One of the two toughest life lessons I ever learned was that motherhood, as a role, is not easily delegated. The other was that bias is at work everywhere, be it class, race, sex or economic situation. It’s hard to admit, but as a young, smart, educated white woman who had doors opened easily due to being young, smart, and educated—I didn’t fully appreciate how those two things would define my career path. Awareness is good, but experience teaches.
It makes me angry that these lessons have to be re-learned over and over again by women today. It brings me back to my days of trying to pull together a child care plan while in grad school, and all through my early career climb. And, when I had a second child within fifteen months of the first, my challenge was compounded. Fortunately, the second baby came during a year abroad for my spouse’s sabbatical so my new career was just delayed as opposed to interrupted. Back then, I was worried about a job search on the cusp of a year away—fearing the bias against me as a woman— choosing my husband’s career over my own.
Was that fear warranted? Hard to know. But, I do know that in those earlier days of gunning for the executive suite, choosing a woman for that career track came with a calculus that was influenced by implicit bias. Family life may be a neutral factor when evaluating a potential hire of both sexes, but “child-bearing” is a differentiating factor. Case in point—during polite chit chat before one formal interview, I was asked how many children I intended to have. It’s not likely a question asked today, but clearly the “motherhood issue” lingers for every young woman starting out— in the hiring manager’s mind— as well as her own.
It makes that early career launch so complicated! Women shouldn’t be obligated to have their romantic and biologic lives sorted before they can commit to a pathway. Unfair!
How is it that this country still has such a woefully deficient child care system? It’s plain to me that an affordable high quality child care system would be an economic boon for the country, as well as quell the angst for every working mother that has to address this very basic issue.
It saddens me that I could have written the above decades ago. Are we finally at a pivot point?
The pandemic has clearly challenged the patchwork of support this country has provided for working mothers. My heart aches when I think of choices women have had to make regarding whether they stay in the workforce during a pandemic if they don’t have a safe child care solution to turn to—or they are so burned out trying to do it all that their mental health is stretched to the limit.
The past eighteen months stressed every one of us in a variety of ways. But for moms it was nearly impossible to navigate the twists and turns. I want to shout out to working mothers today—I commend you, I empathize with you, I am angry on your behalf, and I hope for change. As new hybrid models of work life are considered, I see a glimmer of hope for more flexibility for working mothers. It’s a start.
By Maren Cooper
Maren’s novel A Better Next, 5/28/19, highlights the struggles of women who choose family and career and juggle it all. This piece appeared in July 2021 in her blog post on www.marencooper.com.