The Impossibility of Modern Motherhood (and What To Do About It)

Washington hikers (LOC)

(Photo credit: The Library of Congress)

This post could just as easily be called: “Why Women Will Never Have it All, But Still Should Fight For More.”

Today’s Atlantic Monthly contains a blockbuster piece from Anne-Marie Slaughter on modern feminism, motherhood, and the demands of work, “Why Women Still Can’t Have it All.” Overall, Slaughter gives us a thoughtful discussion of the real agony working women experience in choosing between the demands of their careers and the joys and trials of parenting. The article also contains enough personal reflections to be refreshingly candid, which is a particularly welcome turn from someone with such a robust career in high-profile politics.

Like my own prior admissions of ambivalence about my choices with Maya, and my impulse to pointedly complain about the structurally unreasonable demands on women in a response to the absurd attacks earlier this spring by Elisabeth Badinter, Slaughter has decided to put down the “we-can-do-it-all” cheerleader pom-poms that sometimes obscures what should be the real goals of the women’s movement, and to keep it real instead.

She points out something about her talks with students that I’ve also found: women in their twenties who happen to be in my orbit generally observe the frantic pace of my efforts to juggle a baby, work and, lately, a blog, with a bemused and tragic smile, as if to say — how is this all supposed to work again? So we’re not fooling anyone, least of all the women coming up next who will grapple themselves with all these questions.

The truth is — if we’ll only admit it to each other — it doesn’t work very well. Like many women, but certainly not all, I’m far too invested in my professional identity to choose to “stay home,” as we all awkwardly say (as if moms “stay” anywhere for very long). But that doesn’t mean I’m not beset with regret most days, or that when the nanny and her son joined us at the pool the other night, and Maya obviously felt more drawn to play with them than me, I didn’t quietly, invisibly, seethe about it. After all, she spends five days every week with her, and only two with me, I thought, with more than a twinge of envy.

The challenge for mothers to our sense of priorities is profound, particularly when we acknowledge, as Slaughter tries to, that despite our efforts to achieve 50-50 parenting, the bonds that women have with their children are irreplaceably, undeniably deep. Whoever else they may have in their lives, she notes, for children a mother’s role is “indispensable,” and she makes a point of citing half a dozen powerful Washington moms (and dads) who agree with her or have left careers for at least some time to attend to the needs of their families.

I particularly enjoyed the criticism she has for female exec flavor-of-the-month Sheryl Sandberg of Facebook, whose work habits have now morphed into a kind of reproachful working moms’ urban legend. She dismantles the half-truths women like Sandberg promote: that “it’s possible if you just are committed enough,” or “it’s possible if you marry the right person,” pointing to serious but no-duh propositions like the fact that the school and work day are not aligned to make working easier, and that even the ideal marital arrangements can run up against a mom’s ambivalence about leaving her child.

Notably, Slaughter fails to consider what happens to women who unluckily choose a less angelically supportive partner, women who have no partner at all (single moms are raising fully one-quarter of America’s kids, and are a much higher percentage of minority and low-income households), or parents who might imagine a life with far more balance than the work schedules she describes, which are downright punishing. Despite her critique, even she can’t quite let go of the boosterism and elitism embedded in these expectations. In fact, at one point Slaughter unwittingly, and almost comically, reveals just how much she’s lived inside the privilege bubble by ridiculously claiming, with what appears to be a straight face, that “[j]ust about every woman who could plausibly be tapped [for a high-level Washington job] is already in government.”

She also projects a bit too much from her own experiences with her child’s troubled teen years and thus understates the problem. She notes that a woman would want to be free to stay home, or to put family first, when her children “are 8 to 18,” a period of absence from the workforce which she calculates as ten years.

But the developmental stages from birth to 3 years old are at least as significant, if not more so, to a child’s growth, and any family with multiple children who are not twins would require this window of time to expand to account for siblings. And what about aging parents, or non-traditional families, or widely spread out births? Slaughter’s too-neat math fails, once again, to account for the variety and complexity of family obligations and women’s lives, and thus, the changes we need will be more far-reaching and fundamental than she suggests.

She does include a discussion of the problems that women, and career women in particular, now face with fertility at our more advanced maternal age. But even here her advice can be a bit tone-deaf, to say the least.

Given her own difficulties conceiving, Slaughter blithely recommends that women under 35 freeze their eggs. But she ignores the high costs of this advice. It seems utterly unrealistic to think that most women, or even most “career women” in their late 20s and early 30s, will have $7,000 to $15,000-odd just lying around (or double that amount if they need a second go at it). And even with all that expense and medical hassle, there is only a 40 to 50 percent chance of success, which makes it a pretty expensive gamble for most people.

As this has been an area in which people I love have experienced completely crushing kinds of disappointment, I think it’s critical that we not gloss over how hard this question of timing is for women, or, even worse, attempt to erase the problem by suggesting that an expensive scientific half-miracle is in the cards for all of us.

Last, although she casts her story as a cautionary tale for professional over-achievers, even Slaughter appears at times to need to prove to us, the reader, that despite her recent, renewed dedication to mommyhood, she’s really very smart and all. When her acquaintances cuckoo over the loss of such a brilliant mind to policymaking circles in Washington, it’s hard not to consider that for all but a handful of moms, whatever choices — and deep personal sacrifices in terms of ambition and foregone possibility — they make usually go unnoticed, remaining unremarkable except to them, or if they are one of the “lucky” ones, to their partners as well. Unless you’re Slaughter, or Mary Matalin, or that ilk, rarely in women’s lives are the costs of these sorts of decisions even added up.

Still, on the whole, the article is a timely and important account — the beginning of a picture of what really needs to change to make women’s lives more manageable, meaningful and free. While some internal agonizing about working and raising children is probably written into the script, steps to achieve wider agreement on what a “work-life balance” really means would help greatly to transform the sharp corners of our ambivalence into a cushier, more shapely set of supports.

Slaughter proposes a few, all of which I liked, including aligning school days better with work, allowing more flexible workplace arrangements, and shifting understandings in the workplace to lessen or eliminate penalties for women (and I assume, men) who would like to take a few years away from their careers to focus on family. And she closes the piece with a straight-up appeal to businesses to see new value in the many older women discarded as workers today.

I also deeply appreciated her call to all of us to stop making up fake, more “serious-sounding” excuses when we really have something to do that takes time out of work for family. If we all stopped lying and were honest about our obligations, this would give all of us, in turn, permission to have a life and work as well. And the perception of employers and co-workers that attempting this balance openly makes us “unserious” is in itself toxic to getting what we want, or even, achieving any kind of accurate picture of how hard this all really is.

To her ideas I would add more radical structural ones that still seem blindingly obvious to me, and that would lend a hand to many more women: mandatory paid parental leave of up to one year as they have in Canada and Europe; better pay for low-wage workers so that they can better balance the needs of work and family; far more accurate (read: adequate) child-care tax credits and robust funding for programs that work like Healthy Start; pay for low-income moms at a fair wage for caring for their own children (what better work program in a recession?); and paycheck fairness — the crazy idea that equal work deserves equal pay. Moreover, we must also extend every protection we have — and those we may win — on behalf of women, families and married couples to include same-sex couples and nontraditional families.

The truth is, the job of feminists in making society better for families is, at most, half-done. We don’t acknowledge often enough how partial our sense of completeness is in our own lives, and how tenuous is the wish-and-a-prayer is that it’s all constructed on. Instead, we suit up, kiss the baby goodbye, and push on with our many dutiful roles: pay the bills, send a tweet, call our own mom, plan a playdate, cook dinner, kiss our partner, work late, and somehow try to get some sleep.

A friend said to me on the playground the other day, “I never thought my life would be this hard.” I nodded. I grew up in the 1970s, a time of exploding opportunities and shape-shifting for women, and was told that anything I wanted was possible.

That turns out to be true in some ways only, and not even, perhaps, what I want anymore. In fact, it now seems like we’ve asked for so much responsibility, so much opportunity, that it’s exhausting — even superhuman — just to be us. Slaughter says that’s true of the overachievers — she misses the point that this is part of the fabric of all of our expectations, and that even “ordinary” women are now edging, however reluctantly, towards superhero status.

The next generation of women, looking up at the utter craziness that is our lives, must force governments and corporations to create the structural supports and understandings women need. What feminism will really mean is not that women can do it all — we certainly can, as we’ve all run ourselves into the ground to show everyone — but really, why should we?

Women of my generation — and older, like Slaughter’s — can help them. First, by being honest about what it’s really like to be us, as she has been and I have tried to be. And second, by raising these issues again and again, and joining the fight when the day comes — and it will come, my friends — that there is something big worth winning.

12 thoughts on “The Impossibility of Modern Motherhood (and What To Do About It)

  1. As a Stay at Home Mom, I can also relate to your post, Laura. I have felt the “invisible pressure” to be more, do more, and achieve more – and when I walked away from the career track, I had to do a lot of soul-searching. SAHMs have to reconcile their identities with the world as one way to be at peace with being home. To some extent, in the face of ridicule from society, peers, and family members. For me, I’ve had to mature, disconnect from toxic people, and figure out what I’m really about – which I (personally) never took the time to do when I was just trying to make the grade or get the promotion (read: meet someone else’s expectations for me).

    We were all raised to be over-achievers, and if a woman decides to stay home, this world that was so encouraging of her potential suddenly turns on her and tells her that now she is nothing. Honestly, it kind of hurts.

    I’m totally *not* into the Mommy Wars. But I am excited about the dialogue about how motherhood has changed in our country, and how so many women are just worn out with the expectations. I’m currently reading Perfect Madness by Judith Warner. Have you read the book? I’d love to hear your insights.

    • Hi Shannon, Thanks so much for your lovely, candid and illuminating comment! It makes complete sense that the ambivalence and internal struggle would impact moms who work at home as well as those who go to work! That looks like a very interesting book, which I have not read (yet). It’s going on my list… all best, Laura

  2. I read this blog very early this morning, it certainly gave me a lot of things to think about and I see why the need to respond to that article would have been strong.

    I raised my kids in the 70’s, I had a career until my son became very ill and I lost my job because of it. After that it was quite some time before anyone would hire me – ‘undependable’. Career time continues until my daughter needed me, again I was shown the look of disgrace. Segments of a career, broken by segments of pure motherhood. I had and still have an amazing husband, but my maternal instincts are my own.

    As far as I was concerned it was a no brainer – however there was still that lingering “what’s wrong with her?” from other women on the fast track. I made the choice to put family first, my decision.

    My Grandma raised six kids during the Depression, she held a full time job for survival. My own Mom was never a career woman, but she was well employed for quite a few years after I started school. Yes, they both taught me it was tough and they both taught me to think for myself. My daughter is a single mother of three and she juggles like a circus act. My daughter in law is raising three children full time and I applaud her decisions, she grew up an only child and this is heaven for her at the moment.

    We’ve all reached for the brass ring and the only thing I can think of at this time really – well, don’t walk too far away from the Merry go Round if you want to get back on, if you’re off you can’t grab the brass ring and if you’re on it everything else goes by quickly.

    Lovely body of work

  3. I often feel overwhelmed by the enormity of the reforms we need. I appreciate the articulate way in which you and many others are addressing the changes we all wish for–that’s the first step. (Or maybe the 50th step–I don’t mean to downplay the feminist movement’s achievements to date–but it’s another necessary step in the right direction.)

    • Hi Emmy, I can’t believe I never replied to this! I agree that it seems overwhelming, and is difficult when our political system is in lock-down even to think about! But we can’t move forward if we don’t think about and say what we need. Really appreciate your comment!

  4. Laura,

    Great posting! The fact that you posted this at 4:46 am, according to my computer), only underscores your point. I’m well aware of the mischegoss if being a working mother (although of course all mothers are working mothers). As a single mom, I have no choice but to work outside the home, and I’ve certainly felt the sadness of being away from my kids every day (as well as the guilty relief of closing my office door and enjoying the quiet). You make some great points, including the lack of alignment with the school day, your policy ideas, the fact that we shouldn’t have to do it all, and the need to include lower paid (working class?) and less educated women (and dads too!). In the 70s when I grew up, the discussion was centered around whether mothers (and women) should work outside the home. Now, too many years later, I hope we can at least start with two ideas in mind: 1) mothers ARE working outside the home, and we need to, and 2) we’ve done so much bending and accommodating and juggling to the nth degree that it’s time for society to make some shifts, in the ways that you describe. It’s a workplace-by-workplace cultural change, but it’s also calls for broad policy changes. (Given our current political situation, I’m a little pessimistic about the latter, but I do feel optimistic about the younger women who can learn from our situations and try to change things for the better!). Thanks again for posting, and don’t let me get started on how thinking about how I literally when I hear about the situation of French women! 🙂

    • Hi there! Thanks so much for the thoughtful comments. I agree with all your points! Of COURSE we all need to work — even the vast majority of married couples these days need two incomes. I’m embarrassed that I left out a point about single moms — which I’ve now edited the text to include. Just to be clear, I posted it at 1 am, which is still ungodly late, I’ll admit. But I just had to respond to the piece… Cheers, Laura

  5. Great posting! The fact that you posted this at 4:46 am (according to my computer) only underscores the mischegoss of “working” mothers’ lives (although we know that every mother is a working mother). I am a single mom and have no choice but to work outside the home, and growing up in the 70s I never thought about not doing so. Still, I certainly feel the pain of separation (my kids are 9, 7, and 4), as well as the sneaking sense of relief when I sit down in my quiet office and close the door. You make some great points, including your comments about the school day, your policy suggestions, and your statement that we shouldn’t have to do it all. Also, the fact that you can’t have thins discussion without keeping in mind lower paid (working class?) and less educated women, as well as dads (almost forgot them!). When I was growing up in the 70s, people used to ask, “Should women work?” and the argument was all about that. You’re right that now we need to start from reality — moms ate working and have to work — and realize that as a group we have important, reasonable, and necessary things to say. I also feel optimistic about younger women who can hopefully push an agenda based on what they’ve seen of our reality.

    Again, thanks for posting, and don’t get me going about how I literally cry when I think of the supports French women have! 🙂

  6. You’re right, Laura, it IS exhausting. The phrase that jumps out from your page and finds its kindred soul in mine? “The utter craziness that is our lives.” And my husband owns the kitchen. (He doesn’t just cook in it . . .. he cleans it up afterward. And he fathers. Extensively.). To be honest, even with the most “angelically supportive partner” I’m crazy busy and he is too. It’s as though the more responsibilities we share, the more demands tumble down from somewhere else to claim all of us, women, men–even children now. The utter craziness that is our lives. We’re being asked to be super-moms, super-dads and super-kids. The Incredibles, really. When I say “we’re being asked” I can’t tell you by whom. A friend’s recent comment resonates: “People used to say, if you’re too busy just learn to say no to something. But what? I don’t feel as though any of the demands on our family’s time are optional.” That said,there are unquestionably huge gender inequities in regard to work-life demands and ambiguity in regard to what balance would look like. And there is something unrelenting hanging over us all, I think.

    • Well said, Gina! There is “something unrelenting” about these expectations, which Slaughter talks around but can’t quite admit, given her Superwoman role. And it’s not just moms, as you point out, but a loss of reason when it comes to all parents, and even kids. Thanks so much for your comment! All best, Laura

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