Culture » February 13, 2018
The Abyss of Motherhood
A tightrope walk without a safety net.
We could envision mothering differently. We could resist atomization, build solidarity and see the fates of all our children as connected.
The first time I said my new job title aloud was over the phone, to a man at my husband’s marketing company.
“You’d better make me your contact person,” I told him, “since I’m the stay-at-home mother.”
“Must be nice,” he said, chuckling.
I could sense a whole lifestyle taking shape in his imagination—yoga, wine, soap operas, maybe a literal couch where I eat literal bonbons. I wanted to tell him that I have, at minimum, two jobs, parenting and writing (in reality, I could probably list every ongoing relationship with an editor or a publication as a job in itself); that I have been sleeping in two-hour increments for three months; that it is a special occasion when I can drink a cup of coffee before it gets cold; that I limited my “maternity leave” to three weeks, because there would always be someone else who wanted my job and my editors are not required to hold it open. I wanted to tell him that I write and pitch and edit around the schedule of a baby, whose needs are always urgent and never negotiable; that I once auditioned for a PBS documentary while breastfeeding. I wanted to tell him I spend every day wondering which job I’ll fail at today. That he doesn’t know what “stay-at-home” means, and should stop assuming.
“It is nice,” I said. You can’t yell in front of a baby.
The idea that mothering is different than “parenting” may seem offensive. But, as Adrienne Rich writes in Of Woman Born, the difference is in the verbs: “To ‘father’ a child suggests above all to beget, to provide the sperm that fertilizes the ovum. To ‘mother’ a child implies a continuing presence, lasting at least nine months, more often for years.” Rich is being generous, I think, to include pregnancy. A man can “father” a child he never meets. But we would never say that a woman who had a baby and left it in the hospital “mothered” that child. Mothering comes after: Nursing, changing, reading, singing, administering Tylenol and frozen teething rings, attending to 3 a.m. diapers and hunger pangs and nightmares, keeping track of schedules and grades and homework and food aversions and favorite songs. Fatherhood is a status. Motherhood is labor.
Which doesn’t mean women are inherently suited for it. Even those of us on the Left can fall into romanticizing the “maternal instinct.” Babies are some of the most likable people in existence, and not just because none of them have podcasts—loving them isn’t some magical female talent. You learn how to care for children the way you learn anything else: Reading up, talking to people who have done it and paying attention to the children themselves, who tend to be quite definite on their preferences. Any caring adult can do it, and that person doesn’t have to be female, or even a genetic relative—witness the intense bonds adoptive parents forge with their children. In an ideal world, all parents would have the work flexibility to be deeply involved with their children’s lives.
But in our world, it’s overwhelmingly women who get assigned mothering work. I do it for reasons that are partly biological—if you breastfeed a baby, the lactating parent spends more time with the baby—but mostly economic. Both my husband and I adore our child, but it was easier to give the work to me, because I make less money.
My career was forged by the media landscape 10 years ago, when you could be a “famous blogger” (I was one) or an “Internet feminist” (I am one) as an entryway to paid gigs. But they were just that, gigs; staff writing jobs were evaporating as the Internet made news free, blogging was underpaid or unpaid, and in the collapse of 2009, when I lost my day job, I found myself living off $50 Salon pieces and $15 PayPal donations. At the peak of my “celebrity,” I could direct more traffic to a site than the New York Times, but I couldn’t buy groceries. My husband, then my boyfriend, had an entry-level marketing job with an income of around $30,000, and he saved us. As we got older, his career progressed. Mine never quite recovered. So we went from being poor together to relying on his income together; I didn’t notice until I got pregnant, at which point we both assumed my career would take the hit, because I could do it without impacting the bottom line too much.
That shift of power is a built-in feature of heterosexual relationships. Women and men in their twenties earn roughly equal pay; however, as per the Harvard Business Review, “[the] average male college graduate by his early forties earns roughly 55 percent more than the average college graduate female.” Women aren’t so much bumping into the glass ceiling as they are being ushered into a whole different building; while men are building relatively stable careers, women are more likely to do precarious contract or temp labor (like, ahem, freelance writing) and more likely to work part-time. This drives single mothers into poverty—but then, that’s the point. Living on a single income has been untenable since our own mothers were young. Single mothers are not allowed to exist. Women in patriarchy must depend on patriarchs to live.
It is startling, after a career spent railing against the statistical realities of women’s lives, to find out that your own life still conforms to them. Women are still edged out of public life, while men proceed apace into power. And mothering work is still devalued. We get people to do it not by making it worthwhile, but by telling them they are too worthless to do anything else.
Within my lifetime, mothering work was supported. We had institutions—functioning public schools, CHIP, welfare, child care centers and preschools that were affordable for most middleclass families—that, although never cheap, ensured children did not go without necessities. But they have all been gutted. Basic necessities, like day care, have become luxuries; child care now costs more than rent in some cities, and more than the average state college tuition everywhere. Things that were once luxuries, like private school, increasingly become necessities as conservatives take aim at public options.
There are things other countries take for granted—parental leave, universal healthcare, universal preschool, Scandinavian-style baby boxes that provide the essentials for a child’s first year—that we don’t have. Some, we’re not pursuing. One of the core features of European socialist childhood, and one of the major demands of second-wave feminism, is state-funded, high-quality, universal child care centers for ages 0 to 6; currently, there is no significant U.S. activist momentum for it among either socialists or feminists.
But those needs are easy to ignore when mother work is worthless. So, most importantly: We could envision mothering differently. We could resist atomization, build solidarity and see the fates of all our children as connected. Vulnerable communities already know this; sociologist Patricia Hill Collins notes that working-class black women, who have always had to work, have also always created support networks to care for each other’s children. Mothering is not an individual struggle, but a community resource, and real respect adheres to women who are skilled at nurturing.
Instead of following their lead, the culture as a whole devalues mothering, calling it work that anyone could do, even as the shredding of the social contract makes successful mothering impossible. So we’re stuck, unable to work, unable to stop working. We are pushed into part-time work without benefits, or shoved into the precarious gig economy—driving cars, renting rooms, writing blog posts, sitting other people’s babies—that promises “flexibility” and delivers unceasing work, as in the now-viral story of the Lyft driver who was so afraid of turning down a gig that she wound up driving customers while she was in labor. We dump our money into the child care center, not knowing where college will come from. We quit our jobs to provide child care so our children can go to college. We scramble to provide them with everything that our nation once provided us, and we do it in a culture that will not help us, because it is hostile to any but the most traditional solutions: As per a 2016 Washington Post poll, 75 percent of Americans believe mothers should not work full time outside the home. Yet, as per the U.S. Department of Labor, 53 percent of mothers with children under 18 do so, and another 17 percent work part time.
Millennials, who are already the most underemployed generation, are also the generation currently having children, albeit at a rate lower than any previous generation. The scramble to provide our children more support with fewer resources is going to get worse.
We live wondering which job we’ll fail at today. We know only that success is no longer an option.
I love my daughter more than anyone I've ever met. I love the way she takes her bath, dipping her toes into the water and exclaiming with pleasant surprise, like a little old lady taking a trip to a day spa; I love how she signals anger by blowing furious raspberries on her hand; I love how she curls back into fetal position as I sing her to sleep, folding her knees and tucking her head into her chest, as if she remembers being part of me. I spend every minute of the day with her, until I put her to bed. Then, once she’s tucked in, I take out my phone and I look at baby pictures. I feel lonely when she isn’t in the room. I love my job, too. No, it’s never going to pay for a summer house, but I didn’t take it for the money. I recognize it’s a privilege to say this—that no one in my family history, and certainly no woman, has had enough security to take a job for reasons other than the paycheck—but that makes me cherish it all the more.
I have something that very few women have had throughout history; I have the ability to make myself heard, for my words to matter to the culture at large. There’s no way I would ever give that up willingly. You would have to kill me to stop me from writing, and even then, there’s always Ouija boards. But what I don’t love is the fear I feel, once a day, looking at my daughter; the formless, shooting panic of how will she ever go to college or what if one of us gets sick. I don’t like that having both a child and one’s chosen work has essentially been priced out of reach for most women, many of whom are just as talented as I am, or more talented; that the basic human activity of love has been turned into a luxury item. I don’t love that fear, that constant, wordless sense of being suspended over an abyss. Our family has enough, these days. Yet I’ve had enough and lost it before. It could happen at any time. It would take one big expense, one job loss, one market crash, for us to fall. And when I fall, down will come baby, cradle and all. And I can’t say nobody warned me.
Sady Doyle is an In These Times contributing writer. She is the author of Trainwreck: The Women We Love to Hate, Mock, and Fear... and Why (Melville House, 2016) and was the founder of the blog Tiger Beatdown. You can follow her on Twitter at @sadydoyle.
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