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Motherhood and its discontents

Why mothers need a social movement of their own

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Today's mothers have choices previous generations of women could only dream of. Educational and professional opportunities for women have increased dramatically over the last fifty years. Recent advances in contraceptive technology offer unprecedented power to limit and plan childbirth without inhibiting sexual spontaneity. Mothers are finally free and entitled to sample all that love and work have to offer: the warmth, fulfillment, and sweetness of family life along with the personal satisfaction and economic benefits of a steady job or a good career. Life for the average 21st Century mom should be a piece of cake— or maybe a big, rich slice of the proverbial apple pie.

Or so we've heard.

Mothers living in the real world tell a different story about motherhood, and it doesn’t bear much resemblance to glowing reports of unmitigated gains and unlimited opportunities for women. They are much more likely to describe their experience as a process of cumulative loss: loss of employment opportunities, loss of long-term economic security, loss of the time they desperately need to rest, sleep, and develop personal interests— and a painful loss of social regard, especially for mothers who leave the paid workforce to focus on caring for their children and families.

They've figured out that the present enthusiasm for “putting children first” usually translates into putting the needs of mothers dead last, and they're becoming ever-more sensitive to inequities that limit mothers' lives and options. Some of the most pressing concerns of women who mother are workplace standards which create insurmountable obstacles to “balancing” paid work and the irreducible demands of family life, husbands and fathers who don’t pick up their fair share of caring and domestic work, and the the failure of existing public policies to meet the basic needs of Americans with care-giving responsibilities. Mothers are starting to recognize that something in our society is badly out of whack, and it mostly boils down to the fact that— despite the tantalizing promise of gender equality offered by the women’s rights movement— mothers are still held disproportionately accountable for the heavy lifting in the day-to-day labor of domestic life and the outcomes of child–rearing. (1)

The Motherhood Problem

Underlying the motherhood problem are deeply entrenched social, economic and cultural factors which exert a powerful claim on women’s lives and livelihood. As long as a woman remains childless, she is free to play at equality (since the status quo of male dominance continues to hold sway in the workplace and elsewhere, real equality remains elusive). But once a woman becomes a mother, the landscape changes. Now there is a child, and the child must be cared for; her material and developmental needs must be met if she is to thrive. In our society, it is the mother, above all others, who is obligated to meet those needs.

The new vision of womanhood that champions the rights and responsibilities of mothers as fully-fledged individuals is still overshadowed by traditional codes that valorize maternal sacrifice and restrict mothers’ social agency to child-bearing and child-rearing. Even with one eye turned toward justice for women, in contemporary culture the prevailing belief is that children belong with their mothers and mothers belong with their children (unless a mother happens to be poor, in which case she is expected to leave her children and work for pay). Although dual-earner families are now overwhelmingly the norm, the majority of Americans remain convinced that young children are better off when they are cared for by a parent at home. (2) And though this mindset is ever-so-slowly shifting, most people— including mothers themselves— still believe women possess a more refined capacity for the care and nurture of children. (3)

By defining child-rearing as a maternal priority rather than a social and economic activity, the real, hard, time consuming work that goes into the care and protection of children becomes an invisible function of private life. The unpaid and underpaid labor of caring for the nation's children is not something we can do without. But unlike other types of work that sustain our society, the productive value of caring work has been obscured by isolating care work as women’s work and casting it as a voluntary activity that flows from the mother’s emotional attachment to her children.

care work and equality

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