Motherhood and Feminism: What I know and What I want to know

How it all began

I keep fairly extensive journals. I can actually pinpoint with some accuracy when this particular unfinished business of feminism was brought to my attention. I read an article in the New York Times entitled Many Women at Elite Colleges Set Career Path to Motherhood in September 2005, and I was simultaneously outraged and complicit.

I was outraged that the young woman profiled had worked so hard to get into Yale, but was going to give it all up for her future theoretical children, because she saw that it was her mom staying at home that had enriched her enough in order to go to Yale. It was, after all, her achievement. Why would she give it up for her children? Why wouldn’t she use her education to give back to the society she lived in, to help “save the world”?

I was complicit because she expressed something that I, perhaps, believed: that you cannot be both a good career woman and a good mother at the same time. Because, after all, I had been raised by a Stay-at-Home Mother, too, and my mother’s influence was key in making sure my homework was done, and that I excelled in school, that I was able to do after school activities. I didn’t even know how childcare worked – and a lot of my friends were the same way.

It lead me to a personal moral dilemma — what would I owe society? Should I give back to society through working a career, a career I was prepared for by the public schools and public universities? Or should I give back to society to raise the next generation of children — to put them through schools so they could raise the next generation of children? Were they even equivalent? How can you make this kind of judgment? How do you know what’s fair?

My continuing education

This was at the beginning of my sophomore year of college, and I was enrolled in my “Social Theory and Social Relations” course, a course designed to teach me about the logic behind social theory, but also to see how it’s applied. It was a class that taught understanding of the problems that Social Relations, my major, tackled. Perhaps the most influential book that I read in that class was Unbending Gender by Joan Williams. The book argues that there are essentially two kinds of work that need to happen to make society function: market work, and family work.

Market work is work that you get a wage from. Family work is the work of caring for others, including cooking, cleaning, etc. The people who are most successful at market work are the “ideal wage earners” — those who are able to put in overtime, those who have few, if any responsibilities outside of work, including (and especially) caring for others. Because most of the family work falls to women, the majority of people who are “ideal-wage earners” are men. And because businesses and employers believe that you can only be successful if you’re employing “ideal-wage earners” — the majority of employers discriminate against women who have family work responsibilities.

Unbending Gender is a brilliant book, but it’s heavy with legal examples and policy debates. It’s quite dense, and probably not for the uninitiated, but I want you to understand that if an employer had two equally skilled applicants for a job, one of whom happened to be a single man and the other a single mother of two, the employer would be completely justified in hiring the man, if he believed that the man would be a better worker. The man wouldn’t have to take time off to take care of his children who were too sick for daycare, and would have more time to devote to his job — it’s a matter of performance, the employer would say. And, to a certain extent, the employer would be right. But Williams argues in her book that we need to a) recognize that family work is how we raise the next generation, how we can continue our society and civilization and b) that our market structures are too strict, and are completely designed for the ideal wage earner in mind, meaning that women are often pushed out of work, rather than opting out on their own.

The question that seems to be driving my inquiry at this point in my life (in other words, “What do I owe society?”) seems to have been given this answer: Well, society needs my energy and resources and drive, because I am a member of society and can contribute. But society seems to be engineered in such a way that if I were to become a mother, I would not “fit” into the world – it is not designed with me in mind. This makes me angry. It is the kind of situation that pits me against the world, that sends me into a spiral of despair – because if the problem is so terribly systemic, how could I possibly fix it? Was I doomed to be an unfulfilled, boring, frustrated stay-at-home mother, ala the Feminine Mystique?

An alternative presents itself

In June 2008, recently engaged (and at the time researching the purpose of marriage), I came across a New York Times Magazine article entitled, When Mom and Dad Share It All — Adventures in Shared Parenting. It’s a profile of a couple named Marc and Amy Vachon, a couple who decided to share parenting. It’s an article that can be summed up with this quote:

Instead, they would create their own model, one in which they were parenting partners. Equals and peers. They would work equal hours, spend equal time with their children, take equal responsibility for their home. Neither would be the keeper of the mental to-do lists; neither of their careers would take precedence. Both would be equally likely to plan a birthday party or know that the car needs oil or miss work for a sick child or remember (without prompting) to stop at the store for diapers and milk. They understood that this would mean recalibrating their career ambitions, and probably their income, but what they gained, they believed, would be more valuable than what they lost.

Marc and Amy have had to negotiate with their employers for reduced hours (for reduced pay), they have to communicate clearly and consistently and often in order to keep things running smoothly. They’ve had to defend themselves from the media and societal and possibly even family choices that tell them that they’ve made the wrong choice. I remember that this profile showed me that what I wanted was possible, that maybe I didn’t have to get all of society to bend to my will, just a little piece of it.

Up until that point, Tim and I had had a couple of conversations about growing up and having children. While I was despairing of ever finding a job post-graduation, I lamented to Tim that we might as well get married as fast as possible and knock me up because at least then I’d have something to do. Tim demurred – he told me that he would never let me be a stay-at-home mom. He thought it would be bad for my mental health, that I wouldn’t be able to stand it at home, with children who do not know how to discuss complex social theory.

I must have showed Tim the article, but I don’t remember his reaction in the midst of all the other planning we were doing for our upcoming marriage, and for the start of my post-graduation job. All I knew is that I kept this idea in the back of my head – the idea that while eschewing the status quo, we (as a family), might be able to equally share the burden of child-rearing, and thus work towards not marginalizing me as a worker.

Families of origin

Tim and I got married (a bunch of research on marriage is probably also inevitable, as I had done some informally before), and started to settle into our lives. Since I worked in Lansing and he worked in Auburn Hills, we ended up settling in the middle: Fenton, right near the two major highways that led to our jobs in opposite directions. I got frustrated with this fairly quickly, noting that because we lived so far from where we worked, that we were unable to build any community — and that we weren’t finding anyone to hang out with in Fenton.

I came up with an unlikely scheme: maybe we could move to Lansing. Maybe Tim could get a telecommuting arrangement with his work, go in one or two days a week. He’d be travelling an extremely far distance when he did go physically, but it would still be fewer miles commuting total for the both of us. And, knowing Tim is the social kind, we would be committed to finding him some shared office space, so he could still have some people to interact with.

Tim and I didn’t think this was terribly far fetched — after all, his job already had flex time, which is a policy that allows the employees to work when they’re able, flexible for family work. And Tim had telecommuted occassionally before — usually late at night when something broke. People often worked from home when they, or their children, were sick, and even in a few cases, there were employees completely off site — one in Chicago, one up north, one in Japan.

Beyond allowing us to find other young professionals to build a social life with (after all, Lansing is a place where they congregate), it also opened up some possibilities for my future career — since I want to advocate, since I want to work with policy, living in Lansing and Tim having a non-traditional job situation would allow me to continue to pursue a line of work that I found extremely interesting, without Tim and I spending a large percentage of our time commuting. And, it opened up some flexibility for us to have children.

So, in October, Tim’s one year anniversary of working for his company full time, Tim pitched this idea to his boss. Who then dismissed it out of hand, saying that people working off site is not in the company culture, and besides, people who work off site are hard to get a hold of. The answer was no.

I reacted entirely too strongly: this rejection seemed to say that I couldn’t have a career, that we couldn’t have children, that we couldn’t have friends, or at least that we couldn’t have them all at the same time. I cried, I sobbed, I reached for the solace I had found in the idea of Equally Shared Parenting.

I brought up the idea that maybe Tim could go part time with his job, that maybe I could too, that we could make it work — that we could compromise with his company, that we could gain more control over our life than work, that we could still have kids and take care of them ourselves.

Tim was not up for this: He didn’t think he could be a good worker unless he worked 40 hours or more, that doing work part time was pointless, that if it came to it (and it better not come to it) he would quit his current job and find one closer to my job. Besides, he did not see the problem with childcare.

We had grown up differently, Tim and me: Tim’s parents had both worked outside the home. He saw no problem with daycare; I thought that there was a standard of parental care, that kids should be raised by their parents.

Dramatically, I told him that unless he could work part time, I wouldn’t be able to work at all. That we wouldn’t be able to afford it, that there was a break even point, where working and putting kids in day care cost more money than I earned. And that if we were to (god forbid) divorce, or he were to die, I would be economically vulnerable, I would have rusty skills, and be in an even more precarious position.

This is not something that we have resolved completely. As I once expressed to my friend Patti: “Our apartment is meant to be a safe place. But sometimes the outside comes in.”

This is beyond words

The fastest growing sub-population of homeless people is single mothers with children under the age of five.

Why? Because their jobs aren’t flexible enough for them to provide their children care; because their jobs don’t pay enough; because they can’t afford both rent and day care.

Let me say that again: the fastest growing sub-population of homeless people in families in the United States of America is single mothers with children under the age of five.

Sisters, unite!

I began to, at some point, get frustrated with some of what I was reading in the feminist blogosphere. There was certainly a class element to what I was reading; they talked about access to abortion, birth control, the morning-after pill. Yes, it is a problem when a group of people want to prevent access to these services for all women, but access is not the same as the services being accessible. How many women who were working part-time or minimum wage jobs could afford these things? If pregnancy is a choice, what about the women who cannot afford that choice, or the ones that choose to have children? There’s still a whole lot of problematic things about motherhood.

I had coffee with my sister once a week during the past school year — we talked about all sorts of things. I talked about what appeared to be a dirth of internet analysis on the subject of what happens when women choose to have children, or when they have children they would not have chosen. I talked about the fact that the term “Reproductive Justice” seemed to fit more closely with what I saw — the idea that women should have access to prenatal care just the same as access to abortion, no matter their class or social standing.

But it still didn’t seem to answer all the questions. The analysis didn’t seem to acknowledge that women and men made similar amounts at jobs — until the women become mothers, and women start making much less. Why wasn’t childcare more affordable? Why was there this “mommy war” between working moms and stay-at-home moms? Why was there so much classism involved in motherhood — why were moms on welfare required to work, when middle class moms were expected (on some level) to stay home? What is with all of the economic vulnerability of mothers? What could I do to change this in my life?

Checking Boxes

I want to be a mother. I want to help a raise a new generation — I want to teach my children to be feminists. Tim put it this way to me:

I think that raising a child is just about the most noble thing someone can do.  It is an investment of one’s hope in the future. I want to have a child because I want to make that investment in the future.  Because I want my love for you to take on a physical body, and because I want to pass my values and your values on to a new generation.

But I want to know what I am getting into, what I am coming up against, what I need to do to make my home a safe place.

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4 thoughts on “Motherhood and Feminism: What I know and What I want to know

  1. You tweeted to ask why I retweeted this article, but 140 characters was not enough for my response, so here I am. 🙂

    I passed this along to my followers because I believe it is a discussion worth having, and I appreciated your both-sides-of-the-fence analysis and thought-provocation.

    This is a war that I believe most, if not all, women face internally at some time in their lives. For some of us, it keeps coming back as it remains largely unresolved.

    I’m a feminist and a married, stay-at-home-mom of two sons, both too young for school. I also don’t believe in traditional school, so my momhood is going to end up being even more demanding than it is in traditional public- or private-schooling families. I’m also a very creative and social person who craves meaning, purpose, and feedback.

    But I’m lucky. The above situation is not a depressing problem for me. I have a husband, like your Tim, who supports my decision to be a mother AND contribute to society in other ways (as motherhood IS certainly a huge contribution to society, as you mentioned).

    He works full-time for our financial and physical well-being. We split household and parenting chores when he is home, including dinner prep, cleaning, diaper-changing, night-duty, etc. There does not exist a seamless way to split parenting 50-50. But having the philosophy of sharing certainly helps toward that ideal.

    I nurture the kids in every way I can, but I also have a computer (wonderful things for feminists, these are!). Though I am not currently contributing to the family finances, my career exists. I’m a writer. I’m constantly building my skills, my platform, and my audience, and my husband takes my work seriously. In time, I will publish my works and contribute to society that way. For now, I’m working on my career AND caring for my kids (without a shred of monetary validation).

    I believe that there are many non-traditional ways that women can work/contribute to society. We just have to get creative. Working part-time in the marketing world is only one way of doing it. If what you want to do involves other people, there is a way for you to do it online. The world is amazingly open, and feminists everywhere can rejoice in that.

    Wow. I should have just posted a blog response. So sorry to take your forum. Stopping. now.

    • No, I’m glad you commented! I’m really interested in a variety of perspectives on this issue — if you’ve got any books, article, websites, etc. that influence your thinking, I’d love to know and get to read them; I’m also an aspiring novelist, and I find the variety and diversity in this world lovely. I’m certainly not done thinking or writing on this issue. I hope you stick around and discuss with me. 😀

  2. “But I want to know what I am getting into, what I am coming up against, what I need to do to make my home a safe place.”

    I think your home is likely a safer place than you realize. From what I’ve read, you and your husband tend to be fairly like-minded. Your also both concerned with each other’s emotional and mental well-being. This doesn’t necessarily mean you agree on everything or that arguments won’t occur. What it does mean is that it’s very likely you both handle these uncomfortable situations with respect. And that makes your home a safe place.

    The bigger issues live outside your house and beyond your control. And you will make principled decisions because of those pressures. Together you get to decide how to raise your children, how educate them, and how to be role models. As long as the children are well taken care of (read: basic needs met and not abused), society’s power is limited.

    I work full-time outside the home. So does my husband. I could have stayed at home with my boys – my husband offered me the chance – but I wanted more for us as a family than what we had at that time. I wanted to live somewhere I felt safe, in a community with good schools and low crime rates. If I had opted to stay at home with my boys, those things wouldn’t have been possible. Not on one salary. So, hard decisions were made and I went back to work.

    Despite working for a very lenient and flexible employer, there are days when it absolutely sucks that I’m at work instead of off attending field trips or volunteering in the classroom. I’ve had days when I feel like I’ve missed their childhood. Guilt in spades.

    But, if I had decided to stay home when they were born, I’m sure I’d feel even worse. If we still lived in that old house in that old neighborhood, I’m sure I’d be even more worried about violence and drugs and alcohol in the schools than I am now. I’d worry the school wasn’t challenging them enough. I’d worry about the fact that they grew up never knowing what it’s like to grow up like I did. (As a mom you worry about these things no matter how nice the neighborhood).

    I remind myself of these things when the guilt builds. My paycheck may pay for all sorts of things now, but when they were babies, the job helped pay our mortgage. Helped put groceries on the table.

    I also know that my decision to work did not turn my children in wild, feral creatures. They’ve been raised to the know the difference between right and wrong. They’ve been taught personal hygiene (okay, that’s still a work in progress…they’re boys!). They know how to use their manners and how to stand up for themselves without being disrespectful. These things weren’t taught to them by daycare providers or school teachers; we taught them these things. We provide their moral compass and guide them through the challenges of adolescence. And sometimes, our beliefs go against societal expectations and norms. That’s okay. As their parents, we get reserve the right to raise them as we see fit.

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