The Abyss of Motherhood

A tightrope walk without a safety net.

Sady Doyle February 13, 2018


The first time I said my new job title aloud was over the phone, to a man at my husband’s mar­ket­ing company.

We could envision mothering differently. We could resist atomization, build solidarity and see the fates of all our children as connected.

You’d bet­ter make me your con­tact per­son,” I told him, since I’m the stay-at-home mother.”

Must be nice,” he said, chuckling.

I could sense a whole lifestyle tak­ing shape in his imag­i­na­tion — yoga, wine, soap operas, maybe a lit­er­al couch where I eat lit­er­al bon­bons. I want­ed to tell him that I have, at min­i­mum, two jobs, par­ent­ing and writ­ing (in real­i­ty, I could prob­a­bly list every ongo­ing rela­tion­ship with an edi­tor or a pub­li­ca­tion as a job in itself); that I have been sleep­ing in two-hour incre­ments for three months; that it is a spe­cial occa­sion when I can drink a cup of cof­fee before it gets cold; that I lim­it­ed my mater­ni­ty leave” to three weeks, because there would always be some­one else who want­ed my job and my edi­tors are not required to hold it open. I want­ed to tell him that I write and pitch and edit around the sched­ule of a baby, whose needs are always urgent and nev­er nego­tiable; that I once audi­tioned for a PBS doc­u­men­tary while breast­feed­ing. I want­ed to tell him I spend every day won­der­ing which job I’ll fail at today. That he doesn’t know what stay-at-home” means, and should stop assuming.

It is nice,” I said. You can’t yell in front of a baby.

The idea that moth­er­ing is dif­fer­ent than par­ent­ing” may seem offen­sive. But, as Adri­enne Rich writes in Of Woman Born, the dif­fer­ence is in the verbs: To father’ a child sug­gests above all to beget, to pro­vide the sperm that fer­til­izes the ovum. To moth­er’ a child implies a con­tin­u­ing pres­ence, last­ing at least nine months, more often for years.” Rich is being gen­er­ous, I think, to include preg­nan­cy. A man can father” a child he nev­er meets. But we would nev­er say that a woman who had a baby and left it in the hos­pi­tal moth­ered” that child. Moth­er­ing comes after: Nurs­ing, chang­ing, read­ing, singing, admin­is­ter­ing Tylenol and frozen teething rings, attend­ing to 3 a.m. dia­pers and hunger pangs and night­mares, keep­ing track of sched­ules and grades and home­work and food aver­sions and favorite songs. Father­hood is a sta­tus. Moth­er­hood is labor.

Which doesn’t mean women are inher­ent­ly suit­ed for it. Even those of us on the Left can fall into roman­ti­ciz­ing the mater­nal instinct.” Babies are some of the most lik­able peo­ple in exis­tence, and not just because none of them have pod­casts — lov­ing them isn’t some mag­i­cal female tal­ent. You learn how to care for chil­dren the way you learn any­thing else: Read­ing up, talk­ing to peo­ple who have done it and pay­ing atten­tion to the chil­dren them­selves, who tend to be quite def­i­nite on their pref­er­ences. Any car­ing adult can do it, and that per­son doesn’t have to be female, or even a genet­ic rel­a­tive — wit­ness the intense bonds adop­tive par­ents forge with their chil­dren. In an ide­al world, all par­ents would have the work flex­i­bil­i­ty to be deeply involved with their children’s lives.

But in our world, it’s over­whelm­ing­ly women who get assigned moth­er­ing work. I do it for rea­sons that are part­ly bio­log­i­cal — if you breast­feed a baby, the lac­tat­ing par­ent spends more time with the baby — but most­ly eco­nom­ic. Both my hus­band and I adore our child, but it was eas­i­er to give the work to me, because I make less money.

My career was forged by the media land­scape 10 years ago, when you could be a famous blog­ger” (I was one) or an Inter­net fem­i­nist” (I am one) as an entry­way to paid gigs. But they were just that, gigs; staff writ­ing jobs were evap­o­rat­ing as the Inter­net made news free, blog­ging was under­paid or unpaid, and in the col­lapse of 2009, when I lost my day job, I found myself liv­ing off $50 Salon pieces and $15 Pay­Pal dona­tions. At the peak of my celebri­ty,” I could direct more traf­fic to a site than the New York Times, but I couldn’t buy gro­ceries. My hus­band, then my boyfriend, had an entry-lev­el mar­ket­ing job with an income of around $30,000, and he saved us. As we got old­er, his career pro­gressed. Mine nev­er quite recov­ered. So we went from being poor togeth­er to rely­ing on his income togeth­er; I didn’t notice until I got preg­nant, at which point we both assumed my career would take the hit, because I could do it with­out impact­ing the bot­tom line too much.

That shift of pow­er is a built-in fea­ture of het­ero­sex­u­al rela­tion­ships. Women and men in their twen­ties earn rough­ly equal pay; how­ev­er, as per the Har­vard Busi­ness Review, “[the] aver­age male col­lege grad­u­ate by his ear­ly for­ties earns rough­ly 55 per­cent more than the aver­age col­lege grad­u­ate female.” Women aren’t so much bump­ing into the glass ceil­ing as they are being ush­ered into a whole dif­fer­ent build­ing; while men are build­ing rel­a­tive­ly sta­ble careers, women are more like­ly to do pre­car­i­ous con­tract or temp labor (like, ahem, free­lance writ­ing) and more like­ly to work part-time. This dri­ves sin­gle moth­ers into pover­ty — but then, that’s the point. Liv­ing on a sin­gle income has been unten­able since our own moth­ers were young. Sin­gle moth­ers are not allowed to exist. Women in patri­archy must depend on patri­archs to live.

It is star­tling, after a career spent rail­ing against the sta­tis­ti­cal real­i­ties of women’s lives, to find out that your own life still con­forms to them. Women are still edged out of pub­lic life, while men pro­ceed apace into pow­er. And moth­er­ing work is still deval­ued. We get peo­ple to do it not by mak­ing it worth­while, but by telling them they are too worth­less to do any­thing else.

With­in my life­time, moth­er­ing work was sup­port­ed. We had insti­tu­tions — func­tion­ing pub­lic schools, CHIP, wel­fare, child care cen­ters and preschools that were afford­able for most mid­dle­class fam­i­lies — that, although nev­er cheap, ensured chil­dren did not go with­out neces­si­ties. But they have all been gut­ted. Basic neces­si­ties, like day care, have become lux­u­ries; child care now costs more than rent in some cities, and more than the aver­age state col­lege tuition every­where. Things that were once lux­u­ries, like pri­vate school, increas­ing­ly become neces­si­ties as con­ser­v­a­tives take aim at pub­lic options.

There are things oth­er coun­tries take for grant­ed — parental leave, uni­ver­sal health­care, uni­ver­sal preschool, Scan­di­na­vian-style baby box­es that pro­vide the essen­tials for a child’s first year — that we don’t have. Some, we’re not pur­su­ing. One of the core fea­tures of Euro­pean social­ist child­hood, and one of the major demands of sec­ond-wave fem­i­nism, is state-fund­ed, high-qual­i­ty, uni­ver­sal child care cen­ters for ages 0 to 6; cur­rent­ly, there is no sig­nif­i­cant U.S. activist momen­tum for it among either social­ists or feminists.

But those needs are easy to ignore when moth­er work is worth­less. So, most impor­tant­ly: We could envi­sion moth­er­ing dif­fer­ent­ly. We could resist atom­iza­tion, build sol­i­dar­i­ty and see the fates of all our chil­dren as con­nect­ed. Vul­ner­a­ble com­mu­ni­ties already know this; soci­ol­o­gist Patri­cia Hill Collins notes that work­ing-class black women, who have always had to work, have also always cre­at­ed sup­port net­works to care for each other’s chil­dren. Moth­er­ing is not an indi­vid­ual strug­gle, but a com­mu­ni­ty resource, and real respect adheres to women who are skilled at nurturing.

Instead of fol­low­ing their lead, the cul­ture as a whole deval­ues moth­er­ing, call­ing it work that any­one could do, even as the shred­ding of the social con­tract makes suc­cess­ful moth­er­ing impos­si­ble. So we’re stuck, unable to work, unable to stop work­ing. We are pushed into part-time work with­out ben­e­fits, or shoved into the pre­car­i­ous gig econ­o­my — dri­ving cars, rent­ing rooms, writ­ing blog posts, sit­ting oth­er people’s babies — that promis­es flex­i­bil­i­ty” and deliv­ers unceas­ing work, as in the now-viral sto­ry of the Lyft dri­ver who was so afraid of turn­ing down a gig that she wound up dri­ving cus­tomers while she was in labor. We dump our mon­ey into the child care cen­ter, not know­ing where col­lege will come from. We quit our jobs to pro­vide child care so our chil­dren can go to col­lege. We scram­ble to pro­vide them with every­thing that our nation once pro­vid­ed us, and we do it in a cul­ture that will not help us, because it is hos­tile to any but the most tra­di­tion­al solu­tions: As per a 2016 Wash­ing­ton Post poll, 75 per­cent of Amer­i­cans believe moth­ers should not work full time out­side the home. Yet, as per the U.S. Depart­ment of Labor, 53 per­cent of moth­ers with chil­dren under 18 do so, and anoth­er 17 per­cent work part time.

Mil­len­ni­als, who are already the most under­em­ployed gen­er­a­tion, are also the gen­er­a­tion cur­rent­ly hav­ing chil­dren, albeit at a rate low­er than any pre­vi­ous gen­er­a­tion. The scram­ble to pro­vide our chil­dren more sup­port with few­er resources is going to get worse.

We live won­der­ing which job we’ll fail at today. We know only that suc­cess is no longer an option.

I love my daugh­ter more than any­one I’ve ever met. I love the way she takes her bath, dip­ping her toes into the water and exclaim­ing with pleas­ant sur­prise, like a lit­tle old lady tak­ing a trip to a day spa; I love how she sig­nals anger by blow­ing furi­ous rasp­ber­ries on her hand; I love how she curls back into fetal posi­tion as I sing her to sleep, fold­ing her knees and tuck­ing her head into her chest, as if she remem­bers being part of me. I spend every minute of the day with her, until I put her to bed. Then, once she’s tucked in, I take out my phone and I look at baby pic­tures. I feel lone­ly when she isn’t in the room. I love my job, too. No, it’s nev­er going to pay for a sum­mer house, but I didn’t take it for the mon­ey. I rec­og­nize it’s a priv­i­lege to say this — that no one in my fam­i­ly his­to­ry, and cer­tain­ly no woman, has had enough secu­ri­ty to take a job for rea­sons oth­er than the pay­check — but that makes me cher­ish it all the more.

I have some­thing that very few women have had through­out his­to­ry; I have the abil­i­ty to make myself heard, for my words to mat­ter to the cul­ture at large. There’s no way I would ever give that up will­ing­ly. You would have to kill me to stop me from writ­ing, and even then, there’s always Oui­ja boards. But what I don’t love is the fear I feel, once a day, look­ing at my daugh­ter; the form­less, shoot­ing pan­ic of how will she ever go to col­lege or what if one of us gets sick. I don’t like that hav­ing both a child and one’s cho­sen work has essen­tial­ly been priced out of reach for most women, many of whom are just as tal­ent­ed as I am, or more tal­ent­ed; that the basic human activ­i­ty of love has been turned into a lux­u­ry item. I don’t love that fear, that con­stant, word­less sense of being sus­pend­ed over an abyss. Our fam­i­ly has enough, these days. Yet I’ve had enough and lost it before. It could hap­pen at any time. It would take one big expense, one job loss, one mar­ket crash, for us to fall. And when I fall, down will come baby, cra­dle and all. And I can’t say nobody warned me.

Sady Doyle is an In These Times con­tribut­ing writer. She is the author of Train­wreck: The Women We Love to Hate, Mock, and Fear… and Why (Melville House, 2016) and was the founder of the blog Tiger Beat­down. You can fol­low her on Twit­ter at @sadydoyle.
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