What my stay-at-home mom taught me about work

For some women in Canada, parenting isn't just an employment gap.

In April, LinkedIn added ‘stay-at-home parent’ to its job titles in response to the influx of people leaving work due to COVID-19, especially mothers. Women have had their careers significantly impacted by school and childcare closures and the loss of service sector jobs. The pandemic’s toll on working mothers’ employment continues to challenge women’s progress in the labour force.

I’m both appreciative and wary of LinkedIn’s corporate gesture. 

In some ways, it feels like validation—a step forward for parents who leave the workforce. In other ways, it feels like too little, too late. It was meant to provide an option for caretakers to explain their recent employment gaps, but for some women in Canada, parenting isn’t just an employment gap.

As the child of a lifelong stay-at-home mom, I learned the value of a mother’s labour firsthand.

Through a child’s eyes

My mom wasn’t always a parent, of course. Before she was ‘Mom,’ she was just Pam, a devoted reader, hater of all math, and a strong-willed woman. She’s not particularly fond of taking direction from others, and based on stories, never has been. Recipes aren’t safe from her habit of tweaking and customizing them to her liking.

She attended culinary school and was a cook throughout her twenties, which let her work while exploring Canada and Europe. Later, she met and married my dad, then had four children within six years. Afterwards, she never returned to the paid workforce.

In elementary school, during sharing times, I happily explained my parents’ jobs in the bumbling way kids do.

“My dad builds houses—not by himself, but he organizes and supervises—and my mom is a stay-at-home mom!” I would declare, satisfied that I’d contextualized my father’s job, which confused me. What is a building contractor? The specifics remain fuzzy.

To my surprise, people were always hung up on my mom’s job. I can easily picture the arched eyebrow and pursed lips accompanied by the question, “So your mom doesn’t work?”

This troubled me—to my understanding, work was what adults do all day. My dad left to do his job, so I didn’t witness it, but I did see my mom.

I knew she spent a lot of time cooking. We had a tiny TV on our kitchen shelf that played The Oprah Winfrey Show on weekdays. She would diligently flow between the stove and counter, pausing mid-motion during rousing segments.

Throughout my childhood, I’d estimate she spent 50 per cent of her time in our van. She constantly ran errands, bought groceries, and shuttled four kids to synchronized swimming, musical theatre, piano, soccer, Girl Guides, school, and friends’ houses. Driving is when she caught up with us—she’d earnestly listen as we rambled, complained, or, in our teenage years, barely spoke.

She was everywhere we were. At home, folding laundry while refereeing fights. In the waiting room of orthodontist appointments, which spanned eight years thanks to our family’s universally crooked teeth. At school as part of the Home and School Association and as a Sparks leader in the evenings. On the phone, acting as a quasi-personal manager for each household member.

Yes, my mother isn’t employed, but you’re wrong to say she doesn’t work.

As a kid, I hadn’t yet grasped the difference between paid and unpaid labour. I didn’t know that in most Canadian communities, women’s work at home is widely unacknowledged and hardly measured. To me, my mom’s job was just one of a thousand different career choices.

On the outside, looking in

Over time, my youthful outlook changed, thanks to the constant dismissals I heard.

The phrase, “Your dad works so hard—your mother is lucky,” was ever-present from friends, family, teachers, even our dentist.

“I wish I could just hang around home all day,” was also common.

These were innocent comments, and I understand their point of view to an extent. Being a stay-at-home mom isn’t possible in every household.

Choosing to parent full-time requires social, racial, and class privilege. For most, choosing to be unemployed isn’t financially feasible, especially as the cost of living has skyrocketed.

Since the mid-1970s, the proportion of dual-earner families in Canada rose from about 40 per cent to close to 60 per cent. Single parents and dual-income couples who raise children face doubled labour—an incomparable experience.

Undoubtedly privileged, the stay-at-home mom is, by definition, unemployed. It’s often accompanied by outdated terms like ‘home-maker’ and ‘housewife.’

I used to hate the word housewife when it was used to describe my mom, partially because I watched too many seasons of Real Housewives. In media, housewives are vain, catty women without real concerns, or they’re the butt of a joke, an archaic role for modern-day women to scoff at.

‘Housewife’ has a disdainful tone. Rarely did anyone call my mom driven, productive, or disciplined. Those words are reserved for people with jobs.

As a burgeoning teenage feminist, seeing this bothered me. Negative portrayals of stay-at-home parents didn’t line up with my perception of my mom, but I couldn’t seem to find an argument to defend her. I drifted away from the eight-year-old who so proudly spoke of her mom’s work—based on what I was hearing, I’d somehow been wrong.

Entering the workforce at a young age only increased my belief in our society’s reverence for employment. I quickly became competitive and felt like I needed to be exhausted all the time. At my serving job, co-workers and I gleefully compared our overtime hours.

University continued to fuel my aspirations to lead a career-centred life. I was surrounded by people who were starved for success—we bonded over collective suffering, which would surely land us jobs we were passionate about. We fell prey to toxic hustle culture.

This obsession with tying your identity to your work is widespread amongst millennials, thanks to inadequate job security and pressures to self-determine success. Upgraded workaholism is also more prevalent for women, who must “play catch-up.”

I see why it was simple to take the side of the critical gaze my mom had long been subjected to.

Suddenly, my mom embodied outdated gender roles and reinforced the male breadwinner and housewife stereotype. She didn’t have a career, so she couldn’t understand the cyclical love and suffering of work. Inadvertently, I adopted the lens that previously frustrated me—I thought that if you don’t get paid or have an employer, you don’t work.

Despite being a product of my mom’s labour, I denied its existence.

Two photos of Julie, the author, with her mother Pam
Julie Tierney

A contradicting question

Like many young people, I near narcissistic levels of self-reflection. It’s necessary since finding jobs, internships, and designing LinkedIn profiles forces you to summarize who you are, your skills, and how you can benefit an employer in about 500 words.

As a result, I’ve found the time to really think about how I was raised, and how each of my parents contributed to shaping me.

I can thank my dad for many attributes. He is perpetually in motion, always looking for a new task. He’s unflinchingly dedicated and a natural, confident leader. However, the person who taught me about time management, maintaining relationships, creative problem solving, and being patient yet firm is my mom.

But how can someone without a job teach crucial work-related skills?

Intentional unlearning and several gender studies courses helped me find my answer.

I learned that in 1992, feminists persuaded Statistics Canada to assess the value of unpaid household work. It was estimated to be worth $285 billion.

2019 study by Salary.com gathered jobs reflecting a mom’s life to approximate her salary if she were paid. The answer? Around $214,390.

While still mainly invisible to economists, my mother’s daily tasks—domestic labour—are fundamental to capitalist societies. As I became a young adult, I started to realize that I’d undervalued and belittled unpaid work for years while overestimating how much happiness a career can actually provide.

Past and present meet

Today, I’ve reacquainted myself with my childhood mindset. Perhaps it’s wisdom from growing up, or because I’m not much younger than my mom was when she started having children. The extent of her sacrifice, dedication, and work ethic has become tangible to me.

I see the immense responsibility she embraced by choosing a job with no sick days or raises, high stakes, and innumerable critical eyes. There are risks in setting aside your own career aspirations and individual financial security. My palms sweat when I imagine myself keeping track of—let alone raising—an eight, six, four, and two-year-old at the same time.

Granted, she had my dad and others to help. But it was her alone who did it full-time.

I’ve been teleworking for four months and often complain that I can never leave work. I imagine my mom felt the same way at times—but I know she didn’t feel she had the right to complain.

Currently, I live with two of my sisters. I cook us dinner four nights a week, a ritual I enjoy as a home cook and because it makes me feel connected to my mom. I worry if they’ll enjoy the food while scrambling back and forth between the stove and counter, and I imagine her doing the same for decades.

I used to joke that for me, ‘take your kid to work day’ could just involve relaxing at home. Today, I understand I spent my childhood watching my mother make hard work look easy.

After all, I am my mother’s work—and I believe she’s very good at her job.

Julie Tierney is a writer and communications specialist based in Prince Edward Island. She graduated from Carleton University’s journalism program in 2020 and currently manages communications at the South Vancouver Island Chapter of the BC Council for International Cooperation. You can find her on Twitter.

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