Blindsided by work
Should we talk to girls about career planning for motherhood?
It might be helpful to have the heads up that some careers offer a better work-life balance for working mothers than others.
I took my eldest daughter to open her first bank account. The woman who helped process the application had a kind of deer-caught-in-headlights look, and soon after we sat down she said, “Please bear with me; this is only my second day back from my maternity leave and some things have changed while I was away.” Her disorientation was so familiar to me: each time I returned to work I found things had changed — a new software platform, a new name for the department, a new course textbook …. Of course, the thing that had changed most was how I felt about being at work. After a year of being attached, often literally, to my baby, to be away felt so strange. I was annoyed, because work seemed so trivial next to the needs and delights of my baby, who couldn’t understand why I was abandoning him. Perhaps most of all, I felt adrift, not only from my baby but from the person I was before I gave birth, and the person I was supposed to be at work.
I asked the woman if she had any help and she shook her head: “My parents and my inlaws are all out of town.” We sat quietly in the little office while the application was done; I wondered, not for the first time, how I should talk to my daughters about career planning for motherhood.
I don’t remember anyone ever telling me that the chances were good that I would have kids, so I should think about going into a career that would offer good pay, and flexible work hours and locations. As a college professor, I have all these things — for a mother, it’s like winning the lottery. I say “lottery” deliberately here, because it was pure, blind luck that I ended up with this job — college teaching wasn’t on my radar in the slightest, but a university friend suggested I apply to teach a course, and I got hired. This eventually led to a full-time position.
We tell our daughters that they can be anything they want — that they can do anything a boy can. I understand the importance of introducing this paradigm of equality, and I certainly agree with it, but the elephant in the room is the reality that over 80 per cent of girls will become mothers, and once they do, they’ll be responsible for most of the parenting. There’s lots of research to prove this, but anyone can recognize it if they just look around: at the park, at the grocery store, in the doctor’s office, it’s still the same story … mothers do much more of the child-rearing than fathers. Can we prepare girls for this likelihood without suggesting that it’s desirable or inevitable?
For those of you shaking your heads in disagreement because you share parenting equally with your partner: good for you, I know you exist (somewhere), but you’re statistically improbable, especially if “equally” means all parenting tasks, not just the playing, reading and going out for ice cream. In her masterfully researched “Wifework,” Susan Maushart writes that women in the late nineties were doing about 80 per cent of child care — as much as in the 1960s. “The arrival of a first child,” she notes, “more than doubles a wife’s domestic load, working out to an average increase of thirty-five hours a week.” And then there’s the increase in mental work — the “remembering, planning and scheduling” — like ordering Christmas presents, organizing playmates, etc.
All of this is to say that, when headed into this statistical probability in a society that doesn’t seem to be doing much about it, it might be helpful to have the heads up that some careers offer a better work-life balance for working mothers than others. While I want each of my three daughters to have all the opportunities of my sons, I don’t want them to be blindsided (like I was) by the reality of not only their ovaries and milk ducts, but by the social structures that aren’t changing nearly enough, despite decades of “progress” in gender equality, when it comes to parenting equality. The stresses of parenting while working a traditional 9-5 job will fall more heavily on them. I want them to understand that they’ll most likely be their children’s default parent, even if they plan otherwise. Even if they are educated, successful, and in love with their husbands, after they have kids, odds are they will probably find themselves preoccupied by their undeniable attachment to their child, distractedly backing into the role that seems to be carved into our culture’s understanding of What Women Do.
Latham Hunter is a writer and professor of communications and cultural studies; her work has been published in journals, anthologies and print news for over 20 years. She blogs at The Kids’ Book Curator.