Image by photostock, published on 19 June 2011
A former President of Mothers & More, activist, community organizer and inspired woman-leader extraordinaire recently posted a Mother’s Day question to one of our online discussion loops prompting me to write the essay below.
She asked mothers: Torn and self-critical. Sure of herself one minute, insecure the next. Does it never end?
Honor thy self mother, and insist.
No, it never ends.
Humans outside sci fi movies can’t be split into the pieces and parts we need to blend ambition and nurturing without one part feeling the absence of the other. But we can feel the absensce less when we have help from fathers and from businesses who insist on family-friendly workplaces.
As a mother of a teen girl and because both my husband and I work at home I’m long out of the loop on many of the issues that affect new mothers today. So, I sometimes ask my first time mom friends if they still feel the pressures, the guilt, the weight of the “other’s” judgment?
Yes, whispers one who tells me she’s going to stop breastfeeding soon but not to tell “the others.”
The others, what do they know of you?
I remember the others and what they thought of my choices: one child, two concurrent preschools, babysitters for date night, and confessions that I hated mothering a screaming child who wouldn’t go to bed, but that I never hated my child.
I told the others about my post-partum depression hell and while some seemed to understand the others looked uncomfortably away. I was too close to a truth they didn’t want to feel or too far away from a truth they didn’t want to see. I’m not the others; they’re not me. And yet, we’re exactly the same.
So I ask you, what has changed for mothers since I began 15 years ago?
Lean in or Lean out, unapologetically, mothers
What I sense in the collective are more high powered women giving voice to the challenges of combining caregiving and career. Mothers with the power to wield it are insisting on workplaces that don’t “accommodate parents” but adequately include them. And with these visible voices, mothers at home and at work are insisting on what they need, and apologizing less for asking.
Facebook CEO Sheryl Sandberg and stay-at-home ambition-on-hold for now Jen Kuhle represent the span of mothers’ voices today. Each is leaning in or out of the workforce according to the soulful pull of who they are, rather than the societal expectation of who they’re supposed to be. (Thank you, Sheryl Sandberg)
And this, like it or not, is the beauty of choice feminism.
My step mother, who never had her own children, quietly mirrors Sandberg’s concern that the high powered female talent pool is shrinking because too many women are leaving the workforce to be at home with their kids. In their wake Sandberg warns, women are creating an enormous gap of influence and worse, potential influence.
Years back when my step-mom was working in a high-powered financial field she witnessed more than one highly-trained talented employee leave for maternity leave with a promise to return. The company held the employee’s position only to have her change her mind months later and quit.
I can’t spite my step mother for feeling bitter about broken corporate promises given what companies invest in talented employees but neither can I rely on judgment in matters of the heart from someone who hasn’t experienced it. Parenting isn’t a spreadsheet of calculated risk ratios, it’s messy and unpredictable and that I’m sure, will never change.
So I told her that Linda Hirshman, the very Hirshman my step mom thinks has a valid point in telling women to get back to work is unjustly critical to mothers who opt out by choice or otherwise. Hirshman sounds one-sided and dogmatic in how she believes a woman’s ambition should progress, deaf to the challenges mothers face who “opt” out due to the cost of working (childcare, lost benefits with part-time work, transporation, drycleaning, etc.).
“Hirshman brushes by the difference between collective and individual choice,” writes Slate
editor Emily Bazelon in a piece about Betty Friedan, her aunt, and author of the groundbreaking book The Feminine Mystique,
“perhaps because she’s oddly tuned out from her audience.” (Understanding Betty Friedan, Why Linda Hirshman Does Not)
Linda Hirshman is no Betty Friedan
Hirshman’s critical tone, Bazelon writes, doesn’t come close to mirroring the more empathetic Friedan. While Friedan did indeed want women to get to work, she wasn’t disdainful towards housewives. “Friedan connected vitally with readers of The Feminist Mystique by describing their lives with empathy. She was them,” writes Bazelon.
Here’s the thing, unless society ceases having children, unless the male CEO’s the male plumbers, male doctors, male toll booth workers and male members of Congress want women to stop having babies, society has no choice but to re-work the business model, to factor in the inevitable life cyle of (most) employees.
But they won’t unless women insist.
Most employees become parents. Most employees become caregivers for children or their own parents.
And so, caregivers aren’t a special interest group in society, we are society.
My step mother paused for moment ready to argue my point and then she agreed. As a longtime attentive and loving caregiver for my father before he died, there’s a part of her that knows a truth that trancends or perhaps is at the core of feminist ideals today:
Careers and caregiving don’t move in straight lines, but the options should.
Motherhood manifesto: tell new generations of mothers
Yesterday my daughter wrote in her very late, but finally finished Mother’s Day card why she’s proud of me, including that she loved that I was “empowered.”
It’s a word I want her to feel beyond the sentiment it evokes. I want my daughter to have a career and to earn her own living because autonomy is life-sustaining and still the most powerful currency in society. And when or if she decides to have children and when or if she decides to stay at home or work outside the home I ask that does so unapologetically.
While I want Mother’s Day to always hold tight to the annual gush of sentiment we moms love to breathe in I’d ask that the sentiment not remain our fuel and labor agreement for the other 364 days. I ask that we laugh at the absurdity of Hallmark perfectionism and not hide our individual truth inside the pedestal we’re placed.
Our frustration with the hardest parts of motherhood the fatigue, the hours, the screaming, the mess, the abandonned or compromised career, the drooping body parts don’t reflect how we we feel about our child, so we shouldn’t shame mothers into believing honest emotion is the equivalent of bad parenting.
I used to tell my daughter that when she was little I’d have sold the toddler version of her to the gypsies for a dollar but that she was so cute I stuck it out until she hit five and was by then, too priceless to sell. She laughs and understands. And when she’s old enough I’ll tell her about my post-partum depression and she’ll know right away, none of it was about her.
I want my daughter to know that this kind of truth, the airing out of our experiences kind, is for healing; it’s so we don’t hole up and fester and hide and swallow our identity for the sake of creating a false one. Our truth might make the others uncomfortable I tell her, but only because it likely reflects theirs.
And so I say to mothers, breastfeed or not, work or not (if you’re lucky enough to have the choice) and lean into the faith of the unseen, your grown child, and know she will thrive because of and despite you. She’ll thrive because she was fed and loved and nurtured and attended to by parents who like each other well-enough, by parents who laugh and are healthy and vibrant and by and large joyful.
Tell new generations of mothers to insist on what it is they need.
Tell mothers to lift their online activist voices and always, their individual ones. Tell them that honesty is freeing and so to scream their truth and to stop whispering their shame. Tell them without condescension but with absolute unflinching authority, that shame and martyrdom and competitive parenting will kill their spirit faster than they can replace it.
Tell them that the two hour baked cookies and the mom at home twenty hours more a week than the mom with a loving nanny or warm childcare worker watching her precious ones won’t make a lick of difference to what her children sense of their life growing up. Tell her the kids will remember being loved by a mother who was happy because she insisted on help, because she insisted on staying at home or pursuing a career not because the world said she should, because said she deserved the choice.
I believe that mothers should tell the truth, even – no, especially – when the truth is difficult. It’s always easier, and in the short term can even feel right, to pretend everything is okay, and to encourage your children to do the same. But concealment leads to shame, and of all hurts shame is the most painful. Ayelet Waldman
So, mothers I ask:
Are moms less judgmental of each other?
Are the ramps to move in and out of the workplace more accessible today?
Should women who can leave the workforce, leave indefinately if that is where their heart calls them?
Are we seeing fathers and businesses increasingly share the care?