Naturally, as Tina Fey’s biggest fan, I have read her memoir Bossypants at least three times (and listened to her audiobook at least twice). In the book she discusses the subtle criticism and judgement working mothers are given. She uses the 1994 picture book My Working Mom as an example. While she admits that the book was probably written with good intentions, it may not be a big step forward for feminism or even women’s rights. You can read this portion of the book here. In a nutshell, the book is narrated by a young girl who discusses how hard it is having a working mom because, sometimes, she comes home late and sometimes she doesn’t spend a whole lot of time with her family. However, the girl counters these complaints with happy moments – like her mother throwing her birthday parties and cheering the loudest at her soccer games. The little girl also has some strong admiration for her mother’s work. The little girl concludes her story with “Even though I don’t always like having a working mom, I just can’t picture mine any other way. So I guess if I had to choose, I’d keep my mom the way she is.”
I can understand this fictional little girl’s struggle. Thinking back to when I was little, I have memories of seeing my father in the home as much as I saw my mother. My father worked while my mother was student. By elementary school, both my parents worked while my older siblings were there to watch over me. By middle school, my mother was working more hours than my father. She’d leave home early in the morning and come home late. Sometimes, unfortunately, there were full weeks where I just wouldn’t see my mom because of her work. And I was obviously sad about that. However…I was sad because I loved both my parents equally and I wanted to see them both equally…not necessarily because I believed that mothers should be like the “stay-at-home” mothers on television. For as long as I could remember, I’ve never thought a woman’s place was in the home. If my mother had stayed home and depended on my father to earn our family’s income, neither me nor my older siblings would have the opportunities we were given growing up. And I think that’s one of the main complaints about the book. Although we have to keep in mind that the book was published during the mid nineties, the book is “outdated” that it portrays the working mother as a strong, yet inconvenient anomaly because…well…this isn’t how mothers are supposed to act.
Just think…would this book had worked if it had been entitled “My Working Dad?” Yes, there has been plenty of children’s media that has portrayed fathers as being neglectful workaholics. But those media don’t necessarily criticize (and I realize that “criticize” may be too strong of a word but you get the point) fathers for the simple act of being “working fathers.” Fathers are allowed to work…as long as they don’t take it too far. However, idea of a mother working? That’s already going too far! I’m not trying to put thoughts into the author’s head. Like Fey almost passive aggressively points out, Glassman and Arnold probably had the best intentions in writing this book…but the book still highlights a problem we as a society have with women who dare decide to support their families financially. One part of the book that bugs me is the part where the girl laments her mother’s bad cooking which makes me ask…why isn’t the father doing the cooking then?
It also doesn’t help that the mother in the book is a witch. Her occupation is literally that of a witch. And I can understand how that can throw some people off. But, here’s the kicker: despite my own personal feminist leanings, I would still recommend this book. I still think this book has more good things going for it than bad. From a technical standpoint, it is a well made picture book. Glassman’s text itself isn’t extraordinary…but what I find fascinating about the text is that it never makes reference to the fact that the mother is a witch. That part of the story is portrayed through the illustrations. So while the text talks about the mother thinking her meetings are boring, the illustration shows the mother at some sort of witch’s gathering. Or when the girl excitedly talks about how everyone in class thinks her’s mother’s job is cool…it’s essentially because, well duh, she’s a witch! The point is…it’s as if the Glassman is trying to be neutral and grounded in his text while Arnold’s illustrations (which were apparently conceived by Glassman) tells a fantastical story. It’s a very clever technique that allows kids to create their own stories with the pictures.
In terms of the message – again, I understand the complaints from Fey and others. And hopefully books published in the 21st century would deal with the reality of working mothers better. However, I still think the sweet ending by a tolerant and understanding and loving daughter saves the book. It’s not like the girl is saying “Oh well! I guess having a working mom isn’t so bad. I can deal.” She’s ending by saying that she wouldn’t want any other type of mom. And as someone who grew up with a working mom (a working mom who was so busy one night that she forgot my birthday), I wouldn’t want any other type of mom either. And not only because I love her, obviously. Because I had first hand experience at how malleable gender roles could be. And that having a father that drove me to soccer and cooked me dinner wasn’t weird or undesirable at all. I learned I could be anything I wanted to be because of my working mom. And I’d like to think the fictional girl realizes this when she’s older (because it seems like she’s already getting to that point of realization).
It looks like this book is still striking a chord with young readers by the fact that the book is unusually checked out of my local library (or it could be checked out by another curious Tina Fey fan who knows?) But, regardless, I would recommend this book because it has a positive message (even if it doesn’t hit a home run) and the pictures are really cute. It can be a semi-appropriate book for Halloween as well. I think the negative reviews are from people who let Fey’s glowing recommendation affect their viewpoint. I don’t think they’re fair assessments. However, in between reading this book to your child and watching Frozen for millionth time, be sure to let him or her know that they can be anything they want.