Makers and Mothers

PBS and AOL have put together compelling video interviews with women who really are making history. They call it Makers, and it’s well worth your free time. For today, I’m zeroing in on a segment from Madeleine Albright’s interview called “Unforgiving Women.” In it, she says:

I have often felt that, often, women were more judgmental about what I was doing than men. Making me feel like I should have been with my children. You know, “Don’t you miss waiting for your children in the carpool line?” I mean, doing your PhD while your kids are in school is not a bad thing, though I have to say, it took me so long to do it that […] But I think that other women, for a long time, made me feel guilty. [emphasis mine]

While a lot of things have changed since Albright’s time, one thing hasn’t: Women continue to fight it out over which kind of motherhood is ideal. You probably don’t need to be reminded about the Hilary Rosen vs. Ann Romney “Mommy Wars,” or the responses to Ann Romney’s convention speech, which, with its somewhat pedantic exaltation of motherhood, pissed some people off.

We all want to defend our life choices. I don’t think it’s groundbreaking to suggest that there is some mutual envy between women who don’t feel that they have it all (on one hand, women who gave up family for career, and on the other, women who gave up career for family) as well as enmity toward radicals who act like there’s something wrong with women who want to have both. Nor is it anything new to point out that it takes a certain, say, Romney-esque financial situation to make the stay-at-home mom thing feasible.

Here’s the kicker: Even when we agree that women should play a role in public life, the stay-at-home mom remains the standard against which working mothers (and their home-by-5 o’clock dinner presentations) are judged. Many working moms have told me that they feel guilty for not keeping up with the Pinteresting mothers of their children’s friends, the ones who are always volunteering for this or that school event or putting together the most beautiful and healthiest lunch boxes in the cafeteria. (Apparently, this is something you can spend a lot of time on.)

What if we can release mothers from that guilt? What if “being there” 24/7, crafting home-cooked meals for a single-family, two-generational household, isn’t actually good for our children? Judith Warner, in a short piece for Time earlier this year, summarized new research on why parenthood leads many people to unhappiness:

Given that decades of scientific studies have solidly established that having a stressed, depressed or otherwise unhappy mother is bad for children’s mental health, it’s quite likely, they said, that “intensive mothering” is harmful for kids, too. [emphasis mine]

In other words, it isn’t just the mother with frustrated professional ambitions or the mother working too many hours who has a negative effect on her children’s health – it’s the mother who’s there all the time. If that’s the case, then it is our expectations of mothers – built into our workplaces’ approaches toward children, including the structure of parental leave, childcare and schools – that have gone awry.

I am not discounting the importance of motherhood, and we all know there are times when you just need your mom. But as one of the women in my binder mentioned, perhaps it is a good thing for children to have mothers who are engaged outside the home. It could teach them that they are part of a bigger world. It might be okay to tell your kids that you can’t make every soccer game, because out there, beyond the comfortable life you’ve built, are others whose lives and livelihoods depend on you, too.

Perhaps we can remind them that the future of humanity depends not only on childbirth, but on the advances we make in technology, the investments we make in education, and the choices we make as a society. In those areas, we can all be makers.

NB: For the record, Madeleine Albright’s twin eldest daughters, Anne and Alice, are both lawyers who engage in public service: Anne as a circuit court judge in Montgomery County, Maryland, and Alice as Executive Vice President and Chief Operating Officer of the Export-Import Bank of the United States. Alice also serves on the Board of Directors of the International AIDS Vaccine Initiative and has contributed enormously to other non-governmental organizations involved in global public health. Her youngest daughter, Katie Albright, is Executive Director of the San Francisco Child Abuse Prevention Center. Not bad.

One thought on “Makers and Mothers

  1. Pingback: In My Binder ~

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