The last time I heard it, I was at the grocery store. I was balancing a baby in one arm, pulling out my debit card with the other, and wondering the whole time how I was going to get a dozen bags of groceries back to the car when the baby had clearly had enough of riding in the cart.
Noticing the beads of sweat popping out on my brow as I attempted to scan the card with my baby-holding arm, the sixty-something cashier smiled kindly at me over the conveyor belt. "Motherhood," she said. "It's the hardest job in the world."
If I had a quarter for every time I've heard that statement (or some variation) in the nearly twelve years since I became a parent, I'd be driving something a lot nicer than my 2001 Dodge Grand Caravan. I encounter it almost every single day: on TV talk shows, in flowery print on greeting cards, on blogs and blog comments and in magazine articles. And I appreciate that it's said with the best of intentions, often repeated from one mom to the next: a mantra of sorts; a soothing balm to pour upon one another's sleep-deprived souls.
And yet, every time I hear it I flinch.
As I see it, motherhood is a complicated relationship and an awesome responsibility. The stakes are high; the grunt work that accompanies it repetitive and sometimes mind-numbing. But the hardest job in the world?
Is motherhood harder than, say, digging ditches? Cashing in tickets at Chuck E. Cheese while waiting for a birthday party's worth of three-year-olds to decide whether they want five Tootsie Rolls and a Chinese finger trap or two plastic soldiers and a friendship bracelet . . . for eight hours a day? Is it harder than picking beans in a hot field? Living in space for months at a time? Climbing utility poles? Negotiating peace talks with volatile leaders? Wrestling alligators?
When I was thirteen, I spent three weeks "corn detasseling," a rite of passage in my rural Michigan hometown. It's the sort of work generally performed by migrant workers, but Midwesten farmers tap into an additional source of cheap labor: adolescents old enough to need pocket change but still too young to scoop ice cream or flip burgers.
Every day I got off the bus at seven a.m. and dragged my sleepy, shivering adolescent body into the dew-drenched fields. By noon I was desperate for some of that long-dried-up dew, as the sun beat down on my head. The other kids and I walked row after row of corn, blisters forming on our hands and sunburns on our noses and necks as we removed the "tassels" left behind by machines so that the corn couldn't pollinate itself. I'd usually get home around five p.m.; drop, exhausted, into a tub full of Epsom salts, try to keep my eyes propped open during dinner and then fell into bed by eight p.m.
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