Biology in the News Explained

Torn: The “Conflict of Modern Motherhood” is all about guilt

A common theme running through many of the 47 essays in “Torn: True Stories of Kids, Career & the Conflict of Modern Motherhood” (edited by Samantha Parent Walravens; Coffetown Press, 2011) is guilt (disclaimer: I am one of the authors who wrote for this book). This conflict that women are experiencing has largely been brought about by guilt. Where does it come from?TORN: True Stories of Kids, Career & the Conflict of Modern Motherhood

Alexander Bradner, in her essay “Muthering Heights,” makes a telling point:

Unlike our mothers, we grew up fully powerful in classroom environments that acknowledged and even celebrated our achievements…So no wonder we can’t adjust to our midlife mediocrity…

We were “given” the first-class educations and training, making us feel guilty if we don’t use them to their fullest. But then we encounter the rude awakening from the infinite promise of youth that simply empowering women to succeed in high-powered careers doesn’t change society’s assumptions about more important ways we could be spending our time. We find out that equality is still a myth, because expectations about gender roles in families really haven’t changed all that much. This is the source of our guilt when we are working.

When it comes to today’s mothers who have the option of working or being supported by a spouse, there also tends to be a “grass is always greener” phenomenon working in opposition to the guilt. Barbara G.S. Hagerty, in “Motherwriter,” states: “From time to time I fantasized about what my life would be like if I did not have the responsibilities and encumbrances of a family….” but when the opportunity arises to have this fantasy fulfilled at an artistic retreat, “…I missed my family. I had underestimated the ballast that they were in my life.” It seems as though if it were easier for these white-collar women to get part-time work, the guilt and the envy might largely disappear (more about this later).

But it is a white-collar problem, isn’t it? Deeply involved in our own worlds, we often fail to acknowledge the wage-earning women who don’t have the luxury to make a “choice” about work and kids, who are just trying to stay afloat. A comment to that effect made by Lindsey Mead (“A Foot in Two Worlds”) at a Harvard Business School alumnae gathering went over by a lead balloon, but although she didn’t have children when she made it, she does now, and admirably stands by her assertion that “having both a career and a family that you adore is one of the world’s great problems.” We should not fail to remember that as frustrating as it can be to want to do a great job both at home and at work, those of us able to strive for both are quite lucky indeed.

I was also glad to see at least one author, Amy Hudock (“Starting Over”) take the same position I do on the disingenuous but now common use of the word “choice” to describe my generation’s phenomenon of so many smart, educated women giving up their careers to stay home with the kids, without a fight. Her choice consisted of her academic employer (UC Berkeley) telling her that the only way she could keep her job after getting pregnant would to drive across the country alone with a weeks-old newborn in winter. Some “choice.” She resigned from a full-time, tenure-track position which is difficult enough to get in the first place, and nearly impossible to reclaim after time off. Her reward was ending up divorced with her career up in smoke. She leaves us with a warning:

Once I thought that U.S. feminism emphasized individual economic independence too much as a reflection of our money-focused community; I was wrong. We cannot emphasize it enough…I should have known that opting out is not a real option; it is financial suicide. And I should have known better than to put the noose around my own neck and call it a choice.

Where are the husbands of these stressed women? Karen Sibert, an anesthesiologist married to another anesthesiologist writes of hers, “It’s lucky that he can cook.” It would seem unnecessary to make such a statement unless one is still dogged by the assumption that the default cook in the family is the mother, even when both mother and father have equally challenging careers. But it’s not that Sibert doesn’t intellectually get this. Further in her essay, she writes,

Over time I have come to terms with what men have known all along: you can’t be a CEO or the president of the United States or even a hardworking wage-earner and still make it to all the soccer games… (emphasis added)

But “coming to terms” is not at all the same as being comfortable with it to the point of assumption. Sibert still believes her role in the family is at least partly defined by her gender.

How do we get past this assumption? Unfortunately it is reinforced by books like this telling us that balancing work and family is a woman’s problem, not everyone’s problem. This isn’t the fault of the authors; whether we like it or not, it is because of the current state of our society (or at least the more educated and privileged in our society) that we call this a women’s problem, and “Torn” speaks to the experiences that women are currently having.

Right now, framing this as a women’s issue is more likely to find this book an audience. But I was mightily glad to read in Windi Padia’s essay, “When I Sneeze, I Pee a Little”:

My husband struggles with this multiple identity question too. He is a working father. I do not mean that he is a father and he works; I mean that he is a man who juggles work and family just as much as I do, if not more.

This is good to see, because the work-family problem is essentially unsolvable until the husbands/fathers are made equal parts of the equation we are trying to balance. Tara Bishop’s experience (“Dr. Mom”) is much closer to the norm:

There wasn’t even a debate over who should stay home. My husband made more money than me in his finance job, loved going to work and never felt guilty leaving our son.

One wonders: if Dr. Bishop had made more money, would there have been no debate? Maybe she should ask Amy Schneider (“Are You Fat, or Just Pregnant?”), who lived for her career until, she writes, “[m]y husband and I decided together that I would quit and stay home. Giving up the money (more than half our family income) was hard. Giving up the label and the prestige was harder.”

The power of Dr. Bishop’s open admission of their unequal assumptions about who should be home (translated to that simple word again, “guilt”) should make us all stop and think. This is not to say that her family made the wrong decision for them; but it is to say that no actual decision was ever made. When push comes to shove, it is nearly always the woman who drops out of a career to be at home with kids. It’s simply the default position, and it takes considerable activation energy to overcome that default.

Until we can easily imagine a book on the same topic written by men, and being successful, we will still be missing the necessary tools for families to manage work and family in a satisfactory way. The only way to move forward on this issue is for men to be equal partners in these decisions, and there are several impediments to this. First and foremost are American society’s expectations of men, which are now considerably more constrained than its expectations of women. Women can acceptably wear any clothes they want, whether those clothes are considered masculine or feminine. Men can’t. Women who quit jobs (especially crappy jobs) to stay at home with kids are greeted with approval by most people. Men who do this are not; many men stay in crappy jobs, unhappy, but meeting society’s expectations that they be their family’s primary breadwinner. Until men start considering and making their own “choices”, nothing will change because the playing field is not level.

And there is one change, above all, which could make white-collar families really reassess how they want to divvy up their tasks: Universal health coverage. One topic that was touched on only in passing if at all in “Torn” was the necessity that someone in every family has a full-time job, in order to have access to health care. There are likely a lot more couples than many people believe in which both partners would be happy with a part-time job, so that they could spend a reasonable time with the kids, but not be burned out with carrying the full burden of childcare, at the same time they spend a reasonable amount of time doing work that they enjoy, without getting burned out by the pressure of having to work 60-80 hours a week to keep their job. Why, why why does our division of labor have to be all one or the other, creating this conflict and marital stress? Because of employer-sponsored health insurance, that’s why. We may have started down a road away from this illogical and inefficient system; let’s hope we continue down it without looking back.


2 Responses to “Torn: The “Conflict of Modern Motherhood” is all about guilt”

  1. margaret says:

    I loved reading Torn. It really reflects the struggles modern women face. I thought your essay was especially moving. As the mother of a chronically ill and disabled child, I am sort of on the opposite side of the mirror, but like you I have found that focusing on the gift of life puts a lot of this into perspective.

  2. biotunes says:

    Thank you, Margaret. I have no doubt that what you are going through is orders of magnitude worse than anything I experienced, but I’m glad you enjoyed the book. Good luck, and hang in there.

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