On Motherhood And Employment

In our culture, pregnancy is viewed as something you did to yourself. Having a child comes with consequences you must be prepared to accept. This isn’t gender neutral; it’s no accident that women’s reproductive capacity is reduced to a supposedly objective decision-making matrix that sets up women as a class to fail.

On any given day, cultural and political leaders will portray children as punishments for casual sex; as luxuries for wealthy families; and at their most heinous, as ruses for public benefits or citizenship status.

The idea of pregnancy and children as consequences for which women must pay plays out in many sectors of our lives, including restrictions upon reproductive rights, and punitive attacks on the social safety net.

Here I will discuss some of the negative consequences for women in the workplace. I say women intentionally; although not all women are or will become mothers, it is often anticipated they will. So even a woman who has no intention of having children is often unfairly judged by her actual and prospective employers.

The United States does not guarantee paid parental leave. Today pregnant workers still face inadequate workplace protections, as made clear by the failure of Congress to pass a Pregnant Workers Fairness Act that would simply clarify that employers must offer minor accommodations when necessary, such as increased bathroom breaks or lighter lifting duties. A year of day care costs more than a year in public college in 31 states.

These are not just women’s issues or family issues; these are massive economic problems that constrain our economy.

But, I’d argue, our cultural attitudes suck at least as much as our institutional failures to accommodate the reality of parents who work, a reality that resoundingly ends in undervaluing women in their personal lives and on the job.

I have a toddler. It has only been a few years since I was in my early thirties, single, and facing all sorts of biological clock-type questions about whether I wanted to have kids. Bluntly, this kind of pressure can destroy a dating life (if you want one) — I have watched it happen with friends and experienced variations of it myself. But even more, I wish that some of those people who wondered about me being single would have instead asked what I was reading, or working on, or thinking about current events.

If and when women do have children, the very real work they turn around and put into caring for those children is often portrayed as heroic (“the hardest job in the world”), which may be well-intentioned but is ultimately patronizing since caregiving for one’s own family is put on a pedestal but neither compensated nor respected in the marketplace. In portraying the motherly woman as idol, this false heroism also excuses men in heterosexual child-rearing relationships from stepping up to do their fair share.

And on the job? Mark Zuckerberg once said of Facebook having younger (i.e., childless) employees:

“Young people just have simpler lives. We may not have a car. We may not have family. Simplicity in life allows you to focus on what’s important.”

What’s important, apparently, is to be found in those corners of the office where working moms don’t hang out late at night.

You might think, “What the fuck, Zuck?!” and write it off, but I’ve heard versions of this riff in explicitly feminist settings. In one example, I heard a non-profit executive express resentment that women with children didn’t have to work as much as she did. In another, I heard a consultant express concern that a boss who worked standard business hours because of her kids didn’t understand her younger employees needs to come in later in the day.

The first case is frankly bullshit. There’s a cliche going around that if you want something done, you should give it to a mom — and that’s often true. I know motherhood has greatly increased my time management skills. If I need to get something done, I no longer plan to get it done later — that leaves too much margin for error when a toddler depends on me. Further, it’s unfair because many employees smoke and take smoke breaks, or go on long lunches with friends, or leave early to play recreational sports.

The second case greatly concerns me, because ultimately what concern over the supposed rigidity of a working mom’s office schedule says is that a woman with children isn’t fit to make decisions, and isn’t fit to judge how her team should work, including whether they should keep the same hours. In other words, that a mom isn’t fit to be the boss.

Yes, dads get some crap in the workplace, too, but rarely if ever will you hear it suggested that he’s not pulling his weight, or he’s not fit to be the boss, because he has kids. It’s assumed a woman will step up for him when junior throws up all over the classroom on presentation day.

My college thesis examined the failure of the feminist movement (at the time, so we’re talking 2002) to tackle the problem of child care in a visionary way and as a major rallying cry — specifically, why it costs so much, why quality is so varied, and why it is inaccessible to so many. The voices calling for universal child care, or Social Security contributions for caregivers, are too few and far between.

Ultimately the conclusion I reached is that liberal feminism is too invested in theories of bootstraps individualism, and that acknowledging caregiving as gendered, much less a societal obligation (it takes a village) rather than a personal lifestyle, could be seen as threatening to undermine the “long way” you’ve come, “baby.”

I still believe, to an extent, that’s true, but to another extent I would argue today that the failure to progress also sits largely in the friendly and willing cooptation of many feminist organizations by the Democratic Party, which throws bones to the ladies as a matter of electoral convenience and sometimes deeply felt principle, but never should be confused with a movement making radical demands for social change. Although it has been.

I believe these dynamics are at play when we consider why it is not equal to be a mother, or for that matter a woman, in the workplace.

9 thoughts on “On Motherhood And Employment

  1. Lydia

    I think you make some valid points in this, for example, the fact that the congress has failed to pass legislation in order to accommodate pregnant women in the workplace, is terrible.

    However some of what you say I do find a tad overly critical. We are having the same debate over here in the UK, and many feminists like yourself have written a lot of articles promoting equality in the workplace, between the sexes, which I do wholeheartedly agree with. But I do find pregnancy to be one of those things which is very hit and miss.

    Basically a company’s first priority is to make money. That’s capitalism. If a company employ a woman who says she’s not going to get pregnant in the next five years when they interview her, and then she does…I see that as a failure on her part and not theres. Obviously her going on maternity leave means the company lose out on money, as in the UK they still have to pay her, (I’m not sure if it’s the same in the US.)

    Anyway, the fact still remains that pregnant women, in business terms are a financial liability. I’m not saying they should be, but where do you draw the line? Plenty of people have to make personal sacrifices in employment, including men. So I don’t see why women should be treated any differently if they want to have a baby. That’s a sacrifice on your career, that’s a personal choice, and to a certain extent you have to deal with the consequences, whatever they may be.

    1. …It’s a sacrifice that lands many women–and their children–in poverty if the woman ends up raising the children alone, either by choice, because of a death, or for whatever other reason. That (and too many other things to go into here) make it a social problem. We’re used to judging everything in terms of profit and loss–that’s capitalism, as you say. What we forget is that these things have an impact on our society, and we need to learn to take that into account as well as. Because “that’s capitalism” can be used to defend everything from child labor to an absence of workplace safety. If you’re not used to hearing the argument trotted out on those topics that’s because those battles were fought by earlier generations. Children, as well as in individual choice, are a social necessity–one our cultures are reluctant to support.

    2. “You have to deal with the consequences, whatever they may be.”
      I’m sorry Lydia, I don’t know you, but I think it’s unlikely you’ve had to deal with the reality of balancing parenthood and a career/job that pays the bills.

      From the sounds of things we in the UK are a long way ahead of the American system when it comes to pregnancy and maternity rights, although from personal experience I can assure you that there is still a long way to go.

      Businesses in a capitalist system may need to prioritise making money, but surely in a civilised society you would not accept that it is acceptable for this to be through exploitation of their workforce. I personally think it is a good thing that employers in this country have to pay minimum wage and holiday pay and ensure their workers are as safe as possible when they’re making money for the business leaders at the top.

      When it comes to pregnany you seem to be in favour of going back to the 1970s where it was legally acceptable for employers and interviewers to ask about a woman’s future pregnancy or marriage plans and it was fully expected if she did fall pregnant she would leave to raise her litter and perhaps go back part time in a few years to a position she was massively over-qualified for to earn a bit of pin money.

      When you say it is a failure on the woman’s part who gets herself pregnant unplanned I will not bore you with the thousands of scenarios where a woman can find herself pregnant and it is not simply a case that she is irresponsible. You seem intelligent enough that if you use your imagination you can probably come up with some examples yourself.

      In any society we need businessees and business leaders, but we also need to raise the next generation and hopefully improve on past mistakes. Just because many businesses are set up to deal best with the traditional system doesn’t mean it’s OK. The system where gay people aren’t really gay they’re just confused. The system where a woman is just waiting for a man to show interest and take her off the market so she can start popping out his kids.The system where you stay in an unhappy marriage because divorce is bad and children need a mother and a father in the same house and any other set-up, no matter how happy, is judged to be just quite as good as doing things the “proper way”. A system where women sacrifice everything else they want in life to fulfil their one true goal of motherhood so that the father of the children doesn’t have to have any disruption to his career.

      Do you really want to go to an interview where the person sat across from you is half listening, but primarily weighing up whether they think you’re the type to get maternal urges any time soon?

      Do you really want a system when the fact that you are of child-bearing age might mean the company are better off going with the slightly less qualifed guy “just in case”?

      Do you really want to have to choose between having a career and having a family? You might be lucky and pull it off in a way that works for you but what if you leave it too late and realise that shitty fertility window has been closed?

      If you do have children even after establishing a career do you think you should have to give it all up?

      Do you not think that fathers should also play a part in a child’s life? I mean is it enough that he provides the sperm and the money or would you not prefer it if he actually shared a little bit of the responsibilty and sacrifice that women are expected to make in order to reap all the joys of parenthood?

      Do you want anybody who is not wealthy enough to either stay at home on their partner’s wage or earning enough to afford a nanny to just stop breeding? Or maybe you think all those irresponsible women should just accept a life living on the state because they might be just a bit too disruptive in the workplace?

      Do you find it acceptable that if a child is sick in daycare the woman is the one expected to leave work, piss off her boss and stay home until the child is accepted back? (If they’re sick it’s 48 hours from the last time they puked). Is it acceptable that most UK employers would roll their eyes and have a moan that they shouldn’t be inconvenienced that she chose to reproduce without even beginning to consider that the fathers they have working for them should perhaps actually be sharing the load? Because sometimes children, like people, just happen to get sick and need looking after.

      If I were to start up a business I thinkit would be wholly reasonable that I should pay my workforce a fair wage in return for their hard work, that I don’t endanger their health or lives in order to maximise profits and that I accept that anyone working for me will also need some sort of work-life balance. It also seems reasonable to me to expect that some of those people may have familes, children, grandchildren, sick relatives, funerals, weddings, times of grief, mental or physical illnesses to contend with, places they want to travel to . . . you get the picture.

      My point is that there is this pressure people put on themselves at work to pretend that there is absolutely nothing in their personal lives that could ever distract them from their jobs and in extreme cases this leads to mental breakdowns and time off dur to stress when people burn out. When companies acknowledge their employees have personal lives and they are not just robots they will reap the benefits of a motivated, dedicated and loyal workforce who want to keep their jobs.

      When companies begin to acknowledge that a massive percentage of their workforce (be they gay, straight, married, single, old, young, living in sin) are going to want to have children at some point in their lives, because that’s just human nature for you, they can begin to make policies that deal with this reality and adapt the business to accomodate it.

      And if you personally don’t want your life and body turned upside down by having a baby then great for you. I may be a mother but I am also a feminist and believe you are more than capable of living a fulfilled worthwhile life by making different choices to me. Maybe you have other passions in life? Maybe you have your dream job and you want to dedicate as much of your free time as possible to getting ahead. I hope you are able to balance it all and feel content and happy overall.

      It’s just a shame that if you have any success I probably won’t ever be working alongside you because I don’t have that option now I made the choice to have two kids before my eggs dried up like they told me on the news. But if I was working alongside you I can promise you that I am one of the most dedicated, hard-working people who will stay late or take work home to make sure the job gets done. And if, as my colleague, something happened in your personal life (say someone close to you passed away) I would be the person there supporting you, making sure I picked up the slack at work so you didn’t need to worry and telling you to take the time you needed to get yourself back on track. It wouldn’t be my problem that you chose to care about someone outside of work enough that their death might upset you and distract you from your duties but I would try to empathise! I get it that everyone has a personal life and sometimes we all need to remember we’re human and sometimes people need support and understanding, whilst balancing that with getting things done.

      Sorry for the rant, it is not until I faced indirect and direct discrimination after going back to work following the birth of my first child that I realised how there is still a hell of a fight on for women to get equality in the UK workplace!

  2. I feel so mad about this. I have such limited options because childcare is so expensive. I have to work in order to pay off student loans and bills. Add in childcare costs, and I break even every month. I would much rather be home with my little ones or be able to work part-time, but it wouldn’t work financially. So stupid. I love the idea of universal childcare.

  3. AMEN!!! I am older which means my children are now adults with their own children. I came of age in the Mad Men era. For me, this ended up being a better time for having children. Employers looked at you as a person. If they knew you as being extremely competent, they worked with your schedule and had your back if someone complained about my staying home for a sick child. Child care was not so expensive. When I had the babies, I was allowed to stay home collecting unemployment until I was ready to return even past 6 months. Now everyone is treated like a number. Younger employees only get 6 weeks off which sometimes is not enough. Child care is so expensive if you can get it. I have this thing that all the Christian conservatives should make sure their churches offer child care on a sliding scale instead of yelling at peoples for their personal choices.

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