The latest ‘discourse’ around motherhood sure sounds familiar. American women, we’re told, are “leaning out,” not having enough children, and not having them early enough in their lives. Oh and child care? It’s not good for kids so one parent should definitely stay home. (I’m sure you can guess which parent they mean.)
It’s frustrating to be 42 years-old and see the same conversations happen over and over again with few signs of progress. It’s especially infuriating when it’s clear why these issues are re-emerging: Since the pandemic started, 2.5 million women have left the workforce, and sexist culture is putting a rosy stay-at-home sheen on a shit-show.
This is a national emergency, one that will roll back women’s gains in the public sphere by decades—and the response has somehow become about how moms want to be home with their kids anyway. A record number of women have been pushed out of their careers, perhaps irrevocably, but we’re meant to believe that women are fine. Relieved, even. It’s obscene.
There’s been no comprehensive look at how fathers failed to step up, even when their wives’ jobs were on the line; nor has mainstream media really grappled with how much of a ‘choice’ it is to stay home when your partner won’t do child care or your kids’ school is closed.
Instead, we’re stuck talking—again—about the supposed benefits of women leaving work. Now, not everyone loves their job. But why, then, isn’t the conversation about making workplaces better rather than women just abandoning them? (Also if your job is underpaid and thankless, I have some news for you about motherhood.)
Most importantly: If staying at home with children is so important and rewarding, why don’t men do it? We all know the answer.
The truth is that leaving the workforce hurts women. Stay-at-home moms are more likely to be depressed, isolated, and economically vulnerable. And instead of offering financial and systemic support to these mothers, mainstream culture tells them that they should feel fulfilled and fortunate to do “the most important job in the world.” This ensures that women who don’t feel particularly lucky to be working 24/7 changing diapers and wiping noses are often too ashamed to say anything about it.
Pushing women to stay home doesn’t just hurt those who leave work. Women who remain in their jobs are also harmed by attitudinal shifts that say families are better off with traditional structures. Men with stay-at-home wives are more likely to have negative views of women who work, for example; and we’re already seeing that younger and supposedly ‘progressive’ men have increasingly regressive beliefs about women’s role at home.
I’m also quite over the idea that it’s just fine if women are erased from public life. I don’t want to live in a country where women’s voices aren’t fully represented in every industry—whether it’s government, media, banks, schools or movie studios. When women aren’t in the room we end up with a world built for men.
So let’s be clear: Women aren’t leaving the workforce because they want to. They’re leaving because America has put women, mothers especially, in an impossible situation. They’re leaving because their male partners didn’t do their fair share.
And despite the culture’s best effort to slickly reimagine this moment as one born of women’s ‘choices’, the truth is far simpler: American women are being gaslit. Being pushed out of our careers is not a good thing, and it is absolutely possible to be a happy working parent, even now. How do I know that parents can ‘have it all’? That it’s actually completely feasible to work and take care of children without giving up your career goals or life ambitions?
Because men do it all the time.
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This reminds me of your medium piece that really reframed the way I think about childcare: https://gen.medium.com/kids-dont-damage-women-s-careers-men-do-eb07cba689b8
It’s unfortunate most of the comments on it were dumb or delusional.
Patriarchy is so insidious. I’ve always thought it was unfortunate that women had to take time off for pregnancy and postnatal care, but never considered how partners could make up for it by taking over more of the childcare later on. From the beginning paltry maternity leave and nonexistent paternity leave set imbalance the scales even more, so the man’s career is more established and mothers become the expert on the children, and from there on out it’s easy to maintain the status quo, even when lives are upended in a pandemic.
There are structural issues. It would be hard for men to take time off or scale back to take a greater role as a parent, but that’s why it needs to be fought for.
I have an egalitarian-minded husband. Unfortunately, senior management at his workplace can't wrap their heads around the concept of a dual-career, two-parent household. Early in the pandemic, they simply did not comprehend our reality: a kindergartner suddenly attending school virtually while both parents attempted to work from home. ‘’What, isn’t it just like homeschooling?” No. And homeschooling wasn’t something we chose.
*My* workplace did NOT handle things much better in early pandemic times. Our chief executive, who is the parent of grown children, sent out an email in which she said that children should just be kept quiet with coloring books while you worked. Which would be laughable had it not been infuriating and unrealistic. Ultimately I did have to use some leave under the CARES act, since neither school nor after-school care were options. I took a paycheck hit for it, too. So, yes, this has laid bare the inequities and I'm feeling pretty raw about it. “Having it all” is an impossible lie if the support isn’t there.