Motherhood: How to Fix What America Broke
We All Have Our Breaking Points
Thank You America!
by Meredith Stettner
Forget “Having It All” … author Amy Westervelt wants to make caregiving, and the value it brings, visible.
"We still ask women to work like they don't have kids and parent like they don't work. It's well past time to change all that…” is the buzz phrase of journalist Amy Westervelt’s new book: Forget “Having It All”. How America Messed Up Motherhood - and How to Fix It.
It’s no surprise that moms are working more than ever -- inside the home and out. According to a recent study (conducted by Welch’s in 2018), moms clock in an average of 98 hrs per week; the equivalent of 2.5 full-time jobs. Mothers are still taking on most of the invisible, labor-intensive duties such as childcare, cooking, cleaning, financial planning, education planning, social activities, eldercare, etc. Being everyone’s go-to is hard work and as REAL as logging in hours on a career.
Despite the fact that it’s 2019 and many of us find ourselves in more equal partnerships than previous generations, we feel less supported than ever. Many moms are juggling both shifts with minimal or no help. We are currently in a cultural moment where something has to give. In order to achieve greater access to workplace policies such as paid family leave, paid sick days, workplace flexibility, and affordable childcare, we need to shift our thoughts as individuals and as a society. With this backdrop, Mama’s Got Mojo sat down to pick Westervelt’s brain about the state of motherhood in the 21st century, and how we can actively change the narrative.
MGM: Great book! It seems like the more noise we make about this topic, the more we can shift the culture. As you state in your book; getting people on the bandwagon is key for an actual change. You mention that the Netherlands has more well-paid, part-time jobs available. How can American moms, and employers, think outside the box to create more circumstances that work better here?
It’s Time to Think Outside the Box
Great question— more part-time or contract work that doesn’t come with lower pay or title is, I think, really key to enabling women who do want to keep a foothold in the workplace to do so. One key thing women can do, but we largely don’t do, is to figure out a schedule, pay, and responsibilities that work for us, and actually propose it to employers. Employers that are concerned about recruitment and retention are increasingly working with employees to put together solutions that work for both parties (there are even consulting firms like Werk that help them do it.) The Werk CEO told me that she sees a lot of companies that have a flex work plan on the books but frequently find that a one-size-fits-all approach doesn’t work; that obviously makes it harder and potentially more expensive to offer, but these efforts typically pay for themselves in retention and recruitment payoffs. Another thing companies can do is offer onsite daycare. There are tax breaks for this, and so many retention and productivity payoffs, it’s hard to understand why more companies don’t provide it.
MGM: You are calling for caregiving to be more valued and visible—a world where it isn’t taken for granted. How can women re-entering the workforce post-motherhood make society respect and value their roles as both caregivers and workers?
We have to make caregiving and the value it brings visible. Sometimes that means talking more about those duties or just not hiding them. Talking openly about how to balance home life and work can be helpful too. If we could have open conversations about these things, oftentimes there are trade-offs and schedules that would work better for everyone. And again, advocating for onsite daycare or a work subsidy for daycare would be enormously helpful. Workplaces that want to recruit and retain mothers are going to have to start thinking about how to support them in ways that enable them to be productive. At home, I think people need to get a lot more pragmatic and prescriptive about it, make all the hidden tasks visible. I think we often leave things up to chance or expect things to work themselves out, although we know that almost never happens.
When I interviewed over 200 people about whether they discussed household labor before they had kids, more than 80% said "not at all" or "not really." In my personal case, my husband and I went probably a little overboard on this: He's an efficiency expert and for years kept trying to get me to agree to apply the processes he used at work to our lives. Several things became clear: how much more housework and childcare I was doing, how much time we were spending doing things we hated and what activities tended to correlate to high levels of satisfaction. Not only did this exercise help us figure out where to make some changes, it also highlighted the household labor inequities in a way that removed emotion and accusation. It's hard to argue with data.
We Have to Do Better
MGM On doing better: Would you like to see more on-site childcare? More co-working spaces with childcare? Less gig-economy traps? All of this and more?
Yes, yes and yes! On-site childcare seems like such a no-brainer for mid-to-large companies, and I think the co-working spaces with childcare we're starting to see are fantastic. Less peddling of crappy solutions to women would be great, too. Working moms don't need to be sold on the idea of making less money, less security in exchange for "balance" a la the gig economy. I would love to see that conversation shift toward encouraging working mothers to start businesses as a way to balance childcare and work. The question no one is asking about the gig economy is this: Why is it that in many cases, as soon as someone is experienced and skilled enough to go freelance, they do? What is so terrible about the American workplace that people leave it as soon as they can? That says to me that it's not just parents who are unhappy with the "ideal worker" scenario we've been saddled with for decades, and that no amount of foosball or top-shelf liquor carts or team-building exercises is going to fix it. The ideal worker setup doesn't even deliver high profits or productivity; we need to really re-think work around what both employees and employers need.
MGM: Loved your Marie Kondo piece on Thelily.com (https://www.thelily.com/the-hidden-feminist-message-of-marie-kondos-tidying-movement/)… it’s so normalized that all things tidy and clean, secretly fall on mom. What has to shift for all family members to understand that they are part of the equation?
Thank you! I loved her emphasis on every member of the family being responsible for the space the family occupies, it's so simple but such an important way to see things. Again, I think making all those hidden tasks that keep a household running visible is really key, talking about and dividing household labor fairly, training kids early on (I'm really working on my kids right now to throw out their own trash -- what is WITH that "here's my trash, mom" thing??).
MGM: Haha, seriously!
I have definitely taken to assigning tasks around sometimes too, or ... and I don't know if I'm proud of this or not ... refusing to do any household tasks for a few days. I actually have a higher tolerance for mess than my husband does, so sometimes that does the trick! But mostly, I advocate for talking it through and making a plan/assigning roles and tasks when it's unlikely to be an emotional conversation or an argument.
The New Role of Dad
What about Millennial dads? Paternity leave is becoming more and more available but it’s still often seen as a cultural/career risk to take it and own it. Many were raised in the 80s with stay-at-home moms, but are now becoming fathers in more egalitarian marriages. Where do you see this generation of men challenging the status quo and leveling the playing field at home and at work?
Absolutely! I’ve been thinking about this a lot, in part because quite a few men have said to me, “Well what about men, we’re juggling these roles too?” On the one hand, yes, during the same years in which more women have entered the workforce, the number of hours men have devoted to childcare and housework, the expectations that men be involved fathers, have also increased. So, increasingly, the experiences of fathers and mothers are converging, and there is FAR less support either at work or out in the world for fathers than mothers. At the same time, women’s childcare and housework hours have ALSO increased during those years (women are still doing 12-18 hours more of those tasks each week than men). Working mothers today are spending more time on childcare and housework than stay-at-home moms in the 70s. What this shows me is the need for those cultural shifts— women’s value is still very much tied to their reproductive and nurturing capacity. And men’s value, despite some progress, is still very much tied to brawn and profit. To really shift things we need to encourage and reward caregiving more in men while reducing the caregiving expectations placed on women. One way to do this, at least in our current system, is to attribute financial value to caregiving because of course once anything that has been relegated to women becomes financially lucrative it immediately becomes dominated by men (see: cooking or delivering babies). Another is to raise kids of both sexes, from a very early age, with as many non-gendered models of caregiving as possible. In my personal situation for example, my husband was the primary caregiver for our sons for a couple of years; long enough to impress upon them that all members of a family take care of each other!
Thank you Amy!
Reflecting on the book and Amy’s input, I find myself more aware of how we can ask for more. My consciousness has been raised, even subtly, to push for a shift regarding the value of caregiving. Motherhood should be visible. Caregiving should be visible. I think of this in my everyday life, as a member of my community, as a part of the collective environment that is also responsible for raising my son. When people hold the door for a stroller. When a barista engages with my son for a minute so I can take my eye off him for a second. And in larger ways, I realize that the power does indeed reside in us changing things. That starts with talking, noticing, and fighting for it. I remember one of the lines in the book, “In our obsession with vilifying or glorifying mothers we often fail to take practical steps to support healthy parenting.” Supporting healthy parenting…when you boil it down to that, it seems like a goal that is not at all lofty, but very, very doable.
MEREDITH STETTNER is a freelance writer, wife, and mama to an energetic toddler boy. She has covered lifestyle and dining for Industry Magazine, tech buzz for Mechanical Engineering Magazine, and real estate and lifestyle for JerseyDigs.com. She loves exploring the city for its local shops, views and farmer’s markets, is a crazy home cook and baker online at Twotrayskitchen.blogspot.com, and enjoys getting out into nature. She has resided in Downtown, JC since 2012.