Motherhood and the Workplace
The most humiliating experience of my college career probably came when I was a junior. I wrote an essay about motherhood in which I really thought that I was among the first to read Nancy Chodorow and Dorothy Dinnerstein! I garbled the complex ideas about gender from their classic works and was promptly corrected by my professor!
I was reminded of this experience with the recent debates about gender and work since Alaska Governor Sarah Palin became the Republican vice-presidential nominee. As the mother of five children ranging in age from six months to nineteen years old, some have publicly questioned whether the Governor Palin has the time to devote to such a demanding position; the fact that the youngest is a child with Down syndrome and that her unwed 17-year old daughter is pregnant are mentioned as additional evidence that Governor Palin will not be able to handle the job should Senator John McCain become president. Others have argued that simply asking such questions is sexist and pointed out that we don’t usually consider the parenting obligations of male candidates or male executives.
Given the role that gender plays in our lives, most of us acknowledge that fatherhood and motherhood differ in more than name. In my “discovery” of Chodorow and Dinnerstein days, I argued that men and women can parent “equally”, by which I meant without regard to gender. I thought that mothers and fathers could be interchangeable. What do you think?
Now I realize that I was confusing what might be (given exactly the same socialization), with what is. One area where there is significant difference between mothers and fathers is in the amount of time devoted to parenting. In her book The Second Shift, Arlie Hochschild detailed the “second shift” of childcare and housework that women perform. Hochschild found that despite the fact that many women work outside the home (their “first shift”), we remain responsible for household chores and the primary caretakers of children. Today, mothers spend twice as much time with children—for example feeding, and bathing children—as fathers. (I recognize that there are many other family forms but this discussion is centered on two-parent heterosexual homes.)
If we can examine attitudes towards women in the workplace through the discourse on the candidates, we recognize that this is a nuanced issue in which children’s age is a major factor. The same din was not raised about Senator Hillary Clinton’s bid for the Democratic Presidential nomination this year, presumably because her sole child, Chelsea, the Stanford and Oxford graduate is in her late 20s, and even old enough to campaign for her and introduce her mother at the Democratic National Convention. Even when Geraldine Ferraro, the first woman nominated by either of the major parties as candidate for vice-president, was named as Walter Mondale’s vice-president nominee in 1984, her youngest child was already eighteen. Among the current crop of politicians running, along with Governor Palin, Senator Barack Obama is the only other with young children—two, ages seven and ten. (The youngest child of Senator Joe Biden is 27, while Senator McCain’s youngest is seventeen.)
The comparison that makes sense then is that of Governor Palin and Senator Obama. Conveniently, we can compare a mother and father. I have noticed that Senator Obama’s wife, Michelle Obama emphasizes her role as mother in interviews. On the candidate’s website, Mrs. Obama describes herself as “(f)irst and foremost” her children’s mother and she has spoken about involving her own mother to help care for the Obama children when she travels for the campaign. Although Senator Obama has talked about being a father in a way that sounds responsible, clearly it is Mrs. Obama who works the “second shift”.
Without Mrs. Obama’s statements about mothering would we wonder whether Senator Obama could concentrate on the presidency? Would we simply assume that she, like most women, is the primary caretaker of their children? If Mr. Palin countered our expectation and said that he is the primary caretaker of their children, would Governor Palin face fewer questions about her ability to juggle parenting and the vice-presidency?
In comparing presidents (or contenders) who are also parents of young children, some recent history is worth noting: When President Clinton entered the White House, Chelsea Clinton was only twelve, and I recall no concern about his attention being divided. (Further back, there have been lots of even younger children in the White House such as John Jr. and Caroline Kennedy, without worry about their “working father”).
Somebody has to care for underage children. Is it a biological imperative that women spend more time in this job? Regardless of what might be, this is the way it is currently. Therefore, what are the implications for mothers in the workplace? It is a separate, but worthwhile question to ask why women work two shifts.