Working? Mothering? Conflicted?

It's everywhere.

Who Am I?

When I had a three-year-old and a seven-month-old, I loved my children passionately, and I was also very unhappy. This made me guilty. What did f have to be unhappy about? I had two healthy, beautiful sons; a husband who sometimes got on my nerves but whom I loved; a house that was often dirty but had a lot of potential; an interesting, albeit badly paid teaching job; several hours a week to write; and enough money at least for the time being. So what in the world was wrong? …hardest for me as a wife and mother was—maintaining a sense of myself as an individual; work ambitions vs. desire to be a focused uber-mom; negotiating pregnancy advice literature and birth options without resorting to crippling self-blame; barbed negotiations over housework and childcare with my husband; judgmentalism at baby-and-me classes and preschool potlucks; and realizing I didn’t have to radically alter my personality for my children’s sake.”

from Dispatches From a Not-So-Perfect Life, or How I Learned to Love the House, the Matt, the Child, by Faulkner Fox (Harmony Books)

Is Motherhood Ridiculous?

It seems that on a cultural level, the image of a woman who takes care of her children is not unlike the old psychoanalytic image of the “castrated” woman. Once upon a time, Freud suggested that women’s penis envy was psychological bedrock; that it was women’s fundamental condition to perceive themselves as lacking. The psychoanalyst Karen Horney pointed out that women did not simply envy an ostensible anatomical advantage; they envied men’s participation in the public domain. Today, women participate in the public domain, and the perception of lack once ascribed to women in general has been shifted to the figure of the caregiving mother….

In light of this cultural image, it is not surprising that some women contemplating motherhood fear that their agency, power, prestige, and their very identities are at stake…. Though feminist activism has helped secure for women the public power previously denied them, it has done little to challenge the assumption that women who spend their time caring for children are powerless, un-self-actualized, and at the margins of cultural life.”

from Maternal Desire: On Children, Love, and the Inner Life, by Daphne De Marneffe (Little, Brown)

Is Motherhood Sublime?

We are both mothers, and we adore our kids….But like increasing numbers of women, we are fed up with the myth— shamelessly hawked by the media—that motherhood is eternally fulfilling and rewarding, that it is always- the best and most important thing you do, that there is only a narrowly prescribed way to do it right….

The new momism has evolved over the past few decades, becoming more hostile to mothers who work and more insistent that all mothers become ever more closely tethered to their kids. The mythology of the new momism now insinuates that, when all is said and done, the enlightened mother chooses to stay home with the kids. Back in the 1950s, mothers stayed home because they had no choice, so the thinking goes…. Today, having been to the office, having tried a career, women supposedly have seen the inside of the male working world and found it to be the inferior choice to saying home….In other words ladies, the new momism seeks to contain and, where possible, eradicate all of the social changes brought on by feminism. It is backlash in its most refined, pernicious form because it insinuates itself into women’s psyches just where we have been rendered most vulnerable: in our love for our kids.

from The Mommy Myth: The Idealization of Motherhood and How It has Undermined Women, by Susan J. Douglas and Meredith W. Michaels (Free Press)

Be All You Can Be

Strong, ambitious, highly competent women—the very ones for whom the Feminist Movement opened the doors to power and success—find themselves at a difficult crossroads today, a time when one major need, desire, biological urge (to love, to nurture, to have children, to be the good mothers our own mothers were, or weren’t) is in direct conflict with another: that of not only contributing a necessary share of the family income, but of fulfilling the intellectual and professional ambitions for which we’ve been groomed and primed, often for our entire young lives.

from The Bitch in the House: 26 Women Tell the Truth About Sex, Solitude, Work, Motherhood, and Marriage, edited by Cathi Hanauer (Perennial Books)

Reversal of Fortune

Then, 15 years ago, it all seemed so doable. Bring home the bacon, fry it up in a pan, split the second shift with some sensitive New Age man. But slowly the snappy, upbeat work-life rhythm has changed for women in high-powered posts….For dual-career couples with kids under 18, the combined work hours have grown from 81 a week in 1977 to 91 in 2002, according to the Families and Work Institute…. Meanwhile, the pace has quickened on the home front, where a mother’s job has expanded to include managing a packed schedule of child enhancement activities….

In the professional and managerial classes, where higher incomes permit more choices, a reluctant revolt is under way. Today’s women execs are less willing to play the juggler’s game, especially in its current high-speed mode, and more willing to sacrifice paychecks and prestige for time with their family…. Their mantra: You can have it all, just not all at the same time.

…Census data reveal an uptick in stay-at-home moms who hold graduate or professional degrees—the very women who seemed destined to blast through the glass ceiling. Now 22% of them are home with their kids. A study by Catalyst found that 1 in 3 women with M.B.A.s are not working full-time (it’s 1 in 20 for their male peers).

from “The Case for Staying Home: More Women Are Sticking With the Kids,” by Claudia Wallis, Time Magazine, March 22, 2004

A Different Desire

Arguably, the barriers of 40 years ago arc down. Fifty percent of the undergraduate class of 2003 at Yale was female; this year’s graduating class at Berkeley Law School was 63 percent women; Harvard was 46 percent; Columbia was 51. Nearly 47 percent of medical students are women, as are 50 percent of undergraduate business majors (though, interestingly, about 30percent of M.B.A. candidates). They are recruited by top firms in all fields. They start strong out of the gate.

And then, suddenly, they stop. Despite all those women graduating from law school, they comprise only 16 percent of partners in law firms. Although men and women enter corporate training programs in equal numbers, just 16 percent of corporate officers are women, and only eight companies in the Fortune 500 have female C.E.O.’s. Of 435 members of the House of Representatives, 62 are women; there are 14 women in the 100-member Senate.

Measured against the way things once were, this is certainly progress. But measured against the way things were expected to be, this is a revolution stalled. As these [professional] women look up at the “top,” they are increasingly deciding that they don’t want to do what it takes to get there. Women today have the equal right to make the same bargain that men have made for centuries—to take time from their family in pursuit of success. Instead, women are redefining success. And in doing so, they are redefining work.

from “The Opt-Out Revolution,” by Lisa Belkin, New York Times Magazine, October 26, 2003

Trying to Work Again

“Taking time off for family reasons has been a compelling option for women who can afford it. Many mothers say the benefits, especially time spent with their young children, are invaluable. Reversing a nearly 30-year trend, the percentage of mothers in the work force with a child younger than one-year-old dropped to 55% in 2002 from 59% in 1998, according to the Census Bureau.

But many women ultimately want or need to resume their careers. A recent poll of nearly 500 highly educated women who left their jobs mainly for family reasons found 66% wanted to return to work, according to the Center for Work-Life Policy, a New York nonprofit.

… A few companies try to maintain ties with employees who leave for family reasons….Consulting firm Booz Allen Hamilton offers former female employees small-scale contract work, such as proposal writing, idea development and working with clients, which can be done from home. Deloitte & Louche LLP, the accounting firm, is planning to launch a “Personal Pursuits” program this year, which will allow employees to take unpaid leave for as long as five years. The firm will run training sessions for those on leave and assign them mentors to stay in touch with them. The company says it hopes to cut down on turnover costs by rehiring people after their leaves.

Catherine King,…one-time Wall Streeter, stayed home after she had her second child “There’s a part of every woman who has had what it takes to succeed on Wall Street that yearns for that type of overachieving applause that you got, and that motherhood does not allow you to have. There’s just no applause,” she says. “And I miss that.”

from “Second Chances: After Years Off, Women Struggle To Revive Careers,” by Anne Marie Chaker and Hilary Stout, Wall Street Journal. May 6, 2004