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
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. 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.
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.
work and equality
The arbitrary segregation
of care work from the mainstream of productive labor has widespread
repercussions for women. Since care work, whether paid or unpaid,
remains largely the responsibility of women, men tend to be far
less encumbered by the more time-intensive demands of family life.
In a society that stresses individual achievement and autonomy,
men and women with limited caregiving obligations have greater opportunities
to advance their personal stature through paid employment and civic engagement. Women who devote substantial time to caring for children
or other dependents are typically swept to the side of the central
track, and they are more likely to suffer economic and other hardships
as a result. The marginalization of mothers may not be the consequence
of a conspicuous disregard for motherhood (which is lauded
by conservatives and liberals alike as “the most important
job in the world”), but it clearly creates a major obstruction
on the road to women’s equality.
The dismissal of care
work as the by-product of maternal preoccupation has larger implications
for the future of humanity: by obscuring the importance and function
of care as a normal, predictable and necessary part of everyone’s
life, our culture perpetuates an outlook based on an underestimation of the
complexity of the human condition and denial of the full scope of human
America is in love with notion of independence and self-sufficiency. Our national
ethos celebrates uncompromising individualism as the key to personal and social success. As a society, we embrace a
concept of personal responsibility that represents functional and
emotional autonomy as the apex of individual development. We raise our
children to be honest, respectful and productive, but our principal
obsession is to raise our children to be independent and self-reliant.
There is just one catch:
even the most strident self-made man or woman requires a prolonged
period of continuous, attentive care at the beginning— and
usually at the end— of life. Individualistic independence
for all is a lofty goal, but it may not be a realistic or humane one. Social
life is simply not that one-dimensional, nor would we necessarily
want it to be. In every living person of any age, the potential
for independence is intrinsically linked to dependency and interdependence.
The balance of independence, interdependence and dependency will shift over the course of an individual’s lifetime, but the
three states always co-exist and are inseparable. Rather than accepting
the duality of capacity and need as an ordinary aspect of well-developed
adulthood, it has become both culturally and politically fashionable
to reject the state of dependency and interdependency as substandard,
pathological and morally weak.
As the primary caregivers
in society, mothers bear the brunt of this half-formed ideology.
To care for a dependent child, or any dependent person, involves
a transmission of some of the other’s dependency— unremunerated
time spent caring for young or frail family members is time that
cannot be used in any other way, such as earning a wage, creating
a masterwork, or prioritizing one’s own needs and ambitions.
Since we’ve come to view dependency as a lesser state of being,
people who care for dependents as part of their daily work are frequently
seen as less than fully capable, regardless of their actual level
In our culture, we also
maintain the belief that good care is characterized by a mutual
relationship between the care-giver and the cared-for, and that
care work involves some degree of emotional attachment as well as
practical skill. This is unquestionably true, but even the modest
break-down in male and female roles to date provides irrefutable
evidence that women are not the only ones with the capacity to create and sustain caring connections. To transfer full responsibility
for the routine care of dependent children to one segment of society
on the basis of sex is neither fair nor sensible. Nor is it especially
beneficial to children.
been managing gender and family this way for well over two hundred
years. Resistance to change is strong and steadfast; it is both
politically and economically expedient to drop the responsibility
for unpaid caregiving squarely into the maternal lap. Mothers today
are caught between their need for a larger and more equitable life
and social pressures to provide an ideal environment for their children’s
development (which, according to present-day standards of optimal child-rearing, is expensive, labor intensive, time consuming and
often emotionally exhausting).
Although certain policy
issues rise to the top of discussions about maternal inequality —
including paid parental leave, access to affordable high-quality
child care, improved legal standards for equity in divorce, social
insurance for caregivers who are not in the workforce, and flexible
employment practices that don’t exclude caregivers from good
jobs with good pay— there is as yet no collective agreement
about how to rectify the larger social problems that affect mothers
as a group.
different sort of motherhood
It’s tempting to
fall back on the scant social power offered by long-standing cultural
ideals that venerate mothers as the guardians of children’s
welfare. A child-centered approach to advancing the political status
of motherhood has been quite successful in the past, but has not
generated lasting improvements in the status of women or mothers. The inherent danger in advocating for mothers rights based on the
social benefits derived from maternal nurturing is the potential
to further institutionalize the inequities that trouble mothers
Yet trying to envision
a different sort of motherhood— a motherhood based on the
life of the mother rather than one focused exclusively on the needs
of the child— leaves us riddled with anxiety. If the objective
is to redistribute the responsibility for care work more fairly,
mothers may be overwhelmingly concerned that a “mothers’
movement” will force mothers’ to relinquish their special
claim to emotional primacy in their children’s lives. This
is an unlikely outcome, but since the intimacy of the mother-child
bond is often the most rewarding aspect of motherhood— and
is, for many women, the primary motivation for becoming a mother—
the thought alone is paralyzing.
A motherhood based on
the life of the mother need not be imagined as a cold, uncaring
or unfulfilled existence, nor should we automatically assume that
children would be abandoned or neglected if we choose to cultivate a different
understanding of who mothers are and what they do best. A different sort
of motherhood need not require mothers to love their children
less, or mean that marriage and families will go out of style. But
it may require a re-imagining personal liberty and social
justice in a way that permits all citizens— including mothers
and others who do the caring work of our society— to share
equally in those greatest goods.
What could change is that
more and different kinds of people will be obligated to spend time
caring for others as part of their daily lives. Women, and men,
would benefit from active engagement in the continuing transformation
of male and female social roles. We might adopt broader attitudes
about the appropriate scope of social spending to promote the general
welfare; moreover, we might redefine the concept of the general welfare
to include the fundamental necessities of care and care-giving.
So what will this different
way of life look like? Here’s my short list:
- Individual mothers
will benefit from full equality in all social, civic and private interactions.
- Mothers and fathers
will be equally represented at all levels of all occupations, including elite professions and top corporate management.
- Mothers and fathers
will feel equally entitled to participate in, and be considered equally
accountable for, all aspects of domestic life, care work and the
outcome of child-rearing,
- Mothers will no longer
be disproportionately vulnerable to poverty and hardship
due to their maternal status.
- Mothers will fill
elective offices at all levels of government in the same proportion
- No woman will feel
morally, socially or economically obligated to sacrifice personal
interests or activities she considers central to her health and well-being in
order to earn well or mother well.
- Sentimental representations
of motherhood emphasizing women’s obligations to children
and family will be replaced by more expansive notions about the
nature of motherhood, fatherhood, childhood and family life.
- Care work will be
recognized as an integral part of social and economic life, and
a demonstrated capacity to care for and about others will be considered
an asset to corporate and political leadership, and a central aspect
of good citizenship.
- The value of caring
work will be reflected in public as well as private life. It will
inform our government, our workplaces, and our communities as
well as our families.
It may take several generations
of concerted effort to secure such monumental progress. Like all
great undertakings, the mothers' revolution is bound to be a process of fits and
starts. But one thing is certain: the situation is unlikely to improve
unless mothers take a stand on their own behalf and demand what
is right, what is just, and what is fair.
mmo : march 2003/revised january 2005
Stadtman Tucker is a writer, activist and the editor of The Mothers Movement Online.
She lives with her husband and two sons in New
Hampshire. Email: email@example.com