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Editorial columns

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It’s time to abandon ‘working mothers’

When women were relatively new to the working world, it made sense to identify mothers who worked for pay. But the term “working mother,” which dates to the late 19th century, implies that those who care for children without pay don’t actually work. It’s time to abolish it.

As Ann Crittenden observed in “The Price of Motherhood,” cooking, cleaning, driving children to and from school and activities, and watching and educating them are seen as “labors of love,” rather than real, hard work. Yet these are time-consuming and demanding tasks that, when outsourced, have been valued at up to $100,000 a year.

Moreover, our continued use of the term “working mothers” when we don’t call men “working fathers” reinforces the idea that mothers should be at home – hence we need an adjective when they are not. By contrast, we presume that fathers should be at work and thus don’t need an adjective. The term also perpetuates a divide between stay-at-home mothers and those who work outside the home, when all women should feel united in pushing for policies such as paid family leave and affordable day care.

Far better is the phrase that a number of men are using, calling themselves “work at home” dads. Most of them are working on projects that bring in income while also taking care of the kids. Or we could call any parents who are not commuting to an office, whether they are working for pay or not, “work-at-home mothers” and “work-at-home fathers.”

But if we really want to let in some fresh air this spring, let’s change the frame entirely – away from men and women, mothers and fathers, office and home. Let’s talk about caregivers and breadwinners – and acknowledge that the vast majority of American workers are both.

Anne-Marie Slaughter, a Princeton professor, was director of policy planning at the State Department from 2009 to 2011. She is the incoming president of the New America Foundation. She wrote this for the Washington Post.

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