Mother and Child (1914) by Mary Cassatt. Public domain.

Tearing Down the Maternal Wall

In the nineties, the Mommy Wars were a big deal. I remember this well from my childhood because it was a defining fault line, clearly distinguishing my two primary social worlds (school and church). My Mormon community made sure I understood the wisdom of foregoing a career so I could be at home with children. The Boulder Valley public school system ensured that I was exposed to another view. Both worlds favored college education, so that choice was easy, but my 18-year-old self largely assumed I would eventually have to choose a side: domesticity or careerism.

Happily, that outlook was too bleak. The choices of my adult life were less stark than I feared, though it took me some time to work through the complexities. I came of age at a moment when the public conversation about motherhood was lagging behind actual changes in the world of work. In the twenty-first century, new possibilities (both encouraging and grim) have been opening for all sorts of non-traditional employees.

Overall, this is a very good thing. It was always ridiculous for moms to group ourselves artificially into Team Domesticity and Team Professional Achievement. Moms today enjoy a much wider range of opportunities than our own mothers did, especially because today’s workforce enables us to prioritize flexibility in a way that the old nine-to-five workday did not. We’re living in a whole new world, with at-home jobs, negotiable hours, and low barriers to small-time entrepreneurship. There’s a lot to like about that, especially because, as Patrick Brown and Serena Sigillito have persuasively shown, a majority of women do want both a work life of some kind and significant time at home with their children.

New opportunities also raise new questions and challenges, though, and we need to think carefully about what is best for parents as we negotiate a new labor landscape. There will be trade-offs, and different approaches to both company and public policy may realize different goods. Sometimes a measure that seems responsive to the demands of social justice might not be effective at securing the real good of mothers and families.

In particular, there are reasons to be cautious about heavy-handed state programs meant to give mothers a professional boost. The goals are admirable, but they could end up revivifying old culture wars that we thought we’d left behind.   

A Whole New (Professional) World

The paradigm for the Mommy Wars came out of the seventies, when Phyllis Schlafly and the second-wave feminists squared off over the Equal Rights Amendment. Eventually, the fighting petered out, but not because a ceasefire was ever negotiated between the professionals and the housewives. Instead, what really happened was that the world of work became incredibly confusing. Who can keep up with the changes? What even counts as working anymore? Even if we wanted to be judgey, it’s hard to keep track of everyone’s varied experiments with part-time jobs, at-home jobs, Etsy shops, or gig work. The mothers I know are filling all sorts of roles in virtual or community organizations, and it’s often unclear who is paid and who is a volunteer. Why ask?

Instead of fighting their own civil war, modern mothers have moved to the cutting edge of another social transformation. We’re making the most of a growing range of alternatives to traditional jobs, helping support our families even as we prove to fellow Americans how much we are capable of doing.

Not everything about this is good. One mom’s “opportunity” may be another’s “exploitation,” and the need for flexible hours or home-based work can leave mothers vulnerable to being overworked, underpaid, and underappreciated. Gig work doesn’t respect your need for sick leave, holiday breaks, or, crucially, maternity leave. And what works for a middle-aged mom picking up a little secondary income might be utterly inhumane for a desperate single mother trying to make ends meet. Think, for example, of the terrible stories about postpartum moms driving Ubers while their doctors beg them to rest.

It’s also important to recognize that, for all the strides we’ve made, mothers can still face some very hard choices with respect to work and family. Those choices are often starker than they need to be, due to the prejudices of employers and a widespread social failure to recognize the full value of caregiving. Many women would like to “lean out” for the baby and toddler years, and then return to the workforce when their children are older. Financially, that can make a lot of sense, since babies (as a rule) are cheap but very needy, while childcare is astronomically expensive. Older children need braces and education more than a helicopter attendant, and they benefit more from trips to Colonial Williamsburg. It seems like this strategy should be workable on the labor front too, given that many people today work into their late sixties or seventies, while employees on average spend a little less than five years at a given job. Why should companies hesitate to hire forty-something moms?   

Apparently, they do. In her recent piece on a “G.I. Bill” for homemakers Ivana Greco discusses the “maternal wall,” meaning pervasive prejudices that employers seem to have against women who have been out of the workforce for the sake of children. Some, such as Scott Yenor or Helen Andrews, would presumably see this barrier as a good thing; both have argued that it is healthy for law and labor policy to reinforce traditional gender roles. I agree with Greco that it is not good, both because it is unjust and because steep opportunity costs often deter women from leaving the workforce to care for children (and maybe from having them at all). As she rightly argues, caregiving mothers are serving a vital function, which should be appropriately honored. Like soldiers, mothers put their bodies on the line for a greater good, and their service is just as essential to the nation’s long-term survival. They deserve opportunities to build careers later in life. Also, if younger women can see those opportunities, they may be more willing to make the shorter-term sacrifices that babies tend to require.

For those of us who agree that it is desirable to “tear down this (maternal) wall,” the question remains: what method will be most effective? We could try to use law and policy as a battering ram, demolishing the wall as rapidly as possible. Antidiscrimination law is one possible tool, recommended by some legal scholars, while Greco’s “G.I. Bill” would include preferential hiring for caretaking parents in a wide range of careers. This would be modeled on the hiring and promotion preferences that military veterans are given in public sector, and the goal would be to open a wider range of careers to caretaking parents seeking to re-enter the workforce. There is certainly a satisfaction to the public acknowledgement such a measure would give to the value of care work. 

I myself favor a softer approach, however. This strategy would prioritize a labor environment conducive to easy workforce re-entry, while offering mothers certain tools that can help them “scale the wall” for themselves. Those might include educational and credentialing benefits, networking opportunities geared towards mothers, and further development of “momternships” that offer eligible re-entry points to lean-back-in parents. Although the benefits of this approach are more diffuse, and less satisfying on a level of social justice, it would dovetail harmoniously with social shifts that are already underway. The soft approach is optimal for helping mothers to win social honor through their own achievements. Heavier-handed methods might yield more immediate benefits, but there are real risks that we might lose some of the gains we’ve already won. We could easily find ourselves back in that old, unwelcome binary, as voters and state officials assume a greater role in deciding what kind of work mothers should do.

Mom Power

Very few people, surely, feel active antipathy towards cradle-rocking mothers. So why don’t employers want to hire lean-back-in caretakers? It’s interesting to speculate.

Many likely worry that family obligations will impede a mother’s commitment to her job. A thirty-something woman may still have another baby, and even past that age, employers may worry about divided attention. A mother may not be available for travel or late-evening work. She may need time off when her kids get sick or have other needs. A single man probably won’t be working under those same constraints. A father might, but employers still tend to default to the assumption that mothers—not fathers—are primary caregivers.

There may be other concerns as well. Even by those who like them, at-home moms are easily stereotyped as low-initiative, unambitious, and risk-averse. These attributes may be fine in a service job, but not in many other lines of work. A woman who has been out of the workforce for a long time (say, a decade or more) might also struggle to re-adapt to institutional expectations. Skills acquired in youth may have atrophied. Finally, employers may anticipate certain challenges when older matrons are added into an existing work hierarchy at a relatively junior level. Ironically, matrons are probably disadvantaged at times by the very fact that they have a certain level of gravitas. A 31-year-old supervisor may feel awkward giving a 45-year-old subordinate orders, even if she is cooperative and good-natured about it.

If these are the kinds of considerations that deter employers from hiring lean-in caretakers, then they are at least understandable. But I still firmly believe that matrons can be excellent job candidates in a wide range of fields. Our families do undeniably place real constraints on our time, but we have many compensating strengths. We’re used to shouldering responsibilities and dealing with crises. We’re adept at finding creative ways to make things work. We tend to be team players, not prima donnas perpetually looking for ways to advance ourselves. Maternal gravitas, even if nerve-wracking for young supervisors, can be an asset in many fields. Finally, our years out of the workforce have usually enabled us to develop skills and talents that can’t easily be listed on an application, because we haven’t yet applied them to a paid job. 

Short on useful work connections, and undersold by our resumes, mothers tend to need opportunities to prove to employers we’re worth their time and attention. But we are, or at least so I believe. We therefore stand to benefit from an employment landscape that gives us the opportunity to prove our worth.

What kind of labor environment is most advantageous to an unproven-but-capable person looking to boost her status and earning power? Two things are particularly critical. First, it is helpful when employers can offer opportunities at minimal risk to themselves. Let’s make it easy for an employer to give moms a chance. Second, it will help if meritocratic principles factor strongly in a work environment. In an office where people advance mainly through a steady process of logging hours (or years) on the job, lean-back-in mothers will be at a crippling disadvantage. But if performance really counts for something, they may be able to catch up more quickly, as the abilities they acquired out of the workforce help them to make up for lost time. A meritocratic ethos can enable late-entry workers to cut through some of the institutional advantages of the better-established.

Preferential hiring might fast-track caregivers into better jobs than they would otherwise be able to get, and in some cases they might rise to new challenges and flourish. But enshrining this as an institutionalized practice would inevitably introduce a new kind of bias. People will wonder whether newly hired matrons are qualified for their jobs or just the beneficiaries of social policy. This happens to soldiers too. However noble one’s intentions, it’s not possible to short-circuit an already existing hiring and promotion process without undercutting the status of the intended beneficiaries, at least to some extent. What’s more, any effort to create a preferential hiring process for caregivers would have to begin with a debate about what kinds of jobs moms are best suited to do. I’m already cringing imagining that conversation. We might find ourselves waxing nostalgic for the old Mommy Wars.

By a similar token, a more aggressive use of antidiscrimination legislation will have the predictable effect of making employers leerier of taking on matrons as employees. No one wants to risk expensive and embarrassing lawsuits. This could be especially crippling for lean-back-in moms, precisely because they are, in an employer’s eyes, an untested quantity. It’s very hard to tell from their paper qualifications what they’re capable of doing. Giving them a chance may seem too risky in any job demanding high levels of initiative, creativity, or skill, especially if employers know that they may be legally liable if a company shows a pattern of hiring and firing large numbers of lean-in mothers. If they’re hiring matrons at all, it will be safer to shunt them into less challenging positions, with lower ceilings but also lower risks of failure. This, of course, will only reinforce the same prejudices that antidiscrimination law was originally meant to destroy. Mothers just want steady, non-stressful jobs with reliable hours. They don’t belong in jobs that call for creativity, initiative, or risk-taking, and if a woman does value those things, she should probably forego having children or find a good nanny.

Mothers may seem like the people most deserving of special protections, and least likely to benefit from comparatively unregulated labor markets. I’m not convinced this is true. In our time, mothers are especially hindered by a widespread failure of the potential employers to recognize how much we can do. Insofar as this is so, a flexible and less-regulated workforce can be especially advantageous to lean-back-in moms. It gives us opportunities to prove ourselves, and it yields high reputational rewards for those who do. This is already happening to a great degree, and I suspect the maternal wall will continue to crumble, unless we go out of our way to reinforce it with counterproductive policy measures.

Forging a Path

My own experience (as a woman building a career in conservative media) suggests that maternity does create certain barriers to being taken seriously—up to the point where the tide reverses and it creates, if anything, a reputational advantage. The maternal wall is real, but if you can breach it, you look that much more powerful. I used to engage in secret parenting, but I don’t anymore. I think matronly gravitas probably helps me now.

This is exactly what one would expect in a professional world where people view motherhood favorably in the abstract, while still having doubts about mothers’ ability to deliver quality work. For a time, maternity may work to your disadvantage. Once you reach a certain level of professional achievement, though, people are impressed that you did it, and the obstacles you overcame along the way redound to your credit.

I realize that this may not be very comforting to women still struggling to find opportunities and develop earning power. But the payoff will never come at all unless a woman has opportunities to prove herself in the first place, and unless people believe, once she’s arrived, that her achievements are genuine. 

My argument has unapologetically focused on the needs and desires of women hoping to build careers for satisfaction or as an additional source of income for their families, not out of financial desperation. For postpartum Uber drivers, the concerns and priorities will obviously be very different, but precisely for that reason, I cannot address them here. Hard cases make bad law and very bad labor policy, and that conversation will inevitably feed into the thorny subject of anti-poverty policy. But if we want to ensure (say) that new mothers get adequate maternity leaves, it makes more sense to establish a direct transfer program than to revamp labor policy to achieve that specific goal.

For women seeking more ambitious careers, the key is to ensure that the employment ladder has some rungs low enough for lean-back-in caretakers to catch. Internships and networking opportunities are potentially helpful, but truthfully, gig work, freelance work, and social media tend to be among the greatest assets for moms looking to build flexible, from-home careers. In many fields, they represent a more effective on-ramp than any government program could possibly provide.

In my childhood, people led me to believe that moms had to choose between satisfying careers and the joy of being at home with growing children. That turned out to be wrong. Of course, work-at-home moms wrestle with our own challenges. We work hard, and don’t sleep as much as we’d like. Even so, I’m grateful for the opportunities I’ve had, and I’d like younger women to have the same (or even more). I suspect it may not happen if we prioritize getting our due over showing what we can do. We may end up with a world in which mothers find it relatively easy to get low-skill, low-paid but steady jobs, while the more interesting and creative work again slides out of reach, except for a certain group of highly ambitious women who are willing to make all necessary sacrifices on the family front.

I think we can do better than that. Can’t mothers enjoy both honor and opportunity? Let’s keep talking.