Framing The Idea of “Work” With Your Kids (Or, the “Mommy Needs to Work” Discussion)

mommy needs to work - how to frame the idea of "work" with your kidsAs a working mother, do you think a lot about how you frame the idea of “work” with your kids? Did you need to have a special “mommy needs to work” discussion? Do you find that it’s important to you to frame it differently than, perhaps, your partner does?  Do you do it as a reaction to mom guilt, a feminist statement, or some other lesson you’re trying to share (e.g., find work you enjoy! — or, we must earn money in order to live)?

This came up for us a while ago.  My husband always likes to tell our eldest how sad he is to leave him to go to work.  After a while, my son turned to me and asked, “Mommy, are you sad you have to work right now?”  And I thought about it a beat or two and then said, “No, honey — Mommy likes her work.  I’m always sad when I’m not with you but I like what I do, and it brings a lot of value to Mommy’s life.”  (Or, you know, something vaguely coherent in that same vein.)  Maybe I’m just being defensive because I work from home, or because my son sees a lot of playmates whose mothers’ don’t work.  But the more I started thinking about it, it seemed like there were a lot of valuable lessons to impart — work can be fun if you find the right work.  Or, yes, work can be fun but it is also important to earn money because things cost money, like toys… and underpants… and shelter… and food.

I’m apparently not the only one thinking about the “mommy needs to work” discussion because Amazon has a TON of books.  I haven’t read any of them — any reviews, ladies?

I don’t know — what are your thoughts on the matter? Are there important parenting lessons to impart in the simple way you frame “work”?  

Pictured: I was recently at a bar in SoHo that had mirrored frames on the ceiling! It was a really cool look so I snapped this photo. I have of course forgotten the name of the bar.  

the "mommy needs to work" discussion


  1. Philanthropy Girl says:

    My son is still very little – all he knows is mommy leaves, and then she comes home. DH is a SAHD, so there isn’t the difference of how mommy talks about work and how daddy talks about work – but I would imagine that in a few years we may be having the “why doesn’t daddy work/why does mommy work” – because we’re the only family our children will know who have arranged things this way. We will probably stick with the “mommy and daddy both looked for jobs, mommy found one that takes care of the financial needs of our family, and daddy takes care of you! if daddy finds a job that takes care of the financial needs of our family, mommy will take care of you.”

    I think as adults we tend to over-think this a little bit. My mom was a working mom and I never once questioned if she loved me, or if she would rather be at work than with me, or if work was more important. Mommy just went to work. Our family was different because most of my friends’ moms didn’t work, but I never questioned why – at least not until I was in my teens. I think if a child is used to mommy going to work, they don’t think about it as much as we do – except perhaps in situations like Kat’s, where one spouse talks of it often and the other spouse does not.

  2. mascot says:

    My child has only ever known life with two full-time working parents. It doesn’t seem to really bother him that we have to work or that we leave him to do so. I’m a lawyer so I explain that I help people solve problems. DH is in life safety so he helps people keep buildings safe. We get paid for the work we do, that money helps us buy things/go places and we like our work because we like to help people. Neither of us have any real guilt about choosing to have careers and be parents simultaneously.

  3. HRHNYC says:

    One of the nice things about my daughter going to daycare and then full-day preschool is that almost all the moms are working moms, so it is just completely normal for her that I go to work. I don’t get any questions about it (and she’s 2.5, so I get questions about everything!).

    • Meg Murry says:

      +1 to working parents being normal for daycare kids, so this conversation didn’t take too serious a turn until kindergarten.

      However, my son does have a lot of friends who’s parents have summers off or winter break off, and there has been a lot of “but so and so gets to stay home all week with his mom, why can’t I?”

      I feel like I mention this a lot around here, but I think having the “all families are different and that’s ok” conversations, A LOT, help in a lot of different situations. Examples of situations we have used this:
      “Mommy, why do you work and so and so’s Mom doesn’t?”
      “Why does FriendA have a Mommy and a Mama, and I have a Mommy and a Daddy, and FriendB’s Mommy and Daddy live in different houses?”
      “Why does FriendC go to church on Sunday and we don’t?”

      As my son got older, this have evolved into “remember how we talked about how all families are different? That means that different families have different priorities in how they spend their time and money. Some families want a big house. Some families want to go on long vacations. Some families want to go on fancy vacations. Some families want to have the parents work a lot so they can save money. Others want to have one parent stay at home, even if that meas living in a smaller house or not going on vacation. Some families watch a lot of TV, and others spend a lot of time riding bikes or hiking. Every family has to decide what works for them.”

      That works for conversations like:
      “Why does FriendD live in an apartment building and we live in a house?”
      “Why does so-and-so have [newest gaming system] and I don’t?”
      “How come we don’t get to go to Disneyland like FriendE?”

      “All families have different rules and this is ours” also is a good related one.

      I think it’s also important to be somewhat honest with your kids that sometimes people work because they love their jobs, and sometimes they do work that they don’t necessarily love but that they want to have money to pay for food and housing and other necessities. What can I say, I’m starting early with crushing the idea that my kids will be utlra-passionate about their careers their whole lives, and getting them used to the idea that not everyone loves their job every day, but we still have to do it.

      • Anonymous says:


        We chalk it up to all families are different and talk about how there are lots of differences between families.

        At young ages, Daniel Tiger’s line that “Everyone’s job is important, everyone helps in different ways” get repeated constantly. I actually find this is also helpful when kids have questions about different jobs.

        As a result, my daughter would now like to be “a bug scientist then a garbage man, then a cleaning lady, then a daycare teacher and her babies daddy will look after them while she does these jobs” (my DH is SAHD by choice for a year).

        • Daniel Tiger is so great for life lessons. I don’t know if it’s the tie between Mr. Rogers and my own childhood or what, but I tear up at half of the episodes. Not especially productive but it’s just so sweet!

          Meg Murry, my daughter is 19 mo so just starting to be understandable in her questions, but I can see us using this answer in the future for so many things! Thanks!

      • hoola hoopa says:

        + 1 It’s all fine and normal until kindergarten, then the questions start. One of my kids in particular wanted me to volunteer as often as some of the other moms, and it was emotional for her that I wouldn’t. Another is a homebody and always valued weekends with family, even though all she’d known was M-F daycare.

        I also frame it “all families are different” – since it really is a constant theme.

        But I also say it’s because I like my work, I do important work, and the money I earn pays for x, y, and z. I like to be truthful and pragmatic.

        I do say that I miss them. It’s the truth. I like my job, but that doesn’t mean I don’t also miss them.

        This isn’t a topic where I felt like I needed a book.

  4. I think the bigger issue here is that there appears to only be one book when you put “daddy goes to work” into amazon. So if it’s not an issue for dad to figure out how to explain this, why is it an issue for mom?

    • hoola hoopa says:

      Because kids see other moms at home – and in my experience – at school and other volunteer positions. I live in an area with a larger-than-average number of stay-at-home dads, but they aren’t routinely in the classroom. My children ask me why I’m not doing X, Y and X like So-and-So’s mom because that mom is. They don’t ask my husband, because they don’t see dad’s doing it. (FTR, I do know a lot of dads that volunteer with the schools, but it’s often landscaping, planning, or one-off (outdoor school, field day, etc) activities rather than being routinely in the classroom).

      So yes, it’s an issue. It’s definitely an issue. But it’s an issue for a men’s parenting forum. They are missing out, and in the mean time you will encounter a time when your child asks you why YOU have to go to work because EMMA’s mom is home. (But you’ll also hear that EMMA’s mom lets her do Thing Not Allow In Your House and have to explain that too, hence Meg’s post above).

  5. Anonymous says:

    I’ve been having this conversation frequently with my preschooler. He attends a preschool where he is one of the few kids who attends after school care, because most of the kids have SAHM. So I get a lot of “why don’t I get to go home at 2:00 dismissal like [friend]?” So far, he hasn’t continued the conversation beyond my response that the friend’s mom or dad doesn’t work and my husband and I do. I do try to keep it gender balanced even if I know the mother is at home.

    I like the idea above about explaining being a lawyer as someone who helps people solve problems. My kid has no idea of what I do, in contrast to my husband who has a job that little boys understand and get excited about.

    • Anonymous says:

      Haha, there is nothing about my or my husband’s career that is understandable or exciting to a preschooler. Or many adults.

      • mascot says:

        Trust me, if my child understood what kinds of problems I am tasked with solving, I’m not sure he would be impressed either.

      • hoola hoopa says:

        My kids don’t understand what I do, either. Frankly, most adults don’t. I do have a preschool-level description; it’s quite vague and over-reaching, but it’s something to give them.

        However, they know “what” I do. When they play Mommy, they get on conference calls and check email, lol.

  6. MomAnon4This says:

    I had a good annual review the other day and thanked my support team – my husband, my babysitting parents, my MIL who came for a week during spring break. I also thanked my first grader for being good and focused at his job of growing and learning so that I could stay focused at my job. I’ve very lucky.

  7. anne-on says:

    I’m so not looking forward to the judge-y comments from my inlaws as one of the conferences I’m running happens to fall on my son’s bday. I need to be there, its a huge opportunity for me, and cupcakes at school can be outsourced (and goody bags done before I leave).
    Does my husband get questions about his work? Nope, but there are a ton of SAHMs in our area, so even in daycare there are a lot of people using it as their ‘gym and grocery time’. Sigh. I keep trying to remind myself its good for him to see a working mom (and for the younger women I work with, and for our family and myself) but its hard at times like those.

  8. Becky says:

    I also recommend Mommy’s High Heel Shoes. It’s been one of my kids’ favorites for years.

Speak Your Mind