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The New Future of Motherhood

Mothers don’t “choose” their way into the motherhood problem,
we can’t choose our way out of it. So where do we go from here?

By Judith Stadtman Tucker

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Never until this very historical moment,” the late sociologist Jesse Bernard wrote in The Future of Motherhood, “have women rebelled as many are now doing against the very way we institutionalize motherhood.”

They are daring to say that although they love children, they hate motherhood. That they object to being assigned sole responsibility for child care. That they object to having child care conceived of as their only major activity. That they object to the isolation in which they must perform the role of mother, cut off from help, from one another, from the outside world. For the first time, they are protesting the false aura of romanticism with which motherhood is endowed, keeping from young women its terrible “hidden underside” which “is hardly ever talked about.”

Bernard continues: “A group of women, basing their conclusions on their own experiences as participant observers— or rather observant participators— note almost point for point how the way we institutionalize motherhood is bad for women. They call on women to organize ‘to fight those aspects of our society that make childbearing and child rearing stressful rather than fulfilling experiences.’”

Considering that these observations were made over 30 years ago, the litany of grievances Bernard recorded— and mothers’ resolve to “to fight those aspects of our society that make childbearing and child rearing stressful rather than fulfilling experiences”— seem depressingly familiar. Bernard believed the momentum of the mid-20th century women’s movement, coupled with heightened concern about the depletion of the earth’s natural resources due to overpopulation, would pave the way for a more mother-friendly society, particularly for women who wanted children but desired less child-centric lives. The key to all this, she argued, would be forging a new “script” for 21st century motherhood— a script offering an unsentimental appraisal of the pros and cons of motherhood while promoting the revolutionary idea that the well-rounded life of any mother involves more than just mothering. Bernard predicted this seismic shift in cultural consciousness would transform the way men and women share all the necessary work of society— both paid work and unpaid caregiving— and that policymakers would respond to the brave new order by implementing a comprehensive system of social supports for working parents, including paid parental leave, flexible workplaces, better options for part-time work with good pay and opportunities for advancement, more educational and occupational on- and off-ramps for women at all points in the life course, and universal access to affordable, high-quality child care.

Unfortunately, things didn’t exactly work out that way— and here we are in 2005, still talking about the future of motherhood. More importantly, some of us are talking about mobilizing an organized social movement with the express purpose of shaping that future. And while various groups claiming to represent the best interests of mothers may envision this movement as a mothering movement, a motherhood movement, or a mothers’ rights movement, there is general agreement that a powerful confluence of unfavorable social conditions— including cultural ideals assigning competing values to the vital functions of public and private life, retrogressive political trends, sex discrimination, pernicious stereotypes, intransigent workplace standards, and inadequate or outdated social policies— lie at the heart of the contemporary motherhood problem. We’re all aware of how this problem plays out in the lives of women who mother— of how, despite dramatic increases in their level of paid employment, mothers continue to provide a disproportionate share of the unpaid caregiving work that supports our families and economy, and how this limits their occupational mobility and earning potential. Activist mothers know the time mothers devote to unpaid caregiving significantly increases the odds they will experience financial insecurity and diminished well-being over the course of a lifetime. And we all believe something must be done about it— sooner rather than later.

In fact, the diverse proponents of the emerging mothers’ movement are quite clear about what they want the next future of motherhood to look like. We want mothers to have better lives with less role strain and better options for integrating work and family. We want respect and recognition for the social and economic value of mothers’ work— both paid employment and the unpaid care work mothers do at home. We want more flexibility in the workplace, and we want equal pay for equal work. We want public policies that respond to the needs of dual-earner couples and single parent women, we want reasonable protection from economic hardships mothers may incur due to their maternal status, and we want men to take a more active role in child-rearing and domestic life in general. We agree that an organized social movement— a broad-based grassroots uprising— will be crucial to achieving this kind of sweeping change. However, there is a lack of consensus among mothers’ advocates about why change is necessary. Is it necessary to improve the lives of women? Or is it necessary to improve the lives of children and create a more humane and sustainable society?

Ultimately, the answer is “yes” to all of these commendable goals. But as a writer and activist who views the objectives of the mothers’ movement through the lens of progressive feminism, I feel compelled to add a word of caution: If we want both public respect and support for the work of mothering as well as equality for women— meaning full social, economic and political citizenship for all women, nothing more, and nothing less— we have a duty to pay close attention to not just what we're asking for, but how and why we're asking.

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