We Recommend: Working Mother Edition

OK, people, the following story will send chills down (up?) your spine. It will, at least, if you're anything like me. Here's the e-mail I got:

My daughter is almost three years old, and has started to realize that
not all moms work full time (as I do).  She likes to bring this up
frequently, pointing out all the literary and real-life moms who don't
have to work, which, as you might imagine, feels pretty lousy.  I'm
wondering if there are any books for this age group which have working
parents, especially moms, in them. I don't think the books need to be
ABOUT working parents, just some mention of "and then mom goes off to
work," would probably help.  She's a voracious story-listener, and her
current favorites include Paddington Bear, Elmo stories, The Carp in the
Bathtub (which, by the way, is great!), Tango Makes Three, Corduroy,
Blueberries for Sal, The Story of Ping… and on and on.  Now that I
think about it, there seems to be an animal theme, but I don't think
that's essential.

So the first thing I thought (my God forgive me) was "Well, there's The Berenstain Bears and Mama's New Job," before I came to my senses and realized, wait, that book is sort of terrible, and the readers of this blog will all rise up together and screech if I introduce that vampire colony to someone's home, and besides, it's all about the family's adjusting to Mama's new job, it's not a book in which it is an accepted fact of life that the mother has a job.

So OK, no problem, I'd just think of something else, that's all. Right?

And then I thought. And I thought. And I thought. And I realized, Holy crap, she's right. There are tons of books for middle schoolers, and even younger school-age children in which the mothers work, but when it comes to picture books? Strange little animal families you read to a three-year-old? All I could see was a great, yawning abyss.

Now, it's true that for a lot of these books, the focus isn't the parents at all. Often the parents just don't come up. But often they do, and when they do, the father goes to work and the mother is…home.

There is Are You My Mother? You could argue that the mother bird's job is to go out and get food for her baby. But she leaves him alone and it's sort of traumatic, and it's not really a job, it's more like grocery shopping. There are a whole slew of books in which the mother goes out (Carl, Cat in the Hat, Bear and Roly Poly), but for whatever reason they always make sure to mention that she's going shopping or something (ah, the good old USA where as long as you consume, everything is OK). And the dads…well, they work. They work in Little Fur Family, they work in Richard Scarry*. The bus driver in Don't Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus is, of course, a man. The mom in No, David! is home. Sure, there are working females (who can forget Doctor DeSoto, the dentist, and his wife, who is also his assistant?), but they aren't mothers.

At this point I really started freaking out. I mean, could this really be possible? Is every classic picture book like this? And HOW COULD I NOT HAVE NOTICED? This is what freaks me out even more. I went to Diana, who couldn't think of any. I dropped into a few bookstores and found almost nothing, except for this book, which I think I remember having a working mother (that's why her Nana takes her to the show, right?). So there is this:

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It is terrific. Though it brings up a weird anomaly: the only books that even hint at mothers' working, are books about non-white children. The book we just talked about—A Chair for My Mother—has a mother who is a waitress. But there isn't the sense that this is a fulfilling job, it's presented much more as an exhausting economic necessity. Which, of course, work is for most people (me included), but that isn't quite how it's framed when it's the father who works.

So what the heck is going on? Have we really been reading our children scene after scene of an idealized fifties existence? Can't we bring more to it?

I say, let's blow the lid off this thing: surely you guys can think of some other books. Maybe I'm not remembering? Maybe there is a family of ducks somewhere that go to day care while their mom goes off to be a physicist? Or a pharmacist? Or something?

And if you can't, then here is my impassioned plea: write one.

*I almost forgot, in one of the hospital books, the two doctors are Mr. Doctor Doctor and Mrs. Doctor Doctor, she's an ob/gyn and pediatrician, I think. I believe this is in Richard Scarry's Best Read It Yourself Book Ever, which is true to its title.

33 thoughts on “We Recommend: Working Mother Edition

  1. How about “Something Queer Is Going On”? The mom in that story comes home from work – no big deal, she’s a working mom. Single mom, I think, since dad never gets mentioned, but again, no big deal. Also, she’s a participant in the story, not just obligatory mom. She helps solve the mystery, and steps in to validate and back up her kid, which is a nice change from all the books I’ve read that involve oblivious grown-ups and kids having to go behind their parents’ backs.
    Plus it’s a great book. Plus plus: 70’s fashion. I haven’t read Elizabeth Levy’s other books, but they might be worth a look, too. http://www.elizabethlevy.com/books.html

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  2. Lottie’s Princess Dress – one of our favorites
    Grandma’s beach – also a classic
    Franklin books – The mom doesn’t work but Dr Bear is a woman and there are lots of animals (some with disabilities but never the main focus)
    Arthur – Mom is accountant – there is one where he breaks her computer during tax season

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  3. Ramona’s mom works, I’m not sure exactly which book in the series she goes back to work, and I think my kiddo was probably closer to 4 when we started reading those, but she loved them. Clementine’s mom works, but I believe out of their home…”Ella the Elegant Elephant” mom works…. There’s always Todd Parr’s “Mommies” which doesn’t so much have a plot, but shows a wide variety of all sorts of different things moms do!

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  4. I remember receiving a picture book when my daughter was born that was called ‘When Mama Comes Home Tonight’ — sweet and sappy about time with mama after work.
    She also loved Mommies by Todd Parr.

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  5. I am astonished, and I’m also not. I sort of knew that children’s literature, especially young children’s was basically stuck in the 50s. I can’t think of a darned thing and I fancy myself an expert in children’s books!

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  6. There’s one where the daughter decorates the subway station with her paintings to surprise her mother for her birthday… I think her mother takes the subway to work or maybe even works in the ticket booth? I either saw it on Between the Lions or Reading Rainbow… Erm… Brave Irene has a mother who workss, but she’s at home and on top of it there’s the issue of Irene nearly dying in the snow… This is tough.

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  7. I know that it’s… Caillou, but doesn’t HIS mom work? I know it’s sometimes from home, but it seems to me like Mom works. And it would be age appropriate.

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  8. There’s an old chapter book called Half Magic about four children who are basically “looked after” by a housekeeper while their mother goes to work to support them. But it’s a chapter book with simple and few line drawings — more appropriate, I imagine for a bit older child?

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  9. Free To Be You and Me, the record album that Marlo Thomas made in the ’70’s has a great song called (I think) “Mommies are people” with lyrics about all the different professions mommies (and daddies) have. There is a picture book that goes with it but I don’t remember it as well as the record. Its a great record! I loved it. All different actors (Mel brooks! Carol Channing! Harry Belafonte!) sing and tell stories. Rosie Grier (the football player) sings: Its Alright to Cry… It is out on CD now but probably no book.

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  10. “Through my Window” is about a girl who is at home sick for the day. Her dad stays with her while her mom goes to work.

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  11. I can’t think of ONE. (Except for Arthur, but I didn’t really read Arthur when my kids were that little.) Not one picture book for little kids where a mom nonchalantly goes to work. Wow. Authors out there…start writing! (And just so you know, I descended to the basement to look through my library just to make sure! I have never done that before, usually titles just come to mind.)

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  12. Robert Munsch’s “Get Out Of Bed!” http://robertmunsch.com/get-out-of-bed/ is about a girl (Amy) who won’t wake up — at one point the brother says “What are we going to do? I have to go to school,” and the father says “And I have to go to work,” and the mother says “And I have to go to work too” — so they take Amy to school in her bed. It’s a picture book, it’s completely age-appropriate, and it’s completly incidental that the mother and the father both work. Robert Munsch is pretty good for busting the more subtle old-school stereotypes, actually — in “Something Good” it’s dad rather than mum who takes the three kids grocery shopping.

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  13. I’m as appalled as you are — my first thought was A Chair For My Mother, but you’re right about the weary necessity that underlies the text — nothing like my own feelings about my career (occasionally cranky about the small stuff, but overall joyful about the larger goals of teaching literature). And, like Amazing Grace, it’s clearly a single-mom family with a grandmother living in the house — an excuse, if you will, for the mom to be working at the same time that it clearly reflects reality for a lot of kids.
    Hmmm. I’ll go through the bookshelf later, but first I’ll recommend another television show: Sid the Science Kid. Sid is a preschooler, and both his parents work (happily, at what are clearly careers, not just jobs). This is incidental to the original request, but his parents are still married, so it’s not a single-mom-with-grandma family, and while his mom is African-American, his dad is a red-haired and from Scotland.
    Every day Sid’s mom drives him to daycare, where he has friends and learns cool stuff, and then his grandma picks him up and takes care of him until mom and dad get home from work. (In the car on the way to school, Sid always sings, “I love my mom, my mom is cool, but now’s the time for having fun at school!” Sounds dorky, but it shows a really healthy transition from home life to school life.)
    Off to scan the bookshelf with wrinkled brow…

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  14. I was astonished, until I went to look at the bookshelf for ideas and realized that, at least for our favorite picture books, I couldn’t tell you whether or how the dad worked, either.
    I can think of more stories with casual references to dad having to go to work in the morning, than I can for mom; and I doubt there’s a special category for “WHEN DAD HAS TO GO TO WORK.”
    We had several books about saying good bye, and dropping off at school or daycare, that involved working moms. Some examples: “Don’t Go” (more elephants) “Oh My Baby, Little One” (birds, I think mom’s a fashion designer or tailor or something). But those are more separation-focused, it’s not a casual mention of mom working in a story about something else.
    One thing I always found interesting was what my daughter imagined about the people in the stories: we can put a lot of our own ideas or assumptions into the “backstory” of the books, so even though the stories show mom home having lunch with the kiddos or whatever, it doesn’t tell you that it’s a weekday afternoon. They could be picking blueberries on a Saturday.

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  15. Oh – and the subway story – “Jamaica Louise James.” Great story, I think it was also single parent, living with grandma.

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  16. I’ve been looking for “My Mommy is a Lawyer” type of books for some time, and finally just Google’d it and came up with a couple of choices which don’t appear to be widespread; and which also revealed a “My Mommy is a Paralegal” selection as well. See “My Mommy is a Lawyer”, at http://www.lulu.com/product/paperback/my-mommy-is-a-lawyer/4675027#
    and
    http://estrinlegaled.typepad.com/my_weblog/2009/04/my-mommy-is-a-paralegal-new-book-for-the-kids-.html
    Good luck!

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  17. I also just did a search on my library’s online catalog, searching for “Mommy Works,” and came up with some books:
    ******************
    Mommy works, Daddy works
    by Pederson, Marika.
    ******************
    Buzz
    by Wong, Janet S.
    Summary
    A child experiences the sights and sounds of morning–from the bee buzzing outside to the noise of the awakening household to the flurry before Daddy and Mommy leave for work and Grandma comes to spend the day. Buzz celebrates the warm familiarity of the family routine, as well as the childlike game of discovering a recurring sound–buzzzz–within the hubbub of daily life. An acclaimed poet’s first picture book A playful concept book that explores sound Portrays a contemporary parent-child relationship, with appeal for working parents
    *********************
    When Mommy and Daddy go to work
    by Cole, Joanna.
    Ages 2 – 4
    Summary
    While Mommy and Daddy are busy at work, I’m busy having fun at day care. Day care is fun, even though saying good-bye to Mommy and Daddy before work might not be. In this reassuring guide for young children, noted author Joanna Cole shows that, although parents may go to work, they always come back at the end of the day. A helpful Note to Parents is included. Acclaimed for her Magic School Bus series, Joanna Cole is also the author of the popular I’m a Big Sister, I’m a Big Brother, My Big Boy Potty, and My Big Girl Potty, all illustrated by Maxie Chambliss.

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  18. Really interesting article, attygirl. It’s from 1972 — I wonder if anyone has done follow-up studies?
    On the other hand, a lot of the classic children’s lit is from that era, including everything on the little girl’s list of favorites except for Elmo, I think, so there’s a lot here that is still relevant.

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  19. The thing is, I want to recommend a great book, not just one that fits the bill only. And while it’s true that you don’t always know explicitly what the daddy is doing, it’s pretty clear (I’m thinking of Little Fur Family, when he puts on his coat and hat and goes out into the little fur world. Out into the world being the operative words.) As for the Cat in the Hat, she comes back with shopping bags, which I would say is fairly damning evidence. That and the fact that “She is out of the house for the day” meaning it is unusual. Though I don’t mean to be the most negative person in the world. And boy would I love to get my hands on a copy of My Mommy Is a Paralegal.

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  20. Someone mentioned it above, but Ella the Elephant’s mom is a baker. (Sort of a cozy mommy job as she is always baking cakes, but still.) The book at our house is Ella Takes the Cake.

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  21. Oh, and in the not-a-book category, in the Sesame Beginnings dvds (baby Elmo, Cookie Monster, Prairie Dawn, and Big Bird), Elmo is taken care of by his dad while his (unseen) mom is at work and Cookie Monster is taken care of by his grandma while his (unseen) mom is at work.

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  22. A great book that fits the bill. Sigh. My daughter (3) has a notebook with a princess cover. One day, she asked me to read the book. Well, it wasn’t a book, it was a notebook/journal with blank pages. So, I asked her to start making up a story. I said, “What do the princesses do?” She said, “They go to work.” The event that ensued was awesome — Snow White was the doctor, Little Mermaid was a mommy, and Aurora was a lawyer. Not a lot of variation, but it was fun to talk about the Little Mermaid sitting in the waiting room for the doctor, and Snow White coming out to examine the patient.

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  23. I don’t know if her mom works, but isn’t Eloise always running around with her nanny?
    (It’s not one we’ve read recently, so I might be totally wrong. Wrong beyond belief. Oy vay wrong.)
    I’m a bookseller, and I am going to scour the picturebook shelves for this tomorrow. And check that Eloise thing, too.
    Best of luck.

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  24. The Country Bunny and the Little Gold Shoes
    Dubose Heyward (Author), Marjorie Flack (Illustrator)
    -that mom is amazing and hardworking!!
    The Year I Didn’t Go to School by Giselle Potter
    -not your typical book, but whole family is a working theater troupe

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  25. All aboard to work–choo-choo! by Carol Roth shows animal moms and dads heading off to work. It’s cute.
    Meredith’s mother takes the train by Deborah Lee Rose talks about Meredith going off to daycare and her mom to work – they think of each other all day, and then tell each other about their day when they get home.
    I have to tell a related story here – when my daughter got into the Little Mermaid, she asked “where’s Ariel’s mom?” I’m thinking, “Oh gosh, how do I explain Disney’s systematic erasing of moms?” Before I could say anything, she concluded, “I know, she must be at work.” Yes, sweetie – I think you must be right.

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  26. Okay, there’s “My Mommy is a Beekeeper,” but it’s not actually that great. And that’s all I can think of. Blech. Somebody needs to write something, stat.

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  27. Working moms are scarce in picture book land but there is:
    Don’t Forget I love You
    by Mirriam Moss
    A mama bear drops her son off at nursery school and then rushes to work. In the rush she forgets to say “I love You” the child bear is sad about this until she returns and says goodbye properly.
    And on the subject of a previous post about books for a Warriors fan I have heard very good things about: Varjak Paw by S.F. Said, and the sequal The Outlaw Varjak Paw.

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  28. The apparent “gaping hole” has in part to do with a somewhat expected emphasis on the presence of the parents in childrens’ lives, no doubt. Certainly, we’ve seen many more novels on grown mothers, before BAD MOTHER appeared. But I’d offer that there are examples of working mothers that have recently emerged; these arn’t only in Caillou–if that distinctly Canadian import counts, even if we discount the English series by Lauren Childs on Clarice Bean, as well as Ruby Redfort. Abby Hayes, anyone?

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  29. What a great conversation! I don’t have any great ideas but wanted to thank you (and all your readers) for bringing up the idea. I see lots of different themes–single parents, children living with grandparents, mixing of races and religions–where themes are there but not overtly discussed; there’s a good story, and topics like that are naturally present without being the focus. But working moms seem largely absent. I’m a day care provider, so I see kids saying goodbye to their moms all the time, and I also repeatedly have to explain to my kids that not all mommies do day care when they grow up; my job exists because mommies have lots of different jobs.
    I’d love to see some great stories where working moms are as matter-of-fact as the working dads are.

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  30. I read this post a while ago and it took me until now to remember the perfect book for the working mama dilemma: Oh My Baby Little One by Kathi Appelt; amazing illustrations by Jane Dyer. Amazon link here: http://www.amazon.com/Oh-My-Baby-Little-One/dp/0152060316/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1281833747&sr=1-1
    The book is a lovely story where mama is at work and Little One is having a very happy day but both still love one another and there is a happy reunion at the end.
    My son, now a big boy of 10, loved this book. It was just perfect and we read it often.

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