Resources and reporting for mothers and others who think about social change.
get active
about mmo
mmo blog

We can’t go back, but we can’t stay here

A call for a new model for working mothers

By Kristin Teigen

Perhaps we've been trying to fit a square peg into a round whole for a couple of decades now, and for most of us, it’s just too exhausting for words. Can I say that? Can I have a new revolution now?
The morning I heard the story on the radio was not much different than many others. I had just dropped my two year old off at daycare and was rushing to class. His parting words to me—“Mommy hold Joshua”—were still ringing in my ears. Neither one of us had gotten much sleep the night before, as he was struggling with his last set of molars. I hated to leave him at day care, but I had already skipped two classes to spend the day holding him, helping him through his teething. I couldn’t miss any more. My husband was helping as much as he could, but he had to be out of the house by 7:00, hopping on the freeway for his one hour commute. As for me, I hadn’t had a chance to get a shower yet, had no idea how I was going to find the time to write the paper due in a few days and was praying that the cold that had settled into my chest would eventually go away. Then, on NPR, I heard a reporter talking about a study that showed that working mothers are the most stressed out segment of our population today. No kidding.

But wait a minute. I thought things were getting better for women. Our dark days were supposed to be behind us. In the 1950s and 60s, that’s when women had it really hard. Now, the imaginings of The Feminine Mystique had come to life. The doors had flung open. The world was our stage. The feminist model, that women would leave the dreary oppression of the home for the emancipation of the workplace, was to solve everything. Our children would happily go to day care while men learned how to do the dishes. We would stretch our arms and embrace our new freedom. As I continued to drive, probably much faster than advisable, I guess I just didn’t feel emancipated.

I would like to make a very scary proposition. Maybe the model doesn’t work. Maybe the idea that somewhere, somehow, there’s a woman who is making it work, this “working and being a mother thing” is not really true. Maybe it’s not that we just need better time management strategies, or a Palm Pilot, or an aromatherapy candle, or a better job. Maybe the solution that our foremothers imagined, once implemented, just simply does not work. Perhaps we have been trying to fit a square peg into a round whole for a couple of decades now, and for most of us, it’s just too exhausting for words. Can I say that? Can I have a new revolution now?

It’s not that the feminist revolution failed. Those on the Right would like us to believe that women had it so much better “back then” and that going back into the home is the answer to our modern stress (as if being a stay-at-home mother isn’t replete with stress). Instead, I think statues should be erected all over town for those women, some of whom I’ve worked for, who have fought so hard to make it unacceptable for women to be fired simply for being women, for businesses not to offer maternity leave, for pinches on the ass to be commonplace. In those days, the idea of equal pay was akin to socialist revolt, and women’s intelligence was only for creating more enticing pot roast recipes. Perhaps most importantly, women were never going to be free without their reproductive freedom, a freedom we must continue to guard with ferocious intensity. We certainly can’t go back to the way it was.

Yet can we really stay here? As it is, the way we’re living now is dramatically affecting our health. According to the American Medical Women’s Association, lung cancer is now the most common cause of cancer death for women as many reach for a stress-relieving cigarette break. Women’s rate of heart disease has skyrocketed as we head to the drive-through, too exhausted to think of cooking dinner. Rates of depression, and attempted suicide, are twice that of men. A recent study stated that caretakers of children get the least amount of sleep (an average of 6.8 hours a night) of anyone in our society. Molly Ivins, bless her nearly-perfect soul, suggests that women can have it all, we just have to realize that we’ll be tired for 20 years. I can handle tired, but we’re slowly killing ourselves. It’s beyond just being tired.

Can we have a new feminist model now?

Our foremothers didn’t fail, it’s just that, perhaps, there were a few things that they didn’t anticipate. Their vision was predicated on the idea that men would become as involved in the housework as women were. We all know that for most of us, that simply hasn’t happened. Their plan was based on the economy of old, in which two incomes weren’t absolutely necessary. In the past decades, a living wage, for men or women, which could support an entire family has gone the way of the 8-track tape. In the 1970’s, it was possible to let young children walk to school or take the bus—now, more and more children are delivered to and from school by a parent, adding another errand to our day. Our commutes are longer, our workdays are longer, our lives are more scheduled than ever. All of these pressures were just not part of the plan. The feminist vision was a great one—the reality is another thing altogether.

The feminists of today need to struggle for a revolution that is just as expansive as the one decades ago. Yes, women have been struggling now for decades, trying to make it work. Perhaps we haven’t had a new revolution because, somehow, despite our exhaustion and stress, we seem to get by, we seem to get our work done. I had a full class load the term my son was born and wrote papers in between tending to his colic. Another friend completed medical school right after her daughter was born, without day care. There’s a joke about a woman I know asking her labor nurse where the closest fax machine was five minutes after her second daughter was born. Ha, ha, ha. Funny, huh?

I think, though, that we haven’t been able to push for a new way of living because there is simply no easy answer. In the 60’s and 70’s, there was a piece of legislation to support, a court case to fight, a march to stage. Now, how can we legislate a new economy? How can we get a court order to make men do the dishes? How do we march for a longer day?

In the absence of a real answer, instead we get a plethora of self-help books and magazines that attempt to show us how to make it work. Some are just simply laughable. Oprah Magazine just had an article on how to get out of the house in the morning without chaos (basically, pack everything the night before, trading a chaotic morning for an exhausting evening). My favorite “cures” right now are the commercials offering a variety of medications for women—if you’re exhausted and don’t feel very sexy, take a drug, because there must be something wrong with you. If you can’t concentrate on your meeting because you’re responsible for at least a hundred other things, you must have Adult ADD. If you are angry with your partner, you must have some sort of PMS that I can’t even pronounce. These conditions are real for some, yet the ad campaigns all seem to suggest that simply being a working mother is grounds for a prescription. If it was only that easy.

For too many women, it’s all becoming simply unworkable. For single women or the impoverished, it’s flat-out impossible. If one needs convincing, let’s get out our pencils and add up what women are supposed to do everyday. Exercise one hour; work for eight; commute, on average, for one; take care of children, let’s say three; cook, clean, do laundry, shop, etc, for two hours (optimistic); participate in some community activity, PTA church, etc, one hour; oh, yeah—groom ourselves, eat, get dressed—let’s say another two; sleep, as recommended, for eight hours a day. That adds up to a 26 hour day. Yeah, that’s workable. No wonder the fan in my car now serves as my hair dryer. And that’s a good day, when kids aren’t sick, when there’s not a huge project to do at work, when the water heater hasn’t broken or the oil doesn’t need to be changed. How many of those “good days” do you have?

Beyond our own sense of stress, our own health, I worry for the over-all status of women in our society. The feminist model, after all, was based on the notion that women would be able to enter the halls of power and thus begin to change society for the better. Yet how do we change the world and still have families? Just look at our current administration. Karen Hughes resigned for the sake of her family, while single, childless Condoleezza Rice continues on. How can the voices of working mothers be heard when we’re too busy just getting through our day? Indeed, how do we all continue to make strides and have satisfying careers when we’re constantly exhausted and overwhelmed?

Some women have figured out solutions that suit their lives, and indeed, there are some positive changes taking place. For those who can afford it, part-time work is a way out. Ms. Foundation President Marie C. Wilson writes in her book, Closing the Leadership Gap, of law firms that are offering partnerships to part-time workers. Still, most of the part-time offerings in my local paper are for those jobs that are stereotypically “women’s work” and therefore don’t pay well. Some women telecommute or have flexible work hours. Some women have partners whose careers are taking a backseat, allowing women to have fulfilling work lives and still be involved mothers—an infrequent solution, but still, it works for some.

Others know what could help, but those in power are not listening. Imagine if we had subsidized, quality, day care, longer maternity leave, mandatory flexible work hours, more vacation and more sick time? How about paid family medical leave? (The Family Medical Leave Act was great and all, but come on, who can afford to take 3 months off anyway?) How about the German way, in which the government pays families a monthly stipend for each child? Heck, how about a brand new economy?

As for now, I’ve found that many women I’ve talked to get some element of relief from realizing that it’s not just them, that they aren’t the only ones who are finding that being a working mother is just simply not sustainable. At least we aren’t all just crazy.

Regardless what we do, I think that we need to start talking about it. One thing I know for sure is that women can solve nearly anything if we collectively put our minds to it. And we need ways to start talking about it—mother’s groups, magazines and on-line resources such as this one. The more I talk about the possibility of a new model with women, the more optimistic I get. It is indeed possible.

As for me, I’m going to try to figure it out for my own life, right after I take a shower.

mmo : october 2004

Kristin Teigen is a graduate student in education and history at Portland State University and is the mother of two year old Joshua. She is a former staff member of the National Organization for Women and the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force.
Reuse of content for publication or compensation by permission only.
© 2003-2008 The Mothers Movement Online.


The Mothers Movement Online