“…mothers can never achieve economic equality in the labor market as things now stand…Workplace marginalization has cumulative effects on a primary caregiver’s income, her status in marriage, her children’s security, and even the economy as whole.” —The Price of Motherhood: Why the Most Important Job in the World is Still the Least Valued, by Ann Crittendon
“Mama, how come it is always the moms who volunteer in my classroom, and not the dads?” —Lucian, age 7
“Mama, you get the house clean while we are out with Daddy.” —Neva, age 5
Becoming a mother began a reemergence of questions around feminist theory, gender stereotypes, discrimination, economic and government policies, right alongside my own personal feelings, beliefs, and values. Questions that were sparked by me entering the normal, yet deeply confronting, terrain of motherhood. This phase of my life has launched me deep into my own experience, as well as back into the world of research, reading, and writing, searching for more understanding on how I got here, how WE got here, and where I am heading.
Did you know, that at the end of the 20th century, after many political and social battles to shift our societal paradigm for women, the women’s movement chose to pursue the thread of emancipating women through moving them into the world of paid work? This is the thread that I followed as a young woman. The other thread that was dropped was the pursuit of equality for women within the family by providing remuneration and recognition for it.*
In the early 1930’s, women were left out of the criteria for calculating our Gross National Product by an official decision to limit it’s calculations to goods that were bought and sold. The millions of hours of labor that women primarily provide did not, and still do not, count, when measuring our nation’s wealth.*
When I had my son, at age 35, I was at the height of my career (up until that point anyway). I decided to work part time after he was born. Like other career oriented women, I hoped to maintain my hard earned career while also being as involved as possible in raising my son. I had never been sure if I would have kids of my own when I was younger, and I was overjoyed to find that I loved being a mother and felt very capable in that role.
However, prioritizing my son immediately came at a price. After he was born, I watched as my hours steadily declined at work. My supervisor had stopped sending me new clients. Despite being a mother of two herself, when I confronted her about my hours, she admitted she had “gotten the message” that I didn’t want to work that much.
Apparently, by having a baby, along with declining a promotion she had recently offered me (one that would entail an hour commute twice a day, that would greatly limit my time with my son), she decided I wasn’t interested in working anymore.
That was the first personal experience I had with discrimination for being a mother. I also saw my own mistake in assuming she would understand and support my choice to work close to home, since she was a mother, too.
Not so much.
This event inspired me to start my private practice, which ended up being an extraordinarily positive step for me. And, if I worked for myself, I could set my own hours and see as many clients as I wanted. In this new business set up, I was still living in alignment with my feminist values of autonomy, financial independence, and retaining my status in my field of work.
But after I had my second child, my daughter, and had two children under the age of 2, I realized quickly that even though I worked for myself I had some serious challenges to consider. I was immediately aware of the enormous task of mothering a toddler and a newborn, and if I was going to even consider enjoying this precious time of my life (instead of merely enduring it), I would have to make more changes.
As I was beginning to value my role as a nurturer as much as my independence and autonomy as a professional, I was also facing our legistlation’s century long official writing off of the work of women in the home as an inconsequential contribution to society.
I enlisted my husband’s willing support as much as possible. He worked primarily from home, did almost all of our cooking, and at least half of the cleaning and night time parenting duties. I also chose to limit my work schedule to about 10 hours a week. Super fucking privileged, yes. And, we made financial sacrifices to make it work for awhile.
Women are still the vast majority of parents who leave their job (although I didn’t need to entirely because I could work for myself) to raise children. Did you know the mothers who do so are often the ones with the highest education and income potential? Yup, those of us who probably had the strongest inner drive to create successful careers, independence, and financial autonomy, we are also the ones who are letting it all go more than any other group of working women.*
I think this speaks to the idea that mothers, regardless of how much they value their careers and the benefits from having one, still value their role as primary caregivers just as much. And in those early years of our children’s lives, a large majority of us value our caregiving role more than our careers. Sure, we don’t get paid, we lose career placement, and we become dependent on our partners, all things that increase our risk of poverty down the road. But women demonstrate every day that we still value mothering enough to risk losing our hard earned autonomy and independence to do it.
I don’t know if those earlier feminists, who made a difficult choice to focus their attention on getting women badly needed opportunities in the world, anticipated how complex all this would become.
Seems like it is time to do what could not be done in the 1930’s when the women’s movement had to make a distinctive choice: advance both of those objectives. Women today care just as much about their opportunity to mother in the way they want as they do about maintaining a career in the way they want. So we need to empower women in both directions: at home and in their work beyond home.
I have this ongoing dialogue between two parts of myself: the part of me that values my career and all the freedom, autonomy, and status it gives me, and the part of me that values my family and my role as the primary nurturer. I am grateful for the opportunity I have to create a home that is rich with love and reflects the range of values I hold around family, health, empowerment, and relationship.
It still can feel like never the two shall meet. Like I am holding something so expanded, so contradictory, that its falling through my hands as I write this. Am I really doing both? Can I do both? And does it work?
I still wonder and I still ask myself. I am in an ongoing inner dialogue around my choices and their inevitable consequences, benefits, and drawbacks. And I listen as women wrestle within themselves with questions like am I doing enough at work, at home, for my family, for my career? I watch as women judge each other, and each other’s choices, and expect others to reflect what they themselves are struggling to embody.
Somewhere inside I know these seemingly conflicting values are not in conflict. I know that my work, which I find meaningful, valuable, and enjoyable, does not have to take away from my capacity to attend in a present and engaged way to my growing children. I also know that I currently live in a society that still makes most of us choose, at least for a period of time, one or the other.
Despite feminism’s incredible and necessary accomplishments, the work of advocating for women’s equality isn’t done. If the vast majority of women are becoming mothers, and still in the role of raising children and running households (even those of us with advanced degrees and careers), then our work to advocate for women must to reflect this. If women are feeling inadequate because they chose motherhood over career, or career over motherhood, then we have missed something big.
Maybe as women, what we really want is to be valued for the enormously important role we have in our families. And at the same time, we also want to be of service in a world that badly needs our input, our ideas, and our leadership. But we need a new paradigm to pull this off. The current system we live within is unsustainable, and any mother, working outside the home or not, will tell you that: mothers at home are exhausted and depleted, and mothers who are working are just as spent, if not more so. We all have moments of grace and clarity about our choices, but they don’t last long.
I believe that new paradigm we need begins with women ourselves. Imagine each one of us deeply valuing the critical work we do as householders, in raising our families, in nourishing them on every level we can possibly provide. We know we value it because we so often choose it. We also value our work and our contributions in the world, enough to advocate for new systems that support us as women with full lives, with families, and not anything less. We also stop second guessing and wondering if whatever we are doing is enough for anyone else. The only person’s opinion that matters of whether we are doing enough, or are enough, is our own.
I endeavor to envision a new landscape for us women, and mothers, to live within. One that doesn’t ask us to choose between autonomy and relationship. A vision that holds attachment with our children to be just as vital as our work beyond mothering–in our careers and businesses.
So world, us mothers will show you the many ways we can do this, its just not going to be on your terms anymore.
*The Price of Motherhood: Why The Most Important Job in the World Is Still the Least Valued by Ann Crittendon