In my circles, the death of Ruth Bader Ginsburg is one of those deep losses that aches dully for a long time. Among the women I know, there is a feeling that RBG was one of us, whatever that means. To a certain subset, it means that she was a working mother.
The archetype of the working mother is both an inspiration and a pariah, thanks to the third wave feminist ideal of “having it all“. Icons like RBG convince us that having it all might really be possible, and do what they can to make that a reality for more women who want it. But for many, RBG’s reality was unattainable because it required an inhuman stamina and commitment to every realm of her life, even through multiple bouts of cancer. At the end of the day, it just looks like the women who manage to have it all would be unstoppable in anything they chose to do, due to their sheer force of will.
Working mother is a title that is lobbed at women like me as both a compliment and an insult. If I don’t reach a goal, it’s because I’m a working mother. If I do something admirable, it’s because or despite the fact that I’m a working mother. Like any other marginalized identity, it is both the cause of all my personal shortcomings and my greatest achievement. And what strikes me as so odd about this is that it’s a conversation we’re still having as if it’s 1978 and being a working mother is somehow radical or even a real choice. The reality is that most mothers in the US could not afford not to work, even if they have a spouse with an income. And the idea of motherhood interrupting career has been a hurdle for feminism throughout the 20th century, and now apparently in the 21st century, our solution has been to simply kick the can of motherhood further down the road. So being young and a mother and employed (or, God forbid, in school) is now particularly surprising to people.
I find that people my age don’t know how to talk to me about my having kids. They don’t really bring it up, and are always surprised when they realize how long it’s been since they’ve last seen my kids and how much they’ve grown. My colleagues approach my work ethic with a constant disbelief. And it’s not that I blame them or want them to assume I’ll get the work done in the same way they would – after all, there are still plenty of days that I miss a meeting or can’t accomplish a task because of my kids. But their disbelief seems to be that I can exist as a functioning human at all while also being a parent. And inevitably, at some point, comes a resentment that I’m chugging along the track while carrying this much heavier load. And suddenly working motherhood isn’t just the burden of having two often incongruous full time jobs simultaneously, but also the emotional management of everyone around me, who is by definition unequipped to understand my experience. I think Regina Spektor explained working motherhood best:
I felt personally that I was more creative, I was able to do more work than I had before, and I was able to really use my time more. If I had 30 minutes that I was sleep-deprived and covered in baby puke, I could go write a song. Whereas before, I could have wasted three days in a row, just thrown it away, now I could never do that. Now I have this little being to be there for and to play with and so I have to work hard and organize myself so that I’m present and not a slacker.https://www.harpersbazaar.com/culture/art-books-music/news/a18066/regina-spektor-interview/
Working motherhood is in many ways a constant self-flagellation that comes from a fear of criticism from other people. Because you don’t want anyone to call you irresponsible for having children and then expecting to continue on also being a person. So you just do more and you do it faster. You become the most efficient version of yourself. All the time that you’re not working, somewhere in the back of your mind you’re thinking about work, and then when you can sit down and finally get to it, there’s no wasting a second.
This strange cycle of self- and peer-abuse around working motherhood is made even stranger by the contradiction at the center of working motherhood: mothers know exactly what we need in order to make our jobs easier, but no one thinks those resources or support systems are necessary or warranted when they themselves are not mothers. Even as much as I imagined the difficulties of working motherhood before I had kids, I didn’t really understand even what paid family leave was for, much less why you should get a childcare subsidy or extended deadlines. The needs of working mothers are so obvious when you list them, and yet they still seem like something extra, instead of something essential. So here are some thoughts about how to change that:
- Take our current attitude about working motherhood and apply it to working fatherhood. The gender of a parent should have nothing to do with their burden as a caregiver. At the very least, we should assume that men will shoulder as much of the childcare burden as women. Sometimes, in attempting to do this, we skip the step where men do equal parenting work and just go straight to the part where men get equal parenting credit. Giving men an equal childcare burden starts as early as the child arrives, including men or other parents who did not physically give birth to the child in the kinds of physical affection rituals that we think are so essential to new mothers: skin-to-skin contact, feeding, diaper changing (you never realized how much you love someone until you wipe their butt). And it extends to our assumptions about who is taking care of children on a daily basis and, most importantly, who can reasonably ask to be excused in order to take care of their kid.
- Make our attitude about working motherhood better than what it is now. Stop talking about working motherhood as a burden, a tragedy even. See it as a part of life. And especially appreciate what it means for a woman to be in the postpartum period. Let individual women tell you what they need. If they act as if nothing has changed, believe them that they can handle their work as if nothing has changed. If they say they need some time, ask them in what way and how much, and then give it to them. It’s that simple. But on the motherhood side, treat mothers as *gasp* people who happen to have children. It’s like people with dogs, or who like baseball. It’s a part of their lives. They might want to talk about it. You would be nice to ask about it. But it’s not their whole life and they want to be known as more than just that thing.
- Seriously consider changing the expected career timeline. Right now, working motherhood is exacerbating an already wide class divide over the issue of when to have kids. Having kids at a younger age is associated with being poorer and less educated, while it is assumed that women who are better educated and wealthier will prioritize their careers and have children at a later age because they will be able to afford fertility treatments. But you know what? Fertility treatments suck. Being an older parent sucks. Feeling that you have to choose between being a person and being a parent sucks. What if your career just got out of the way for a bit? I keep thinking about the model of compulsory military service in Israel. I always felt like my Israeli cousins were on a slower life trajectory because they had to wait to start college until after their military service was up. But by the time they started, they had a clearer idea of what they wanted out of their education and their life. What would corporate America be like if all the upper-middle class people had an opportunity to work on themselves as people – develop relationships, start families, seek professional help – before diving into their careers. What if we gave people the time to work on themselves in their early 20s, time that many of them would undoubtedly use to have kids, instead of telling them that they have to get moving on life? Food for thought.
My final thought is this: if we treat motherhood like a part of life, and not a reason to live, we might treat mothers a bit better.