A reader emailed recently to alert me to the publication of a new study of working mothers, in the journal Gender and Society. (An aside: I hate the term “working mothers,” as I think it devalues the actual work of mothering. I’ll try to find other ways to say it as I write about the study, but to date I haven’t found a good substitute.) The findings didn’t really surprise me, but they were confirmatory: most working mothers, single or married, find value, fulfillment, and meaning in paid work outside the home. While many would choose part-time work if available, most women in the study said that they would continue to work even if they had no financial need.
The study, conducted by Karen Christopher at the University of Louisville, does not particularly surprise me. I remember that in my early years of parenting I was grateful for the days I had to spend on campus, engaged in adult conversation — even if, at times, I was afraid I was no longer capable of it. I remember that it was both physically difficult and, at times, mind-numbingly boring, to be the primary caretaker of a small child. There were, of course, compensatory moments, and every parent I know lived (or lives) for those, in amongst the spilled milk, the cheerios crunching underfoot, the fifteenth repetition of “The Itsy-Bitsy Spider.” But I was glad to have a profession, glad to have another source of meaning in my life beyond the day-to-day of mothering, important — indeed, life-changing — as that was and still is.
It would be interesting to know if these findings would be replicated if we did not live in small nuclear families. I imagine child care would be more interesting, and easier, if it were shared among a group of sisters, cousins, mothers, and aunts who lived and worked together. I remember trying to create something of the sort with a babysitting co-op—we didn’t only share care (though that was a huge help), we also socialized together, bringing the kids to go play in one room (or several) while the parents talked in another. Those encounters gave us all a sense of community, of shared purpose, that is often only found in the working world. Is it, in other words, the paid work per se that is so stimulating and fulfilling, or is it simply the opportunity to interact with other adults?
I’m sure it’s not an either/or question, and the fact of the matter is that most of us do not live in communal settings where we share care. And even if we did, we might find such a social setting intolerable — privacy, for example, might be hard to come by.
I am glad, though, to see that there is now research to back up the sense many women have that working outside the home is not only helpful to their household economies, but to their own sense of well-being. What is especially striking in the study is the way that women were able to articulate their sense of well-being in relation to their work, far more (it seemed to me) that the guilt we so often associated with women who leave their children with nannies or in day care.
Alas, that Dr. Christopher’s findings did not suggest that the world is changing along with these women. Working mothers with male partners still did twice the housework and child care that their partners did; and, of course, the people caring for the children of employed mothers are themselves usually women, often mothers, and usually relatively low wage. So in order for some women to feel (and be) empowered, others may be suffering.
I am delighted to be beyond the days of searching for good child care, of worrying that I couldn’t afford good care, or that I was using it too much. And I’m glad to see that a new generation of mothers (the women in the study were from ten to twenty-five years younger than I) may be better able than I was to balance work and family—or at least to have a way of talking about it that gets beyond the simple binaries.