Serendip is an independent site partnering with faculty at multiple colleges and universities around the world. Happy exploring!

Does Supermom Exist?

pejordan's picture

"But above all she must press for a wage to be paid by the State legally to the mothers of educated men. The importance of this to our common fight is immeasurable; for it is the most effective way in which we can ensure that the large and very honourable class of married women shall have a mind and a will of their own, with which, if his mind and will are good in her eyes, to support her husband, if bad to resist him, in any case to cease to be ‘his woman’ and to be her self."

When reading “Three Guineas,” this passage gave me pause to think about what Virginia Woolf was saying about motherhood. She argues that motherhood should be viewed as a profession and also treated like one by granting wages to those who are mothers in order for all women to achieve financial independence. I started thinking about this concept of defining motherhood as a career, and I don’t think it’s an accurate definition today. Some women are mothers who don’t work, some women are non-mothers who work, and some do both; all are perfectly valid options, but I wanted to focus on the issues facing the working mother. Many women in academia have fewer children than they want or have slowed down their careers in order to raise their children. The major questions I had were how do women balance parenthood with a career, why is the share of work in parenting still so unequal, and why is academia specifically so incompatible with raising a family?

So the first question: how are women supposed to have kids and a job at the same time? Here’s a link to the US statistical abstract from 2012, with some pretty interesting tables:

What I was looking at in particular was Table 599, Employment Status of Women by Marital Status and Presence and Age of Children from 1970 to 2009. The percentage of married women with any children who participated in the workforce was 69.8%, and single women with children were at 72%. Another astonishing number to me was the number of women with children under 6 years of age who were in the workforce: 61.6% for married women and 67.8% for single women. Obviously a significant number of women with children in the US have to manage both children and a career; however, it comes with huge trade-offs on both sides. Arlie Hochschild argues in her book The Second Shift that motherhood is a second shift of work at home, one that men still don’t help with equally, and it’s inhibiting their ability to succeed in the workforce.

"In increasing numbers women have gone into the workforce, but few have gone very high up in it. This is not because women cool themselves out by some “auto-discrimination.” It is not because we lack “role models.” Nor is it simply because corporations and other institutions discriminate against women. Rather, the career system inhibits women, not so much by malevolent disobedience to good rules as by making up rules to suit the male half of the population in the first place. One reason that half the lawyers, doctors, businesspeople are not women is because men do not share the raising of their children and the caring of their homes." (Hochschild)

Women can raise children while working (they’ve done it countless times) but it is overwhelming, and requires support from a partner, a family member, a nanny/daycare, or some combination of the three. What happens, though, to a woman’s career if she stops working to raise her kids? My mom stopped working when my twin brother and I were born, and didn’t go back full-time until my little brother turned 10; while she tells us that she loved it and wouldn’t trade that time for anything, the fact remains that she got off the tenure track when we were born and still hasn’t been able to get back on, while my dad never had to stop working and has seen a lot of success in his career. It seems as if the only way that women can balance the two is for their partners to contribute equally, for both parents to share the charge of raising a family while both pursue careers, and this seems to still be a rarity. In her book, Hochschild discusses a study done at the University of Michigan that focused on housework; women averaged about 18 hours of housework per week, while men averaged just 7. These numbers may be a little outdated as the study was conducted in the 1990s, but the disparity remains. I realize that housework is not the only measure of raising a family, and “parenting” is a very difficult word to define, but nevertheless I believe that women still hold much more of the responsibility of raising children than men. My next question is why is this the case?

One reason, Hochschild argues, is that women feel more responsible for their children and their homes. I think this is true, but it only begs another question; why do they feel more responsible? It seems that the responsibilities of a mother versus those of a father are completely uneven, and I think the biggest difference comes in the frequency of these responsibilities. Women seem to be the ones who do the day-to-day work, like making lunches, doing laundry, and driving carpools, and men are the ones who fix things when they break or teach their kids how to ride a bike. What would happen if the roles were switched, tasks more evenly distributed? Would women be happier, or would they feel like they had lost control? I don’t know the answers, however, it seems to me that that these disparities will have to be fixed largely on an individual basis.

I think it is in the world outside of the home where the larger, institutional changes need to be implemented. Careers (academia specifically) are still not being designed to be compatible with raising (not just having) children. Anne pointed me to a conversation that was held at Bryn Mawr to talk about these issues:


The most important goal of the policy initiatives, in my opinion, is enabling all working parents to succeed at work and home. I thought this was interesting because it addresses the problem on both sides, and also spoke to the fact that working fathers should be able to spend more time with their children as well. In turn, the discussion pointed out that one of the biggest problems is still this stigma that women shouldn’t need help, that they should do it all themselves, that being overtired and overworked and stressed out is somehow okay. It’s something I’ve seen in my mom, something that frustrates me. I think that the only way policies designed to help more women receive tenure will work is if this stigma can be eradicated; it should be okay to ask for help.

Women should not have to choose between having a successful career and raising a family; in my opinion, this is one of the greatest examples of inequality between men and women today. There need to be more conversations about how to manage a household and career, and women shouldn’t have to feel like they’re the ones who need to balance everything (the book and then movie “I Don’t Know How She Does It” is an example of how pervasive this mentality is). Hopefully, with a continuation of conversations like the one conducted at Bryn Mawr and greater awareness on the parts of both men and women, we can move towards a family structure that is more equal.





Anne Dalke's picture

Mommy Tracking

You begin in a very strong place, w/ Woolf's claim that good wages ensure that women can have minds, and express wills, of their own.

But then you go on to elaborate on some of the difficulties women still face in earning such wages--in particular, their failure to successfully balance careers and parenting: "why is the share of work in parenting still so unequal, and why is academia specifically so incompatible with raising a family?"

According to the BMC President's Advisory Committee for Work-Family Issues (which you cite) "the problem for academics seems distinct from that in many other professions, due to the relation of the biological clock and the tenure clock, which coincides with the childbearing years." How (for starters) to alter that dialectic?

That seems your key question, and I don't think it's one that you are able to answer. Why don't men help equally @ home? Why do women (presumably educated, ambitious women) put up with this inequality? Although you say that "the career system inhibits women," the inhibitions you focus on are really those @ home, or in society writ large: why do women feel more responsible for their children than men do? Wherefrom the stigma against women needing help? "What would happen if the roles were switched, tasks more evenly distributed?" What would happen if "both parents were to share the charge of raising a family while both pursue careers?" What would happen if, under this arrangement, men also missed out on major career moves? Is that the vision of equality you're working towards? One in which your dad, like your mom, had to stop working, and thereby lost out on some of the success he's had in his career?

How illusory, finally, is your belief that we can "have it all," that we (as you say) "should not have to choose between having a successful career and raising a family"? Might it be feminist to choose? Human to have to?

pejordan's picture

Making a Choice


I definitely left a lot of these questions wide open, maybe because I was afraid of some of the answers. While women have entered the workforce, rose to positions of authority, and in many ways matched the achievements of men, I think the truth is that sacrifices come with having kids. However, as you suggest, these obstacles may come more from home than work. It’s all well and good for me to ask hypothetical questions about what would happen if the roles of mother and father were switched, but I don’t think that will ever be the case. However, it is becoming much more common to see stay-at-home dads, who do more of the daily jobs of parenting while their wives are at work. What are they forfeiting to do this, and, I guess the most important question, is it worth it to them?

I found this article from CBS News about women facing obstacles in the workforce interesting, and a bit of a different perspective:

The article suggests that maybe women are creating these obstacles themselves; “With women making up the majority of college students, college graduates, and PhD recipients, it seems like any gap will be because of life choices rather than an outside discriminatory force.” Is the problem really that women are preventing themselves from having both a family and career? Hochschild disputes this, but in a day and age when education is female-dominated, it’s hard to identify specific problems in the workforce keeping women from success. Bryn Mawr, for example, and many other educational institutions that offer programs for working mothers like temporary tenure stoppage, child care, or others, seem to be moving toward an academic world that is compatible with motherhood.

We might not really be able to have it all, but at least we have the option to choose, and I’d like to think that at least we could make a choice that we will be happy with. Maybe in order to have a career and children; you may just have to pick one that you want to be “better” at. Is that feminism, or not? I like “womanism” more, as jdsisco referred to in her paper; motherhood and a career are both equally important qualities of women, and each of them should be supported in its own right.