Motherhood is Madness Strategy 2: Don’t make women choose

Here is the SECOND strategy in my upcoming book. I welcome your feedback and please pass along to your friends!


“It was (and perhaps in some places still is) quite common for people to say to the women who hire a substitute to care for her children, If you didn’t want to raise them, you shouldn’t have had them.” This kind of comment has never been directed to men.” (Greenburg, 77)

I can’t tell you how many times I have been told, “You can’t have your cake and eat it too.” Although this typically means that I can’t have everything I want, or at least not at one time, for mothers today this message states very clearly: You cannot have children and a career, or at least not at the same time. It also says you should set your sights too high; you should not expect to both career and domestic happiness; and you should give up trying. This is never a message directed at men.

Throughout my entire career as a lawyer and academic, I was told in no uncertain terms that I had to choose between career and family. Often it was done in the most kind-hearted manner by well intending colleagues who wanted to save me from a tortured life. Sometimes it was spoken in a fatherly and quite patronizing way like, “Go home and look after your children”. Or “your children will grow up so fast!”  All adding to my guilt about possibly making bad or selfish choices when I simply wanted to be a whole human being.

I was told that I could either climb the corporate ladder or I could go home and look after children. In addition to this I was told that I would have to sacrifice my entire income, my career and sense of meaning and contribution to the larger world just because I wanted to spend more time with the people I love including my husband, children, relatives and friends. Wow! So much for choices.

For example, as a young lawyer I was told:

  • You cannot reduce your work hours without facing a severe career setback like loss of seniority and credibility.
  • Don’t expect the same proportionate income or upward career mobility if you choose to work part time.
  • If you want to be taken seriously as a lawyer you have to hire a full time nanny and house maker and rarely see your children.
  • You will find it almost impossible to get back into the practice of law if you leave for any length of time and will need to start at the bottom if you do return.
  • If you stop practicing law full time you will suffer big financial setbacks like loss of income, loss of seniority and loss of retirement savings.

Indeed when we make mothers to choose all or none – between children or paid work – we cause women serious harm. This is described by Leslie Bennetts in her book The Feminine Mistake as a type of psychological castration because the “choices” women face are quite simply, “unnatural.” Excessive work severs a mother from her need to be physically present in caring for her child and excessive motherhood severs a mother, not only from her ability to financially provide for her family but also from her sense of agency as a fully developing human.

Author Judith Warner suggests that asking mothers to choose one or the other, “does violence to mothers, splitting them unnaturally, within themselves” (Warner p 151)Now I realize that our society simply expects mothers to bear the full burden and cost of childrearing. We expect them to give up paid work or else keep a job but also carry the weight of children and home.  It’s not really evil, it’s just what we have come to accept as the status quo. Yet in other cultures they do not expect this of mothers.

Indeed if we truly wanted mothers to be well adjusted and happy, we would turn to the research that clearly shows, not surprisingly, that a mothers’ happiness depends on a number of factors and specifically:

As I look back, I understand better why I could get rid of the knot in my stomach that kept screaming: “It’s not fair; why should my husband get to do it all, but not me? Is it really my choice?” At the same time, I felt like I was being split in two. Like Meryl Streep in the movie, “Sophie’s Choice” who, during the Holocaust, was forced to choose between her two children, I felt like I was in a straight jacket. It took me seven years of reading and research to figure out why I felt this way and what was really going on.

Years ago I thought these comments made complete sense. I mean, if you don’t work, you don’t paid or promoted. I told myself that this is just the way things are and never thought to question this reality. I was a product of my socialisation had become convinced that the only way to earn good money was to do it in this particular way. I believed in Ayn Rand and her individualist market-economy theories. I believed that it would have been arrogant and selfish for me to ask anyone to accommodate me. Even my best friends told me things like: “It’s a tough choice, Maureen but it’s still your choice!” or worse yet, “Maybe you should just go home if you can’t stand the heat.”

  • The extent to which their husbands perform routine housework
  • The sense of control they have over their lives
  • The extent to which they feel their work is meaningful
  • The extent to which they have healthy relationships

It’s not surprising, therefore, that when a woman can chose to be either  be a lawyer, a caregiver or both a lawyer and caregiver, she will be happier. If she feels as though her ambitions are thwarted when she is caring for children, she will be unhappy.  Author Judith Warner, describes in her book “Perfect Madness” (Riverhead, 2006) not just women, but children and also husbands are better off when women have real choices.

In other words, when mothers are given the opportunity to work for pay and raise their children everyone wins. This is because there is no inherent conflict between providing for our children and nurturing them. As husbands’ experience shows, know, both are equally beneficial for children, husbands and the world.

The bottom line. We continue to tell women that they must choose between career and family. We tell them that they, not their husbands, must sacrifice their careers and income so that we can raise the next generation. How do we do this? By accepting absurd work hours, by weighing mothers down with all the domestic and social responsibilities and by failing to provide reasonably priced supports to allow mothers to work and raise e a family at the same time. In essence, we create a world, where mothers who stay home have no hope of a career and mothers who work for pay have no hope of having a family life. We are essentially asking women to sacrifice their careers and income in exchange for the production of children.

What to do. We need to stop telling women that they have to choose between career and family and stop saying things like, “you can’t have your cake and eat it too.” We must accept the reality that most women must work out of necessity and that women have both worked and raised families for centuries. We should not, however, continue to expect mothers to sacrifice their family-life for their work-life or vice versa. Asking women to make this choice, not only stunts women, but stunts families and our advancement as human beings. We must stop making mothers feel guilty no matter what they choose and should accept that it is quite normal for mothers to want both a high-paying job and a happy family, just like fathers do.

 “Women’s rights activists believe moms should have the flexibility both to do their jobs and to attend to needs at home; after all, working and raising Americas next generation are both valuable pursuits. The majority of girls (60 percent in one survey) believe they’ll need or want to take time off from a career to have children, and they should be able to easily do this without harming their career advancement.”(Dee p 118).

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