"Why Do You Go to Work, Mommy?" Having the Job Talk

Photo by Maa Hoo / Stocksy United / 1069321
Photo by Maa Hoo/Stocksy United

By Anna Sachse

“Why do you go to work, mommy?” It was the first time my two-and-a-half year old daughter had asked me that question. Her tone was blasé: She didn’t even look up from the picture she was painting at our kitchen table.

And yet something about her question carried an instant weightiness for me, like the answer I gave right now would be one of those small but pivotal moments in forging the direction her life might take.

Answer correctly and she might be a Nobel-Peace-Prize-winner/surgeon/artist/astronaut/CEO; answer wrong and she’d be living in my basement at age 30.

After the five-second pause during which all the above flew through my head, I began with the truth: “Well, one of the reasons I go to work is because I like working.” I told her that while I love, love, love being with her, it also felt good to spend time with other grownups and use my brain to think and learn in new ways, just like she does at preschool.

I also told her about my job, as a two-thirds-time editor of a wedding magazine that published twice a year. I gave her a copy of the magazine and said, “Mommy makes this.” We flipped through the pages, and I told her that my magazine celebrates the hard work of other people who have jobs like baking yummy cakes, arranging lovely flowers, and sewing awesome dresses. She had a huge smile on her face.

Rather than associate work with the-thing-that-takes-mommy-away, I’d like my two daughters to grow up thinking that a job can be both fun and fulfilling.

More specifically, my hope is that they become (happy, multi-faceted!) women who are independent, self-sufficient, and passionate about their careers.

Apparently the fact that I work suggests that outcome is more likely. A recent study of 50,000 adults in 25 countries found that daughters of working mothers completed more years of education, were more likely to be employed and in supervisory positions, and earned higher incomes.

I also value working simply because it gives me (quiet!) time away from my children, which makes me a better, more creative and patient mother when I’m with them—but I can explain that when/if my daughter has her own kids.

Here, in a nutshell, are my tips for talking to your kids about why you work:

  • Talk about working and what you do in a positive light. You don’t have to say you love it if you don’t, but try to focus on some part you do enjoy or value.
  • Tell them some specifics about what you do, even if they won’t fully comprehend. You can also talk more broadly about what your job does in the world—I help people, I build things, I teach others, I make things prettier, etc.
  • Begin the conversation about money and what it provides in your life.
  • Take your child to your work (or at least drive/walk/bike by and point out where it is) so they can see where you are during those hours when you’re gone.
  • Celebrate their opportunities and experiences at school/child care.

For now both my girls like to play “going to work,” which involves putting on ridiculous shoes and a lot of accessories, filling a bag with random items, and then walking into another room. But first I get big hugs and their reassurance that “mommies always come back” at the end of the day. And that feels like a job well-done to me.

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