'Motherhood' Is Untenable

'Motherhood' Is Untenable
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This weekend, the New York Times separately published two pieces about modern American families from drastically divergent viewpoints. A meandering opinion piece by Helen Andrews, managing editor of conservative Washington Examiner, concerns itself with mothers who would like, but can’t afford, to work part-time or opt out of the workplace entirely. A reported piece by Claire Cain Miller focuses on educated women who are pressured to work part-time out of a complicated interplay of economic necessity and gendered expectation.

But these two pieces can agree on one thing: motherhood is untenable. As a concept and reality, it’s in crisis. Something must change.

For Andrews, that something is a focus on men’s, not women’s, economic opportunity in the workforce. Once she gets some 500 words in, past an extended reverie around “America’s foremost anti-feminist” Phyllis Schlafly, she arrives at her thesis. “By making it easier for women to pursue success in the workplace, we have made it harder for them to do anything else,” she writes.

Andrews ties declining marital rates to financial insecurity and the impossibility of affording a middle-class life on a single income. She blames this on “the mass entry of women into the work force.” Instead of “shoveling women into the work force,” she suggests that it’s “time to focus on helping male workers specifically, their wages and their industries,” as a means of raising marital rates and increasing women’s ability to choose to stay at home with the kids. Never mind that we’ve already run the societally-backed man-as-breadwinner experiment and know exactly how it goes: An expansion of one single choice for some women and a shrinking of all others for all women. She suggests that, hey, women would rather have a husband and a child than equal pay, wouldn’t they? As though it’s a zero-sum game.

Miller’s more coherent, data-driven piece focuses on educated, upwardly mobile (and largely heterosexual) women, who “face the biggest gender gaps in seniority and pay.” (Race is conspicuously not mentioned.) She reports, “At the top of their fields, they represent just 5 percent of big company chief executives and a quarter of the top 10 percent of earners in the United States.” Discrimination and family-unfriendly policies are among the causes, but research has suggested another influence: “The returns to working long, inflexible hours have greatly increased” in this “winner-take-all economy.” This has effectively “canceled the effect of women’s educational gains,” she writes. Miller continues:

Just as more women earned degrees, the jobs that require those degrees started paying disproportionately more to people with round-the-clock availability. At the same time, more highly educated women began to marry men with similar educations, and to have children. But parents can be on call at work only if someone is on call at home. Usually, that person is the mother.

Miller’s concern isn’t about these highly educated women “opting out”—in fact, they are the ones least likely to do so after having kids. Instead, she highlights that “the nature of work has changed in ways that push couples who have equal career potential to take on unequal roles.” Miller puts it like so: “To maximize the family’s income but still keep the children alive, it’s logical for one parent to take an intensive job and the other to take a less demanding one.” She quotes Claudia Goldin, a Harvard economist: “It just so happens that in most couples, if there’s a woman and a man, the woman takes the back seat.”

When economic push comes to shove, it’s mothers who bend. Because, of course, they’ve already bended.

Except that it doesn’t just so happen—it’s not by random chance. When economic push comes to shove, it’s mothers who bend. Because, of course, they’ve already bended. “Working mothers today spend as much time with their children as stay-at-home mothers did in the 1970s,” writes Miller. This is a point that Andrews hits as well: “Many career moms manage their stressful work-life balance thanks only to low-wage immigrant labor to take care of their children, clean their houses and deliver their takeout,” she writes. “Even with hired help, working women still spend nearly as much time on household tasks as their stay-at-home mothers and grandmothers did.” Our conception of motherhood has changed, but not enough. (Or too much, if you’re Andrews.)

These pieces have different focuses—and, necessarily, different solutions—but where they converge is a concern chiefly around educated mothers’ options and choices. (Which is to say: a concern about the options and choices of the most privileged of moms.) Andrews worries that these women can’t afford to choose to take time off for raising kids (and suggests a shift of attention to men’s salaries and careers that would arguably limit all women’s choices), while Miller underscores that many are actually pushed to reduce their hours to the benefit of a husband’s salary and career. This mess of personal, and interpersonal, compromises in response to systemic failures is modern motherhood in a nutshell.

As Goldin, puts it, “It’s this system we put in place in the era of ‘Mad Men’ and we’re stuck with, and we’re sort of hammering away at in small ways rather than taking the whole thing down.”

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