We like to think that women have come so far.
We have our educations. Today, our education system not only allows girls to thrive, but it has enabled the first generation in history—Millennials—in which women are more highly educated than men.
We have choice. Access to family planning has given American women life-changing control over their fertility and the decision to start a family.
We have basic respect. Today, our marriages are built on the principle that partners are equal regardless of gender.
We have careers. It’s utterly common for a woman to return to work after having a child.
We have acknowledgment. And our culture even declares that caregiving is essential work for both mothers and fathers.
We have possibilities. And all of the potential our lives as women hold now gives girls the hope that anything is possible.
But the truth is that American motherhood has the veneer of being modern, without any of the structures to support our actual lives today.
We have the pressure to work, without the support of paid maternity leave or affordable childcare. The lip service to gender equality, without male partners willing to equally share the load. The recognition that it takes a village, but scorn for women who actually collaborate with a village of nannies, daycare providers and housekeepers.
All of these basic dignities add up to give us the impression that in 2021, men and women are on equal footing.
In reality, once a woman in America today becomes a mother, our society transports her back in time, to the 1950s. In an instant, generations of sexist ideas and structures descend back upon her. This highly-educated, ambitious woman becomes the default parent, endures the “motherhood penalty”—a financial penalty for her parenthood, and bears the mental load of motherhood.
Women on the whole have made enormous progress. Our parenting culture, however, is still stuck in another century.
Jessica Grose at the New York Times nailed it when she called mothers the “shock absorbers” in society, a fact proven by the recently released statistic that nearly 1 million working American mothers dropped out of the workforce in September 2020 alone. These women, and millions more who have left or lost their jobs since the pandemic hit, once again are left picking up the slack from a culture that assumes mothers will just “make it work,” this time somehow managing careers and homeschool, without any governmental or social support required.
Mothers are done being society’s “shock absorbers.” We don’t want to take it anymore. We want systemic change on all levels of society. We want to live in a modern world where mothers and fathers can have careers and are both present and involved at home. We want our government, corporate and cultural approaches to enable men and women to thrive as people—and parents.
The 1950s weren’t just a time. They were an idea: that home life belonged to women, and that the outside work-world belonged to men. It’s the idea that women should be the primary caretakers of children and home—and do it with a smile. That men alone should bear the burden of earning wages with all the subsequent pressure that comes with it. The idea that children need constant access to their mother—but not to their father. It’s the notion that heterosexual, married, male-breadwinner homes should be the norm, and anything outside the norm should be punished through disadvantage, ignorance and shame.
And though our culture likes to hold the 1950s up as a happy family ideal, they were also in their own way a historic anomaly, with its emphasis on modern inventions like the nuclear family, paid work done away from the homestead, and atomized life in the suburbs.
The 1950s were 70 years ago, but our society keeps wanting to send mothers back there.
We send mothers to the 1950s when our governments cancel school without a plan to enable parents to work. Guess who quits their jobs to pick up the slack? Millions of American mothers.
We send mothers to the 1950s when husbands and male partners assume their wife can lead homeschooling during the pandemic, or take the kids to the doctor when they’re sick, or continually ignore the thousands of tasks it requires to take care of children.
We send mothers to the 1950s when we equate “good mothers” with martyrdom.
We send mothers to the 1950s when our male-dominated corporations refuse to embrace flexible and remote work, leaving women to drop out of the workforce and men to fear asking for flexibility.
We send mothers to the 1950s when we idolize the nuclear family at the expense of the broader village, leaving women to do the work of an entire community all by themselves.
We send mothers to the 1950s when we refuse to fund paid maternity leave and instead treat giving birth like an economic inconvenience, rather than the literal creation of our economic future.
We send mothers to the 1950s when we refuse to acknowledge the reality of systemic racism and its impact on all aspects of Black and Brown lives, from education to infant mortality to housing.
We send mothers to the 1950s when we shame them for needing help—mental health, childcare support, cleaning services.
We send mothers to the 1950s when we elect leaders who refer to them as ‘housewives.’
We send mothers to the 1950s when we refuse to change our culture, our policies and our narratives to reflect the lives modern families live today.
American mothers don’t want to live in the 1950s anymore.
And I’d venture to guess that for a lot of mothers in the 1950s, life wasn’t quite as idyllic as we’ve all been led to believe.
Mothers today want the full, modern, multifaceted lives their feminist forebears sacrificed for and dreamed about. They want government policies that make childcare affordable and accessible—even, perhaps especially, in a pandemic.
They want a culture that sees mothers as critical workers worthy of support, not as default “shock absorbers” in society.
They want male partners who step up to raise the children they helped create with a spirit of true equality.
They want America to stop being two-faced about family values, the advancement of women and the critical role that fathers must play in their families.
It’s 2021. And the way we treat mothers is an epidemic.