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When Your Kid Thinks You're 'Just a Mom'

Photograph by Instagram

"Why can't you just take us both?" my older daughter, age 7, asked. "Daddy has to work."

"Yeah, Daddy has to work," my 4-year-old chimed in. "You take us."

The girls were arguing over who "got" to go in my car (it's hard being so loved). Since my husband was at the dentist with our daughters in the morning, we decided I would go meet them so we could each drop one off at their respective schools and he could hurry back to work.

"Hey, ladies," I said. "I have to work, too."

One of them mumbled something about me sitting on the couch, which is where I spend my days writing. They both laughed. I didn't.

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Trista Sutter didn't laugh, either, when her young son, Max, said, "I want to be like you, Mom. I want to do nothing," after she asked him what he wants to do when he grows up.

Sutter, 43, was the first-ever "Bachelorette" on ABC and went on to marry Ryan, the guy she gave the final rose to (in the most dramatic rose ceremony ever, which was also one of the first rose ceremonies ever). She spoke at a TedxVail event in her adopted hometown of Vail, Colo., last month and said the timing of Max's comment couldn't have been worse.

"My demons were (already) telling me I wasn't good enough, I wasn't important enough and I wasn't worthy."

Of course Sutter does way more than nothing—she's authored a book, hosted a TV show ("Rocky Mountain Reno"), designed a line of gift and home decor items and dabbled in a clothing label, too. That's on top of the significant work she does from home, including cooking, cleaning, shopping, volunteering, wife-ing and mother-ing.

But as she reflected on Max's comment that seemed to lack appreciation and recognition for her value, she realized his "innocent honesty hadn't yet been jaded by what he should say," and that, brutal or not, he still spoke the truth.

"Well, it was his truth," she said.

I need to do a better job of announcing my worth instead of waiting for others to calculate and articulate it for me.

But with the benefit of a little distance from being called "just a mom," Sutter has since concluded Max actually paid her "an incredible compliment. He saw (me) as being happy and fulfilled—giving it the most positive of connotations."

The reality, too, is that Max didn't say anything Sutter hadn't thought about herself, or called herself, and that's likely what stung the most. Yet when she used to call herself "just a mom," she did it as a way to protect herself from judgment; she said it about herself before others could say it about her. And the fact is most every mom is a working mom, whether or not she earns a paycheck. Furthermore, working moms, which is to say, all moms, are doing their kids a great service, as they're hardly limited to "just" anything.

A recent book by Pamela Lenehan, "My Mother, My Mentor: What Grown Children of Working Mothers Want You to Know" says that by showing our children what we do in and out of the home, they're more likely to become independent, develop a strong work ethic and be more resilient.

As with Sutter, I certainly also need to do a better job of showing my kids what I'm doing besides being their mom. But even more than that, I need to do a better job of announcing my worth instead of waiting for others to calculate and articulate it for me.

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Caring for our children and establishing a baseline of happiness in them, in addition to a sense of independence, security, intelligence, gratitude, kindness and strength, takes a great deal of nuance and skill, even if the work doesn't come with a fancy title and fat paycheck. And while words like "just" are exactly that—words—and shouldn't matter, they can contribute to diminishing our sense of self-worth. If we want to model who our kids will ultimately become, we need to start by choosing our words and labels more carefully. We need to show them how highly we value ourselves.

"What I've learned is instead of protecting yourself by saying you're 'just something,'" Sutter said, "is you're actually the one holding the hammer chipping away at your own self-worth."

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