Why Do Working Mothers Feel Bad About Themselves?

A full 42 percent of Americans believe maternal employment has been detrimental to American society. Only 20 percent of us think this is a positive development for our civilization. These are results from a new Pew survey of and about working mothers. Pew finds working moms give themselves lower marks on parenting and express a desire to cut back on hours. But the survey doesn’t ask women how they’d like to see our politics and businesses change to make their lives easier (not to mention ask what they’d like to see men doing to help). That’s why I’m skeptical of Ross Douthat‘s reading of Barack Obama‘s work-family balance proposals as more "market friendly" than "family friendly." It’s possible that given a different set of social and economic realities that make working come less into conflict with parenting, working moms would feel very good about their choices.

Here are steps I think would help mothers feel less conflicted about work:

1. If married and partnered men did their full 50 percent share of domestic labor, so tidying up and picking up at school and making doctor’s appointments and cooking dinner and doing the laundry and calling the plumber and meeting with the teacher and getting the groceries felt less like a full-time job for one family member.

2. If work schedules were flexibile across the board.

3. If our government provided high quality child care and health care, so parenting became less about massaging an uncooperative system into providing services for one’s child.

4. If active fatherhood became valued and expected so that even when a man is no longer romantically-involved with his child’s mother, he remains a caretaker. Yes, I realize this is a pipe dream. Currently, 80 percent of children live with their mother after divorce. Sixty percent of children of divorce have little or no contact with their dads. More than one-fifth of divorced kids haven’t seen their dads in the last five years.

For more on public opinion about maternal work, check out Judith Stadtman Tucker‘s article at TAP. Tucker, the founder of the wonderful Mother’s Movement Online, writes:

The Ozzie-and-Harriet model of marriage and family life — full-time breadwinner dad and full-time homemaker mom — is rotten for women who want economic independence and a larger kind of life. …

The "great for men" aspect of the stay-at-home mom equation is what makes critics fume — and rightfully so. But for those who suggest that at-home mothers are responsible for prolonging the gendered division of social power, the Pew survey offers a timely reality check. What mothers do — and what mothers want — appears to have a limited impact on public values and societal norms. At the very least, the two-fold increase in maternal employment over the last 30 years has yet to result in a dramatic reversal of cultural attitudes that safeguard male privilege in the public and private sphere.


3 thoughts on “Why Do Working Mothers Feel Bad About Themselves?

  1. Thud

    Item #4 about active fatherhood is pretty important. I know I felt shut out or ignored during most meetings with midwives and even during delivery. And after the child was delivered — this was two weeks ago, not twenty years ago — most of the education for baby care was directed at my wife. I had to express a very active interest to get included in the conversation. I think it’s assumed fathers aren’t going to be involved so they don’t get much in the way of positive encouragement.

  2. Klein's tiny left nut

    I suggest starting with the premise that you never marry or have a child with a man who you don’t think will do his fair share. If he can’t pick up after himself or still has mommy doing his laundry when he is 21, run away, run away fast.

    Having said that, I think women are sometimes complicit in this problem in two ways. First, many undervalue their own careers, dreams, etc. and subordinate them to those of their spouses and children. I have been shocked at the number of well educated, well credentialed women that I know who have really put their careers on the back burner without any push back. Second, the social phenomenon of the so-called “Mommy wars.” The degree to which this undermines women’s sense of themselves is I think profound.

    Ultimately, the problems here are sympomatic of broader issues arising out of society in which principles of solidarity have almost ceased to exist. We view these issues as individual problems to be coped with, rather than things that should be front and center in the political process. Paid maternity/paternity leave, child allowances, subsidized day care, flexible work schedules, and guaranteed health insurance — all of these are missing from the landscape and so we jury rig family lives in a way that leaves parents frequently exhausted and insecure.

    This is actually what resonates most with me about the film Sicko. Although it focuses on health care, it is really a broader critique of society contrasted against other countries where notions of solidarity help create a life that is far more accomodating to the needs of an average person.

    We need a politics that deals with these issues meaningfully.

  3. Bob from Home Business for Moms

    I believe if moms want a home-based career to be home with the kids, that’s what they should be able to do. If they want an office career, THAT’s what they should do. The world we live in today is made up of choice. You can be and do whatever you want – no matter your gender.


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