17 June 2011


Well, my hackles are up again.

On Sunday, Dr. Karen Sibert published an editorial in the New York Times in which she argued that some careers - such as the practice of medicine - require such undivided dedication that they are inappropriate for mothers, who frequently need part-time schedules.  (I am greatly oversimplifying her argument, so I encourage you to read the entire editorial here.)  Sibert claims that, for the good of society, the practice of medicine requires full-time dedication, and mothers who work part-time cannot possibly live up to that standard.

On Monday, Lisa Belkin, in an excellent entry to her New York Times "Motherlode" blog, valiantly refuted Sibert's argument.  Though I am a great admirer of Belkin - a link to her blog has been on my sidebar since Day 1 - my favorite part of the Motherlode blog post was the following comment by a reader:

Eighty percent of American women become mothers. When you discriminate against mothers you discriminate against women. Reimagining motherhood as a "choice," rather than recognizing it as the norm, is an ugly way of marginalizing women while pretending not to.

I am currently reading TORN: True Stories of Kids, Career, & The Conflict of Modern Motherhood, which is the current selection in Belkin's "Motherlode Book Club."  The book is a collection of personal essays and reflections by mothers, focusing on how they have balanced their professional lives with their families.  Some, like Sibert, work full time and acknowledge that their families have paid the price of their absence.  Some work at home, and some work outside of the home.  One young woman became a mother during her sophomore year at Dartmouth and still managed to complete her degree on time.  Every writer acknowledges that she has struggled with the "balance" issue.

As you know if you have been reading this blog for a while, I too am a working mother who struggles with this issue.  I have tried every possible permutation of work schedule, from full-time to part-time to stay-at-home, and I have ratcheted down my ambitions along the way.  I have felt, lately, that the "balance" discussion often centers around a couple of myths that our society perpetuates.  The first myth is that motherhood is a choice.  That may be true in the wealthy suburban outposts of the United States, where women decide whether and when to become sexually active and have access to high-quality health care and birth control, but for most of the women of the world, motherhood comes when it comes. Sibert, in her editorial, rests her reasoning on the motherhood-as-choice myth.  She essentially argues that all women must choose between work and motherhood, and then they need to dedicate themselves, full time, to their choice.

Which brings us to the second myth:  that full-time motherhood is a viable option for all women.  Women who make a "choice" regarding full-time motherhood must actually have the option of not working.  The option of not working.  That's the elephant in the room.  The work/home dichotomy and its accompanying debate have been raging for decades, but the word no one ever mentions is money.  It seems to me that most of the mothers in the world who work outside of the home do so not because they need to fill some abstract intellectual void in their lives, but because they need to feed, clothe, shelter, and educate their children.  There are places in the world where stay-at-home mothers receive financial support from the government, but the United States is not one of them.  All the stay-at-home mothers I know are married to men who bring home salaries sufficient to support their families singlehandedly.  But there are legions of mothers in the world who need to work outside of the home.  They have no choice.

When I went back to work three years ago, it wasn't because I missed the intellectual challenge, the fancy lunch meetings, and the fourteen-hour days of big law firm life.  It wasn't because the time I spent with my children and their friends wasn't professionally fulfilling for me.  It was because we needed health insurance.  I needed enough money to pay for the groceries and the mortgage.    I love my kids and would cherish the opportunity to raise them myself.  But the economic realities of today's world don't provide that option for most American women.  The stay-at-home suburban housewife is the exception rather than the rule.

In my own profession - a profession, I might add, which I chose and for which I was educated before I knew whether I would ever be a mother - part-time or limited schedules are frowned upon, much as, according to Dr. Sibert, they are in the medical profession.  And for the same reasons.  After my first daughter was born, my request for a part-time schedule at my law firm was summarily denied.  "We just don't have room for a part-time schedule in our litigation department," the partner told me, unapologetically.  Clients need their attorneys to be available night and day to answer questions and respond to crises.  At my firm, it was all or nothing.  I chose nothing, and took a nine-to-five government job at less than half my law firm salary.

I know many single moms who work night and day to keep their heads above water.  Sure, they'd love to go to the gym in the mornings, lunch with the other moms in the afternoons, produce fabulous crafts, decorate and redecorate their living rooms, throw creative birthday parties, and help with the math homework in the evenings.  But, as the sole wage-earners in their families, they cannot.  There are no lifestyle choices, no compromises, and no balancing acts.  It's not about self-respect, professional fulfillment, or pride.  It's about getting from one day to the next in one piece.

Mothers in the most demanding professions are still, sadly enough, an aberration.  The moment we become parents, we lose professional ground because, as Alexandra Bradner points out in one of the better essays in TORN,

Our professional worlds - replete with late nights, weekends, and the general expectation of ever-readiness - are structured on the assumption that everyone has a stay-at-home wife.  Our most demanding work - toward tenure, partner, director, or VP - occurs during the average six years we spend pregnant, breastfeeding, and chasing after toddlers.  Most of our fields have no reentry culture.

I have been through the void where my field's "reentry culture" should have been.  (See my reentry blog post here.)  I have been offered inappropriate positions at unacceptable pay, and told that the limited hours I need were a fair trade for menial work.  When I am spotted fleeing the office at 5 PM, hours before my colleagues, people shake their heads and say, "She has three kids."  And with those four words, people suddenly think they understand volumes about me, my life, my professional ambitions, and my choices.  I would counter that they actually know very little.

Lisa Belkin's thoughtful reader pointed out, very accurately, that defining motherhood as a "choice" is an insidious way of marginalizing women.  It is a way of classifying us as serious or not serious, based on the circumstances of our lives (which are often beyond our control).  Men are not judged in the same way.  A day will come, hopefully during the lifetimes of my daughters, when women who are educated and empowered in the same way as men will also be judged in the same way.  That day is not here yet, but it is on its way.

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