Mothers often fit into two tribes: the stay-at-home mothers and the working mothers. It is rare to read an article, a book, or watch a TV programme that moves past this dualised stereotype of how mothering works. And yet mothering isn't a two-dimensional role; it's a role which can take many forms and guises. And the fact that mothering is so stereotyped can have damaging effects on mothers and their choices.

In their article "Locating Mothers", Heather Dillaway and Elizabeth Pare explain how "women are constructed as either mothers or workers, but not both." It is a challenge for society to conceive of mothers not only occupying the dual role of mother and worker, but also, arguably, any dual role: society often struggles to paint a picture of new mothers as lovers, partners, or even interesting individuals.

What does this mean? First and foremost, it means that working mothers are not really perceived as mothers at all. There is a perception that they have completely foregone their "duty" of motherhood for the selfish pursuit of individual goals. Secondly, it means that stay-at-home mothers are seen as incapable of being anything more than mothers, and that even those who work at home cannot be taken seriously professionally. Dillaway and Pare point out that physical location is one of the main reasons for this: "either women are at home or at work, but not both". The impossibility of overcoming this physical boundary often means that mothers are pigeonholed into "one" or "the other".

The dichotomy of the individual (the working mother) versus the communal (the stay-at-home mother) further aggravates problems for both sides. The stay-at-home mother ceases to be an individual, but instead embodies the image of "the mother": giving, nurturing, and sacrificing. Because of the working mother's choice not to sacrifice (meaning her choice not to sacrifice her time to her children, but instead to work), she necessarily becomes the opposite to the stay-at-home mother, her foil if you will: the working mother is driven, individualistic, and cold. These stereotypes work to depersonalise both types of mothers: neither have any individual nuances and within each "class" there is little between them. It can also serve to pit them at war with one another. And when society does this, some women fall into the trap of doing so too.

Dillaway, H. E., & Pare, E. (2008). Locating mothers: how cultural debates about stay-at-home versus working mothers define women and home. Journal of Family Issues Iss. 29 437-464.

Recommended Insights

work life

Don't Become Too Good at Juggling

Efficiency techniques can spill over into your family life.

work life

Achieving Effective Work-Life Boundaries

10 ways to manage the boundary between work and home.

career choice

What Drives the Creation of Entrepreneurs?

National characteristics that forge entrepreneurs.

job search

Be Who They Want to Hire, or Be Better

Are you a compelling candidate for the roles you apply to?

Most Popular


Build a Bridge to Your New Team

Advice for new leaders facing a disengaged team.

job search

How Does Your Interviewer Like It?

Know who you'll be interacting with and how it matters.

career choice

What Drives the Creation of Entrepreneurs?

Entrepreneurial intent and national characteristics.