The Motherhood Bomb

I’ve hit that point in my life where having close friends who are pregnant and/or parents is not as strange as it once was.  What this means to me, however, is that I’ve started to think more and more about if and when I will have children, and how exactly I see such an addition impacting my idea of life.  Admittedly, there’s a lot about our current depictions and ideas of motherhood that leave me with a whole host of questions, but the one that keeps popping to the top is “does becoming a mother move everything else in my life to second place?”

Because once baby comes in, your entire sense of self is replaced with disheveled hair, glasses, and your kid’s pacifier.

A big part of this stems from the observation that,  in the US (and the majority of other countries), we still have cultural notions that a woman is “fulfilled” through her children and made more whole from the experience, much in the way that a married woman was supposedly fulfilled through marriage and a husband.  Nowhere do I see this more plainly than when it comes to depictions, descriptions, and comments related to the concept of the working mother.

Mothers who work seem to be depicted in several ways, each with their own set of conflicts brought on as a result of having children.   First, there’s the “women who are trying to balance it all” image who,  as Anne-Marie Slaughter’s piece in the Atlantic put it, feel like they are letting their children down as a result if they work outside the home.  Then there are mothers like Penelope Trunk, who have decided to (un-apologetically) put their children first and work their career around that.  Tellingly, they appear to work primarily at or near the home to allows themselves the flexibility to shuttle their kids to after-school lessons.

It’s interesting to note that the number of women – working and non – who think that more working women is a bad thing hasn’t changed much in 10 years.

Then, there are the mothers who want to be able to raise their children in a manner that’s deemed socially acceptable (being there for childhood development, bonding, etc.), but who can’t afford to, since the family needs two paychecks or they themselves are now the breadwinner.  Call this the full-time working mom held hostage by economics.   And then there are those like Yahoo’s new CEO Marissa Mayer, who say that their children will not impact their work lives, that they will be able to drop the baby and get back to work.

Admittedly, I am on the fence about women like Mayer.  While I applaud the “no one will be able to stand in between me and my career but me” attitude, I’m also profoundly aware of the fact that men do not have to take such a stand when it comes to their family.  In fact, there seems to be a certain amount of pity for the man who works long hours away from his partner and children, that is not often extended to women doing the same.  Such a sacrifice by a man is certainly seen as noble by some (and expected by others) but we only condemn or punish the man when he can’t financially support his children.

Contrast this with women who struggle to support their children as single parents; “you should have thought about it before you got pregnant” is a still not-uncommon retort to this type of situation (never mind the fact that the woman may have, indeed, been married or partnered before hand), one that I think speaks volumes about the difference standards we hold men and women to, as well as what we imagine what is socially and culturally acceptable for each to be.  On top of that, an estimated 34% of single mothers are living in poverty compared to just 15% of single fathers, according to recent  2010 US census data,.

Yet what I’m also becoming aware of is that while such a sense of pity is also there for women who work (from women and men alike), there is also a tremendous amount of history that women have to fight against in order to articulate their sense of control.  For centuries, the woman who sought professional employment was somehow abhorrent.  In choosing a career over full-time child rearing (even if she fobbed those duties off onto other women), she was defective, not a real woman, and a terrible mother for putting her needs over those of her child’s.

If a woman choose not to have children at all, she had to (and still has to) justify her choice.  She must, through words and deeds, reassure folks that she is not defective, abhorrent, or somehow not really a woman.  In effect, she must present herself as “safe and acceptable” for society. Tellingly enough, we’ve been riveted by depictions of such women in the AMC series “Mad Men” but somehow are blind to the fact that women today still feel the need to make these choices and present themselves as such.

One thought a baby would complete her, the other decided it wouldn’t. Both are still struggling with how to be seen as full human beings.

And, as the Mayer’s own pregnancy buzz is illustrating, no matter how much people say they don’t care and that we should focus on her brain instead, we do care because we have not reached that cultural moment when we don’t.  That’s why we’ve all taken the time to weigh in.

So now this leads to my next question, namely why can’t work and children be equations of their own, independent of what it means to be a human being, and a woman and an individual at that?

Is it because that the deck is still stacked against women – and mothers in particular?  Women who have children earn less money and have less career advancement than women who don’t have any, even after all external factors, such as childcare and maternity leave, have been taken into consideration.  Men who have children see no negative changes in the workplace or in their salary; in fact, they appear to actually benefit socially and economically from it.

Since the economic deck appears to be stacked against us, does that then translate into the social office deck as well? A recent piece in Forbes started off with the statement: “There’s no better time to be a working mother,” then ended by advising working women to not mention the fact that they might have to pick up their kid at soccer one afternoon.

“We’re not there yet, however. So by all means, don’t admit you’re picking your kids up from soccer even though mention of doting fatherhood remains a plus in professional, executive and managerial circles. Say you’re taking a drive to let your new strategic plan “crystallize” before picking up the phone to schedule a late afternoon meeting on Skype.”

In short, lie about the fact that you have children when you’re at work.   Become a mother–and then frantically sweep the evidence under the rug so you’re not docked points from either the work or social team.

Why yes, I am having dinner with the client; why would you think I’m someplace else?

Also, good luck getting that new job when you’re visibly pregnant.  Yahoo CEO aside, several less powerful pregnant women have told me that they can see their interviewer’s eyes calculating how little work they think they’re going to get from a woman who is 5 or 6 months pregnant, even if she is only being hired for a temporary position that requires minimal time in a physical office.  They rule of the game, they tell me, is to stay at your current position until right before you pop, then start planning any potential moves while on maternity leave.

This of course, taps into another argument that has been long used against women in the workforce, namely that once they have the baby, they’ll just leave the company.  After taking some (unpaid) time off (however, due to a loophole in the Family and Medical Leave Act, this requirement is waved for companies that employ 50 or fewer workers), why would you want to go back to the office and leave your baby behind?  Certainly, you’ll want to shift your work-load to one that’s more accommodating, as a PEW Center survey seems to indicate.

Do women want to shift to a part-time schedule because they want to bond with their baby, do what’s best for their children and, as a result, be a good mother?

Less than 15% of all women reported that they felt working full time was not worse for the children.

Or is it because that raising children is above and beyond full-time job in and of itself (as any parent repeatedly attests to)–and the United States as a whole, one Rutgers study found, is not set up with national, wide-spread, social service programs that shifts some of the burden from parent to community?

Or is it that the workplace itself is still thinking about its workers in an industrial age manner, equating every “lost” or “under-performing” worker as a drain on their budget, resources, and overall output?

While (some) women can no longer be fired for being married, expressing a desire to have children, or becoming pregnant, a boss can still (and in some cases, does) harass their female employees on maternity leave, “asking” that they “come back sooner” since “we really need you.” Again, it’s worth pointing out again that Marissa Mayer has allegedly promised to be working while she’s on her short maternity leave.   If the CEO of a Fortune 500 company with “innovative thinking” regarding pregnant women is sending the message that she’s still on the job, what are we to think of those who do differently?

Of course, there are always multiple sides to every story. Interestingly enough, one survey by Working Mother noted that male managers reported liking their “working mother” employees more than their male employees (parents and non) because they:

  • Are likely to take on additional work (+6%)
  • Will travel for work (+16%)
  • Take stretch assignments (+10%)
  • Are committed to career advancement (+8%)
  • Would relocate if called on to do so (+15%)

However, the same survey also noted that while women report wanting more flex time, they use it a lot less than their male counterparts.  This makes me wonder if women do this in any way because they suspect that a number of their co-workers view their position as mothers in a strongly negative light, similar to they way women suspect their negotiations for a raise will actually hurt their standing, not improve it.

The same Working Mother survey noted that non-married male co-workers viewed working mothers as less likely to:

  • Be committed to career advancement
  • Take on additional work
  • Be committed to job responsibilities
  • Be willing to do whatever it takes to get the job done
  • Take stretch assignments
  • Reliably deliver quality work
  • Be prepared for promotion

The problem in thinking this way is that it really doesn’t help anyone, largely because at its heart lies the notion that once a woman has a child, she will shift her focus from externals (work) to internals (mothering).  If she doesn’t, or finds it to be the difficult switch that it appears to be, then she’ll feel guilty about it.

Therefore, anything that prohibits or interferes with this shift may be deemed by others to be “too much” for the woman to handle, as Maine resident Laurie Chadwick found out when her employer denied her a promotion based on her home life, not on her performance at work. Again, this notion does not appear to extend to men who have children, leading me to suspect that what’s really the issue here is that some women are trying to define themselves independently of motherhood while the rest are not quite sure what to make of it.

Let’s be clear:  defining oneself independently from motherhood (and by extension, one’s children) does not necessarily equate with deciding not to be a mother, or even rejecting the whole idea of motherhood in general.

Instead, I believe this is part of a larger conversation about seeing yourself as a whole individual, with motherhood being an optional part of, but not the story, of your overall life and roles in society. This is the argument that childless women have been making for decades for their choices, and I think it’s high time we start asking why it can’t apply to women with children as well.

And that’s what is leading me to view any sense of potential motherhood with a mixture of unease and dread.  Social changes take an incredible amount of time and, no matter how much my mother tells me it’s different from when she had children in the rah-rah, power suit 80s,  I know we have a long way to go before such pressures are lifted. For all of the “you can be anything” messaging I had growing up, I know that I (and others) will be raising children in a world that will find the desire to be seen as something more than a mom difficult, if not different. And I’m bracing for impact.