashamed of my job. I am not ashamed of my work, because I am enough of a New Englander to know that one should be ashamed of being ashamed of honest work, but I am ashamed of my job. I am a glorified secretary, and there is nothing cool about that.
I am incredibly thankful for my job. I am somehow able to be employed in a great position even though I can barely think most days. And really, I don’t expect to ever find my life’s meaning in what I do, so I do not especially care about whether I am proud or ashamed of my job. But I am still ashamed of it.
Every other day it seems I hear women talking about housework and childcare as opposed to meaningful, paid jobs. Sometimes there will be a reminder about the women who must work to support their families, but for the most part it is wives of men with cool jobs who consider what it would be like if they too had a fulfilling job instead of solely managing the domestic sphere.
These women often hurry to reassure others (and perhaps themselves) that they could have fabulous jobs, if only they had not chosen to stay home with their children. Then they will discuss the various merits of their feminine sphere and take note of the many sources of pain from those who fail to appreciate their work.
Of course the funny thing is that I have rarely in my life encountered anyone who does not appreciate the value of women who dedicate themselves, at least for a few years, entirely to their children. For every person I have encountered who finds SAHMs less than impressive, I have seen 100 more who will lambaste a mother for daring to even consider working outside the home before her child is in school.
I am quite enthralled with these arguments and find them most fascinating, even though they have little impact on my life. Because, you see, I am one of the multitude of women who belongs to neither the SAHM nor the cool-job sphere.
I have a college degree, but in my case that has turned into a little money without any coolness whatsoever. Many of my peers get paid less for the exact same work, but they can describe themselves as working in non-profit development or whatever and know that in a few years they will have an even cooler title.
The people for whom I work are classy enough to not need to set themselves above me. There is such a tremendous gap and they are so established that they have nothing to prove. But they are rare.
Back in the rest of the world I frequently see women who feel the need to specify when a colleague is a secretary even when it has no relevance to their story. Ironically enough, it is only by finding a way to identify primarily as mother that women such as myself could possibly be considered as an equal. I do not typically feel ashamed of my job around these people because I see them as slightly deformed for feeling the need to demote others in order to raise themselves up by comparison.
But there is such shame when it comes to former classmates. They are fabulous people who value all sorts of variation on vocation. Not only is being a SAHM an obviously respected option, it is even fine to work at a coffee shop while supporting one’s hobbies. The only thing that is shameful is to have a job purely for money–without making an insane amount of it.
I have no problem with supporting others, and so I have no difficulty with my day-to-day life at my job. But I do find it funny that a subculture which talks so much about glorifying the service of a SAHM is unable to even see the existence of women who have less-than-thrilling paid employment.
It just so happens that I value myself as a human being, and thus do not deeply absorb the shame of my job. Yet I cannot help thinking that there is something a little off about those who claim to have a high appreciation of women, but then only recognize our value when we either dominate the domestic sphere or else have awesome jobs outside the home. Anything else is too shameful to even be recognized.
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Rae, this is an exceptionally thought-provoking piece. I’m this guy who works to support my family. Twice in my 42 years of employment I faced a layoff. These things happen but when it happens to you it suddenly lays things bare. Both times I realized that I had gradually, and carelessly, grown to identify who – am with what I did as a job. I measured my worth as a human being by what I did. How foolish and yet there it was. You brought that out in your own life and I so identify with it from my experiences. I need to unpack this more and pray about it. Thank You!
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I understand that feeling, for sure. My first job out of college was also of the “glorified secretary” type, and I was embarrassed to tell other people about it. (I wrote a bit here about letting go of the guilt I had about liking my job even though it was “beneath” me.) But I think you’re right about people’s perceptions. Before I moved into my current position, I encountered several people who acted like I was just biding my time in my secretary job until we had kids and I could quit. Which is not our plan at all! That’s actually closer to Mike’s plan right now–work for a few years, save up some money, then quit when we start adopting kids so he can be home with them. But no one would guess that! It’s crazy.
This is so fascinating. I wish I had brainpower and a few more seconds to type up something a little more sophisticated, but I don’t. Anyway, thanks for writing the post.
I’ll be honest, I’ve had a hard time making it through this post. I’m not entirely sure why. I think my brain is just elsewhere lol.
I do have to say though, I am surprised that you’ve rarely met anyone who doesn’t appreciate those who do the SAHM thing. Maybe its the diff areas we live in, but I’ve rarely met anyone who DOES appreciate it. I’ve gotten grief from multiple family members and have had heard worse from them about others who do it before I married/had kids. Online I see a bit of “I wish I could, but we can’t afford its”. We are the opposite… I can’t afford to work. We’ve tried to crunch the numbers, it just doesn’t fit. Now I’m not complaining about that because I do want to be a SAHM.. but still lol. Hearing people say what we should do (esp when its just not practical) gets old fast. I guess my point is I wish we ran the same circles lol
I know that’s a bit off point but was what came to mind while reading your post.
I’m sorry you are not crazy about your job though. I don’t think its one you should be ashamed of. I can understand not liking it, but there’s nothing wrong with being a “glorified secretary” or even flat out a secretary.
I know I’m a little late joining the conversation, but I thought this was a very interesting and insightful post for a lot of reasons. For one thing, I was intrigued by your observation more people will lambaste a mother for working than suggest that a SAHM’s work is unimpressive. I’ve found this to be true, too, and yet most SAHMs wail about their work being unappreciated. I don’t understand this. I recently became a SAHM, and I feel nothing but approval from all sides. By contrast, women who choose to work tend to feel judged. Maybe, as Mama Kalila suggests, this varies from region to region.
I’ve also been in a similar position as you, working at a minimum-wage job just to survive even though I have a degree. I felt ashamed, too, but realized that it was silly to feel that way.
I think I was going to say something else, but I’ve lost my train of thought. Now I want to check out the article you’ve linked to. Thanks for sharing!
There were so many things I thought during this post, though I’m not sure I can tie any of them together coherently. Still, thought provoking even if I’m bad at putting my provoked thoughts in order!
I have seen the opposite problem in my “sphere”…women who think they are too good for jobs that aren’t ‘fancy’ even when their family/marriages are suffering under financial strain, to the point of turning down jobs in this economy because they are ‘overqualified’…its shocking to me. Maybe my sphere is made up of unrealistic, egotistical dreamers.
Your comment about needing to make a point about someone being a secretary even though there is no prevalence to the story gave me pause. I guess because I do that and hadn’t realized how it must be received. I think I mention that though because in my line of work, all the engineers are socially awkward and clueless when it comes to personal interactions/social graces. By defining someone as an “admin” I feel like I’m making note that they’re “normal” so to speak…and not a engineering weirdo so “this explains why this person caught on/acted this way/actually talked to me during the day outside of a meeting”. Although it is stereotyping, I guess I don’t always see it as a bad thing. Regardless I should be careful how I say it!