Motherhood is Madness Strategy 1: Admit it

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


Strategy 1: Admit that motherhood is madness     


 “While many women today feel more liberated, society now demands that they become superwomen—that they find the inner resources as well as the time and energy to do everything perfectly. And this pressure is not just on women who have paying jobs or professions, but on homemakers as well.” Rianne Eisler p 21

Not too long ago I complained to my close friend Jennifer that I hated doing all the “no-brain-work” around the house while my husband got to travel the world and meet interesting people. Without hesitation she shot back: “So what were you thinking when you decided to be a mother?”

I can assure you that although I had given significant thought to having a family (I was 37 when I had my first child) ,  I never envisioned myself as I am now – a seasoned lawyer with a number of  university degrees changing all the diapers, cleaning all the toilets and wondering how I got here.

Like many couples, my husband and I both have full-time careers. When we married I was practicing law Monday to Saturday from 8-6. My husband had similar hours. We cooked cleaned and scheduled activities. We shared all expenses. We have always been very clear about contributing 50/50.Then we had children and everything fell apart. We quickly realized that if we were going to avoid divorce or insanity something had to give. But what?

Research shows that many mothers feel just like me – exhausted and unhappy. Many are trying to be supermom while managing careers and families 24/7. Those with or without careers feel over-worked, unfulfilled and out of control. This is because, quite frankly they are. Women with children work like slaves in their homes for no pay and little recognition and do it to level of perfectionism that is shocking. And they do it with a smile, at least in public.

Yet the prevailing mythology that is promoted in the media and in our culture is that that domestic immersion is blissful and deeply rewarding. From magazine covers and advertisements to sitcoms, women are portrayed completely ecstatic about getting pregnant and thrilled to be playing on the floor with baby for hours on end. Even diaper changing looks easy and fun. The messages are clear: If mothers just do all these amazing things they will be both happy and fulfilled. And if they are not happy, it’s their own fault.

Indeed most people will tell you that if you that those women who chose to have children, simply brought it upon themselves. They should not be so surprised.  Others blame the feminists who convinced women that they could have their cake and eat it too, when we all know that this is simply not possible. Others think it’s time for women to go back to the way things were;  go back home and accept that motherhood is fundamentally inconsistent with holding down a paying job.

But when you look at the research, the madness of motherhood is not due to women’s choices but rather our whole society’s beliefs about what mothers should do, can do and ought to do. As a society we have adopted quite strict and narrow assumptions that tell women what they should do and be. In academic circles this bundle of assumptions and the systems we have built upon these assumptions is called “the institution of motherhood” or “momism.” Unbeknownst to women, when they marry and bear children they automatically enter our legally and culturally constructed “sticky floor” or mommy trap.

This mommy trap was the same for our mothers, and was best described in Betty Freidan’s 1966 bestseller, “The Feminine Mystique.” Like our mothers, women today across North America are still financially dependent on husbands, are told to choose between work and family and are carrying the bulk of both the childrearing and the domestic chores. Mothers are still expected to be responsible for the well-being of our children (our future generation), the upkeep of the home, the maintenance of the marriage, and the care of aging parents.

In her book “Perfect Madness” Judith Warner suggests that all moms make decisions to work or stay home out of a very “immediate and pressing sense of personal necessity” that includes money, status, ambition, the needs of children and the needs of the family as a whole. Her long list includes the following:

  • Husbands work schedules
  • Availability of quality and inexpensive child care
  • Job flexibility
  • School hours and school holidays
  • Sick children
  • Jobs that are joyless and low paying

Warner describes this beautifully: “And all of those aspects of personal necessity are part and parcel of the condition of motherhood—not external to it, not accessory to it, not a “selfish” deviation from it.”  In other words the paths of mothers are not so much “chosen” as “devolved” from the material conditions of their families and our society requires.

The bottom line. Although women, with the help of the suffragists and feminists made some legal and political strides, the fact is that mothers have barely advanced in terms of status, power or freedom.  Mothers today are pretty much in the same situation as our mothers were.  They are slaves to the home and their children and if they choose to work at a paying job, their lives become even more impossible.

Although we like to blame women for their unhappiness and their choices, research shows that when woman marry they get caught in the “sticky floor” of motherhood.  This sticky floor consists of hundreds of factors that systematically curtail women’s choices.   In essence, we constrict mother’s choices so severely that if they do choose to have a family, they suffer in ways that men simply do not.

What to do.  First of all we must be honest about the reality of motherhood.  It is a full- time- 24/7 job without many perks, supports or acknowledgement – and no pay.  We must alert women to the fact of the “sticky floor” and peel back the hundreds of factors that work together to hold women back.

We must stop blaming women for their so-called “poor choices” and understand how this  “rhetoric of  choice” hides the fact that our whole society curtails mothers’ options. As psychologist Pamela Stone says, choice rhetoric assumes that feminists have been successful and that women have wide discretion in what they do with work and family, when in reality women’s choices rarely reflect their true preferences.

“The fact that women have the intellectual capacity of rocket scientists, the biological capabilities of mothers, the learned and inherent talents of nurturers, and the socially imposed responsibilities of domestic managers, does not mean these pieces will fit neatly together at once.” (Engberg, 1999 p 53)

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