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the motherhood papers

Motherhood and its discontents

Why mothers need a social movement of their own

By Judith Stadtman Tucker

March 2003

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.

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. 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.

Care 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 need.

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 of competence.

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.

Unfortunately, we’ve 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.

A 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 now.

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 as fathers.
  • 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

Judith 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:

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