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Motherhood and its discontents

page two

Care work and equality

The arbitrary segregation of care work from the mainstream of productive labor has widespread repercussions for women. Since care work, whether paid or unpaid, remains largely the responsibility of women, men tend to be far less encumbered by the more time-intensive demands of family life. In a society that stresses individual achievement and autonomy, men and women with limited caregiving obligations have greater opportunities to advance their personal stature through paid employment and civic engagement. Women who devote substantial time to caring for children or other dependents are typically swept to the side of the central track, and they are more likely to suffer economic and other hardships as a result. The marginalization of mothers may not be the consequence of a conspicuous disregard for motherhood (which is lauded by conservatives and liberals alike as “the most important job in the world”), but it clearly creates a major obstruction on the road to women’s equality.

The dismissal of care work as the by-product of maternal preoccupation has larger implications for the future of humanity: by obscuring the importance and function of care as a normal, predictable and necessary part of everyone’s life, our culture perpetuates an outlook based on an underestimation of the complexity of the human condition and denial of the full scope of human need.

America is in love with notion of independence and self-sufficiency. Our national ethos celebrates uncompromising individualism as the key to personal and social success. As a society, we embrace a concept of personal responsibility that represents functional and emotional autonomy as the apex of individual development. We raise our children to be honest, respectful and productive, but our principal obsession is to raise our children to be independent and self-reliant. (4)

There is just one catch: even the most strident self-made man or woman requires a prolonged period of continuous, attentive care at the beginning— and usually at the end— of life. Individualistic independence for all is a lofty goal, but it may not be a realistic or humane one. Social life is simply not that one-dimensional, nor would we necessarily want it to be. In every living person of any age, the potential for independence is intrinsically linked to dependency and interdependence. The balance of independence, interdependence and dependency will shift over the course of an individual’s lifetime, but the three states always co-exist and are inseparable. Rather than accepting the duality of capacity and need as an ordinary aspect of well-developed adulthood, it has become both culturally and politically fashionable to reject the state of dependency and interdependency as substandard, pathological and morally weak.

As the primary caregivers in society, mothers bear the brunt of this half-formed ideology. To care for a dependent child, or any dependent person, involves a transmission of some of the other’s dependency— unremunerated time spent caring for young or frail family members is time that cannot be used in any other way, such as earning a wage, creating a masterwork, or prioritizing one’s own needs and ambitions. Since we’ve come to view dependency as a lesser state of being, people who care for dependents as part of their daily work are frequently seen as less than fully capable, regardless of their actual level of competence. (5)

In our culture, we also maintain the belief that good care is characterized by a mutual relationship between the care-giver and the cared-for, and that care work involves some degree of emotional attachment as well as practical skill. This is unquestionably true, but even the modest break-down in male and female roles to date provides irrefutable evidence that women are not the only ones with the capacity to create and sustain caring connections. To transfer full responsibility for the routine care of dependent children to one segment of society on the basis of sex is neither fair nor sensible. Nor is it especially beneficial to children. (6)

Unfortunately, we’ve been managing gender and family this way for well over two hundred years. Resistance to change is strong and steadfast; it is both politically and economically expedient to drop the responsibility for unpaid caregiving squarely into the maternal lap. Mothers today are caught between their need for a larger and more equitable life and social pressures to provide an ideal environment for their children’s development (which, according to present-day standards of optimal child-rearing, is expensive, labor intensive, time consuming and often emotionally exhausting).

Although certain policy issues rise to the top of discussions about maternal inequality — including paid parental leave, access to affordable high-quality child care, improved legal standards for equity in divorce, social insurance for caregivers who are not in the workforce, and flexible employment practices that don’t exclude caregivers from good jobs with good pay— there is as yet no collective agreement about how to rectify the larger social problems that affect mothers as a group.

a different sort of motherhood

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