This week, in honor of International Women’s Day, the internet was full of tributes, many of them acknowledging once again the complicated role that mothers have in the modern world.
For several years now, this topic — the weaknesses and failures of the feminist dream — has been cautiously approached with humor, frustration, or determination to fix the problems. Yet these conversations are governed by the assumption that we are generally on the right track and only require some minor adjustments. The proposed solutions, therefore, appear as mere Band-Aids, not broad enough to truly resolve the issues that we face.
The main assumption that continues to drive our thinking is that achieving wealth, power, and fame is at least as important as raising our children. And our solutions continue to revolve around integrating parenting with personal ambition in a world driven by the pursuit of material rather than cultural achievement.
Anne-Marie Slaughter famously wrote about the adjustments that our society needs to make in order for women to “have it all.” That is, how to change our social norms so that working mothers will be able to attain, and, perhaps more importantly, retain, positions of power. She does not, however, address the plight of the simple mother-professional, who is not in it to climb the ranks.
As proud and as free as a working woman can be in today’s world, she is faced with countless yet-to-be-resolved challenges, particularly as a mother. These are not challenges created by ill-meaning people who wish to demean women or bar them from entering the male world, but practical challenges that arise on their own in a world that has not yet adjusted to the rapid social changes that we have imposed upon it. As young girls, full of aspirations and plans, we are told by society to reach for any career that strikes our fancy. We assume that in the 21st century, all our needs as mothers already have been accounted for. Some of us may even be so far-seeing as to choose careers with hours that are well suited for family life.
It is not, however, until we become mothers that we realize what a false sense of security we were given. Sure, we have government-mandated maternity leave, pumping accommodations, tax-cuts for child-care, and a plethora of schools for our children. But the list of the things that we have figured out pales in comparison with the list of dilemmas we must face on a daily basis: how much time can we afford to take off pre- and postpartum; what form of childcare should we choose — affordable or personalized; how we can prolong school hours to cover our workday — early drop-off, afterschool care, afterschool programming, or a very part-time babysitter. (Camps and mini-camps do not tend to cover the entirety of school vacations and days off, such as faculty professional development days, so someone must cover the rest of the days.) And since no plans are infallible, we need backups for when the babysitter is unavailable, our child is sick, and so on.
In addition to these universal problems, each mother has her own personal stresses based on her own and her children’s concrete needs.
Moving past these issues, whether a woman was lucky enough not to face them, or already has gone through the headache of figuring them out, we are met with another set of problems: balancing homemaking with work. At the end of your long and meticulously planned day, you still need to find the time and energy to cook, tidy, run errands, sit down to dinner with your family, help your children with their homework, give them attention, somehow find some time for yourself and maybe even for your husband.
On some days — and for some people, on most days — all of the above is practically impossible to accomplish; something has to go, something ends up suffering. It might be your job, your children, your home, your husband, or you, but something ends up neglected. With this neglect comes stress, and with stress on one piece of the family, trouble begins to brew for the rest. Relationships become strained. Teenage drama in this era of absentee parenting is perhaps worse off than ever before.
The worst part of it is that for many of us, after going through all this stress to get out of the house and work, the job itself is not an inspiration but a burden imposed on us by the financial needs created in a dual-earner economy, by exorbitant school tuition, by social expectations with regard to our house size, car quality, vacation destinations — or by the shaming of stay-at-home moms as lazy and subservient.
The reality is that in a continued attempt to liberate women, modern feminism has chained them with doubled responsibilities. Moreover, it has substituted our age-old, intuitive desire to care for our children with a new ideology that is devoid of inspiration.
While combatting the so-called patriarchy, feminists have taken on some of the worst traits of their most dire enemies: the cutthroat capitalists of the modern era and the haughty, not-to-be-bothered aristocrats of yore. While accusing men of obsession with wealth and empire-building, feminists have made it their goal to do the same and to do it better. In the meantime, much in the style of the European aristocracy, they will not be bothered with their own children. Recall the not-so-fictional moment in Downton Abbey when Lord Grantham refuses to have tea with his grandchildren until they are old enough to have a mature conversation. This attitude was prevalent among those who could afford nurses, governors, and governesses: young children are a nuisance to be cared for by other, less important people.
This is exactly how today’s upper and middle class societies function, only instead of taking leisurely walks, reading novels, playing the piano, singing, drawing, embroidering, overseeing the house staff, and engaging in charitable activities, women are out making money.
It is time for our society to look for new approaches to solving women’s issues. We need to start thinking outside the box to help women achieve fulfillment, both as mothers and as leaders in our society. Instead of simply throwing out the old world for the new, we must reinvent it for modern times, looking for solutions that will build on the best of tomorrow and yesterday.
One modest proposal would be that instead of borrowing the aristocrats’ shirking of responsibilities for young children, we learn from their highly personalized approach to education. Upper-class children were taught in the home by tutors or even by the parents themselves (cf. Dolly in Anna Karenina or the mothers in Madame de Segur’s Sophie series). Aristocratic women, as “tethered” as they may have been to the home, had an education far superior to that of today’s girls. Their skills in languages, literature, music, history, and art surpassed today’s students by an enormous degree.
If we reprioritize intellectual ambitions over financial ones, we can dramatically reduce the tension between motherhood and accomplishment. This will mean different things for different women. One basic model that is already growing across America is home/group schooling, with the current number of homeschoolers rising over 1.6 million. The beauty of this model is its incredible versatility and ability to meet virtually any parent’s and child’s needs. Still, there are other solutions that we can seek, other goals to attain, and the conversation must continue for us to break out of the self-imposed mold: at home — bad, workplace — good.