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“Mommy Wars” and the Impact of Maternal Employment

At the center of so many decisions in my pregnancy, and the eventual parenting logistics, is the choice I have to make as to whether or not, or how much or in what capacity, I will be a “working mom.” My husband is self-employed so I currently carry all of our benefits, including a solid healthcare plan. But examining the cost of childcare, the loss of time with our newborn child, and the potential guilt (and stress) I may feel when trying to balance all of the demands in each realm are things that have all made me pause. Am I making the right choice for our family and sticking with my job or is this me being selfish in maintaining a career outside of the home or even foolish in thinking that I can effectively juggle it all?

Some of the thoughts that have crossed my mind:

“So my paycheck basically goes all to childcare. I’m pretty much only working in order to afford to pay someone else to watch my kid.”

“Is there any way we can do just 3 or 4 days a week of childcare and maybe I can convince my boss to let me work from home one day?”

“Am I going to be able to keep it together at work after dropping off our kid in the morning or will I be an emotional mess every day? On the other hand, what if I don’t have meltdowns at work from missing the baby? Does that mean I’m a bad mom?”

“What if I demoted myself to reduce my time-base, so I got to keep my benefits? Are part-time workers the better moms?”

“Is demoting yourself lame?”

“Is it inevitable that I’ll lose my identity when I become a mom if I quit my job and I’m just ‘mom’?”

“How do I figure out how to be super successful with self-employment and create an empire in anything in the next couple of months so I don’t have to make this decision really?”

Though there are certainly advantages and disadvantages to each choice regarding maternal employment, the primary focus regarding whether or not a woman should keep her job after becoming a mom seems to ferociously pit mothers against each other. We all absolutely want to feel as if we are making the best choices for our children’s upbringing, and the seemingly inherent differences regarding employment status offer significant opportunity to stoke the fire in what has come to be referred to as the “mommy wars.”

The influence of the media on perpetuating this divide is clear. Between features on Dr. Phil, Oprah, Good Morning America (Zimmerman, et al., 2008), newspaper articles rife with misleading statistical trend reporting (Akass, 2013), and even magazine content that circulates the Mommy Wars discourse and stereotyping of stay-at-home moms and working moms (Johnston & Swanson, 2003), it is understandable that some internalization of this rhetoric occurs. When asked to define the ideal mother, mothers tend to establish boundaries in order to exclude mothers different from themselves. Specifically, at-home mothers define the ideal mother as being readily present and accessible, and self-sacrificing by putting their children’s needs ahead of theirs; employed mothers, on the other hand, believe a happy mother makes for a happy child, and that maternal happiness is derived from multiple roles and interests outside of motherhood, such as employment (Johnston & Swanson, 2004). Further, while all mothers hold stereotypical views of each other on the component of work status, at-home and part-time employed mothers described full-time employed mothers largely on superficial appearance and behavior constructs; additionally, at-home and part-time employed mothers characterized full-time employed mothers as neglectful, with absent or uninvolved fathers. Stereotypes towards full-time employed mothers were overall centered around the women as an image, and when internal qualities – feelings and goals – were recognized, at-home mothers acknowledged these related to the employed mother’s relationship with her career and not the one with her children. Employed mothers, when describing at-home mothers, did not differentiate themselves from the identity or experiences of the other subset of women; the construction focused more on the mother as a person with feelings and desires, though there were occasional negative remarks regarding a lack of ambition of at-home mothers (Johnston & Swanson, 2004).

The media contributes to these stereotypes of different approaches to work-family balance in motherhood, depicting stay-at-home moms as dependent women, carefully tending the house and chauffeuring their children between various activities and appointments, and working mothers as cold and negligent, prioritizing a business call on their cellphone over attention paid to their child (Zimmerman, et al., 2008). In women’s magazines, at-home mothers are more likely than employed mothers to be depicted in a traditional female gender role, in the home, and White, and were not shown anywhere considered public: only the home, yard, or car (Johnston & Swanson, 2003). The prominence of traditional gender roles in the magazine medium, for example, is not a new development. In 1950, Betty Friedan wrote that only 1/3 of women depicted in women’s magazines were employed, and it was often in the context of renouncing their careers to become a housewife (Akass, 2013). By 1959 as a follow-up, after searching three major women’s magazine publications, Friedan was unable to identify a single female with a career, or commitment to any hobby or passion outside of being one half of a married couple (Akass, 2013). These depictions, and focus on traditional gender roles as the ideal path, contribute to not only the internalization of the “mommy war” rhetoric, but the sense of guilt and lack of self-confidence mothers possess regarding their parenting, and the belief that moms ruin their children.

In a 1945 issue of Ladies’ Home Journal (as referenced in Akass, 2013), an article was published entitled “Are American Moms a Menace?” in which the author opined, because children were primarily raised by their mothers and could therefore have a direct impact on future national security by way of the men they helped raise, that “mom is often a dangerous influence on her sons and a threat to our national existence.” He argued that in order to avoid neurosis in sons as a result of their neurotic mothers, a woman should breastfeed only as long as absolutely necessary, though the avoidance of the threat couldn’t be guaranteed as he further emphasized that Adolf Hitler was the “only son and spoiled darling of his not-too-bright mother.” As a result of this intense scrutiny and outcome of personhood and character blame placed solely on mothers, even good mothers may feel inadequate and guilty about the alleged damage to which they subject their children (Zimmerman, et al., 2008). There is significant fear-mongering that especially occurs with mothers who plan to return to work, ranging from such broad statements as damaging the child’s prospects for the future, to the more specific assertion that a child of a working mother is 6 times more likely to be overweight (Akass, 2013). On the contrary, a majority of research suggests that children placed in good to high-quality childcare (a necessity for many working mothers) do as well or better than children receiving full-time maternal care. In fact, the strongest predictors of child outcomes, in both cognitive and social development, are family factors like income, maternal sensitivity, and depression – not whether or not the child was enrolled in a daycare (Zimmerman, et al., 2008). Additionally, there is some evidence that suggests children, particularly daughters, of working mothers actually have higher academic achievement, find greater career success, pursue more nontraditional career paths, and are more committed to their occupations (Zimmerman, et al., 2008) than those of nonworking mothers. Additionally, working mothers are more authoritative, which is in itself associated with more positive outcomes in children, and less authoritarian or permissive in parenting styles. Perhaps the most surprising however, is that some research has found that regardless of the working status of their moms, children report similar perceptions related to the amount of time they have with their mothers (Zimmerman, et al., 2008), indicating at least no feeling of being neglected or abandoned by their working mother because of the job. The “mommy wars” discourse is arguably not rooted in any actual negative impact to a child – working mothers are not ruining their children; rather, it emerges from women feeling they must compete with one another over providing the best possible lifestyle, which is of course an admirable and reasonable goal, for their children (Crowley, 2015; Akass, 2013) – that they have made the “right” choices and everyone who made a different choice is “wrong.” And this certainly does not begin and end with differences in maternal employment. Recent U.S. newspaper articles regarding attachment parenting focus on an ideology of combative mothering, in which mothers are in continuous competition with one another over parenting choices. According to these media sources, who help to perpetuate this discourse much like the original “mommy wars” rhetoric, the “mommy wars” have started shifting from employment differences and are now beginning to brew between pro-attachment and anti-attachment parents (Moore & Abetz, 2016).

To counter the “mommy war” rhetoric and the guilt and shame women battle in their employment situation as they start families, it is imperative that they are supported by friends, family, their partners, and society to reduce mom-shaming, maternal depression (Akass, 2013) and guilt, and low confidence in mothering ability. From a national perspective, the United States absolutely does not lead the way regarding maternity leave. Britain offers up to 52 weeks of maternity leave and women can receive some pay for 39 weeks of that leave; America, on the other hand, requires 12 weeks of unpaid leave for businesses with more than 50 employees. Only Liberia, Papua New Guinea, and Swaziland offer such poor maternity support related to employment as the United States (Akass, 2013). Further, the persistent gender pay gap (http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2017/04/03/gender-pay-gap-facts/) is impacted by maternal employment, as women, the usual caregiver in the family, often reduce their hours, take lower-paying jobs due to increased flexibility, or move into more menial occupations after starting a family in which needed time off will not be a burden for the company. This in turn reduces the household income and increases the financial burden of childcare that is still necessary. Despite supposed advancements regarding gender-related discrimination in the workplace, research demonstrates that it continues to exist in the hiring process – in Britain, more than a third of bosses worried that mothers would not work as hard as other employees and admitted to not employing them as a result of those concerns (as cited in Akass, 2013). Though the societal inadequacies are largely in the realm of support for maternal employment and the corresponding programs, both at-home and full-time employed mothers perceive that the culture is more supportive of the other “type” of mother. Only 1/3 of all mothers felt the culture supports their choice regarding work status, and nearly 1/5 of mothers within each group of maternal employment believed that society simply does not support mothers, regardless if they choose to work or stay at home (Johnston & Swanson, 2004).

The more personal support many mothers do not receive in juggling the demands of work and family unfortunately largely rests with their partner. Spouses are often the least frequently cited source in various types of support (tangible, affirmation, and advice), and are even listed after family and friends as sources of emotional support (Johnston & Swanson, 2004). This lack of support can be partially attributed to the inequality in various household and childcare responsibilities, for what is referred to as the working woman’s “second shift,” as it significantly contributes to maternal stress and marital dissatisfaction. Not only does engaging in this tangible support increase marital satisfaction, parental competence – that is, how well you perform as a parent – and closeness to children is best predicted by received parenting role praise from one’s spouse. When a parent is successful or strong in a parenting attribute, receiving acknowledgement of that “job well done” establishes a bit of a self-fulfilling prophecy in a way and continues to make them an even better parent. The impact fathers have on their children as related to the support they provide in these duties is also clear; as cited in Zimmerman, et al. (2008), when fathers are more involved in childcare, often a product of being part of a dual-wage household and actively participating in traditional female household tasks, children perform better on academic tests. This increased paternal involvement also predicts higher marital satisfaction for both the mother and father. Additionally, when children are encouraged to resist gender norms, much like the modeling that is presented when fathers become more involved in household and childcare efforts, they do better in school, have higher self-esteem, and build stronger friendships and future romantic relationships. Despite this clear advantage for children, married working mothers still carry the bulk of the household labor and childcare duties: single and married mothers spend approximately the same amount of time in family work and childcare as each other (Zimmerman, et al., 2008).

It is critical to recognize the impact these present “mommy wars” have on the well-being and perceived self-efficacy of mothers, as well as the distraction from the bigger systemic issues mothers encounter. The focus on pitting stay-at-home moms against working moms shifts the discussion from qualities that are significant in developing happy families and children, such as egalitarianism and shared parenting, and obfuscates long-standing battles in addressing unequal pay for women, the lack of maternity leave, inadequate childcare options, and the increased economic distress experienced by single mothers (Zimmerman, et al., 2008; Akass, 2013). The United States, in comparison to other industrialized countries, is far behind in support for working families and the institution of family-friendly policies in the workplace. Because of the scarcity of family-friendly employment, certainly the supposed choice in a mother’s employment situation comes down to privilege (though some would argue still a Hobson’s choice due to the intense societal gender role of women as caregivers), and not one that many American families can afford to make (Akass, 2013). Still, what unites mothers across employment divides is the sense of missing out – either of time with their children and family, or in pursuing personal interests and goals (Johnston & Swanson, 2004). And in that sense, as long as the conversation is centered around what women personally need to sacrifice as they enter motherhood as opposed to improving a structure that still isn’t supportive of mothers, it doesn’t really matter who is deemed the “best” mom because we all lose.

*Note: In life satisfaction analyses using Beck’s Mood Inventory (Johnston & Swanson, 2004), part-time employed mothers reported significantly higher happiness than at-home and full-time employed mothers, attributing the satisfaction to the ability to switch between the roles and expectations of being a working mom or staying at home, and effectively avoiding societal negativity which largely is placed on one or the other. Other research has shown employed mothers, without differentiating between full-time and part-time, experience lower levels of psychological distress than full-time mothers despite reporting work-family strain (Zimmerman, et al., 2008). So the thought regarding self-demotion and reducing my time-base is looking like the best option, even though it may damage my resume a bit…especially come Baby #2 because, seriously, daycare is expensive.


Works Cited

Akass, K. (2013). Motherhood and the Media Under the Microscope: The Backlash Against Feminism and the Mommy Wars. Imaginations, 47-69.

Crowley, J. E. (2015). Unpacking the Power of the Mommy Wars. Sociological Inquiry, 217-238.

Johnston, D. D., & Swanson, D. H. (2003). Undermining Mothers: A Content Analysis of the Representation of Mothers in Magazines. Mass Communication & Society, 243-265.

Johnston, D. D., & Swanson, D. H. (2004). Moms Hating Moms: The Internalization of Mother War Rhetoric. Sex Roles, 497-509.

Moore, J., & Abetz, J. (2016). “Uh Oh. Cue the [New] Mommy Wars”: The Ideology of Combative Mothering in Popular U.S. Newspaper Articles About Attachment Parenting. Southern Communication Journal, 49-62.

Zimmerman, T. S., Aberle, J. T., Krafchick, J. L., & Harvey, A. M. (2008). Deconstructing the “Mommy Wars”: The Battle Over the Best Mom. Journal of Feminist Family Therapy, 203-219.

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