On Working Mothers and Everybody Else

In response to my last Feministe childfree spaces reaction post, a commenter brought up that part of the reason that childless or childfree people have such negative reactions to people with children is because of the way that society implicitly favors them (or, as she said, “I don’t believe that another woman’s decision to have a child means her wants take precedence over my needs.”). Her main example was this:

Women/men with kids are less likely to be let go from jobs even though there is more help available to them. So if there’s a choice in laying off a childless/childfree person and a person with kids? Guess who usually goes? It’s usually not the latter even though the latter is likely to get way more help than the former.


It happened to friends of mine and to me, literally we’ve been told that the reason the slacker with kids in the next office hasn’t been let go and we’re being let go despite having a better word record is that he or she “has a family to support”.

Who would have known that our loved ones aren’t a family? I’m sure a lot of discrimination does go on, especially against pregnant women but then that’s largely spurred on by the ones who take a cake with it, I’ve known women who were pretty much permanently on maternity leave.

I think this is a really common perception of how the business/working world works in relation to those with kids and those without. I have had this conversation with friends of mine over and over again. The truth, though, is that, again, this is not about child-plus people versus people without kids. This is a sexist and gendered problem, where men with children are favored above and beyond, while women with children, in particular, are at a major disadvantage, though men, no matter what, outstrip women in the business world (see this recent Feministing post).

This certainly comes from a very old idea about the living wage, in which businesses were supposed to provide their male workers with living wages so that women would not have to work (of course, implicit in that – as Marxist feminists have rightly pointed out – is the unpaid work of women in the home and family that is, in that system of capitalism, ignored and made invisible, though it is still critical for the system to work at all). But the idea of a living wage and that men need to make a certain amount because they are “providers” is still with us. Women are often assumed to have a provider from their family earning a living wage that includes them. It’s not right at all, obviously, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t happen.

It also comes from a society that still often demonizes (or at least heavily guilt trips) working women and upholds mothers who stay at home with their kids (and, of course, that problem has a major racial edge. Things in the business world and the world at large are very different for mothers of color, including the often flip-flopped ideas about WOC who stay at home with their children instead of working. For more, see this. See this. See this. See this. And this. Read Womanist-Musings, but in particular this, this, this, and this. And also, over at Feminsite, maia’s guest posts (she wrote the initial child-free spaces post): this and this).

Back to the issue at hand: the idea that people with kids in the working world have an advantage over those without children.

But here is a new article in the New York Times, “A Labor Market Punishing to Mothers” by David Leonhardt, that is about how working women with children are not at any kind of advantage and, in fact, women without children (though still making less then their male counterparts, both with and without kids) have the upper hand over working mothers:

Over all, full-time female workers make a whopping 23 percent less on average than full-time male workers.

What’s going on? Men and women are not identical, of course. Many more women take time off from work. Many more women work part time at some point in their careers. Many more women can’t get to work early or stay late.

And our economy exacts a terribly steep price for any time away from work — in both pay and promotions. People often cannot just pick up where they have left off. Entire career paths are closed off. The hit to earnings is permanent. […]

The main barrier is the harsh price most workers pay for pursuing anything other than the old-fashioned career path.

“Women do almost as well as men today,” Ms. Waldfogel said, “as long as they don’t have children.” […]

A recent study of business school graduates from the University of Chicago found that in the early years after graduating, men and women had “nearly identical labor incomes and weekly hours worked.” Men and women also paid a similar career price for taking off or working part time. Women, however, were vastly more likely to do so.

As a result, 15 years after graduation, the men were making about 75 percent more than the women. The study — done by Marianne Bertrand, Claudia Goldin and Lawrence Katz — did find one subgroup of women whose careers resembled those of men: women who had no children and never took time off.

On the other end of the spectrum, low-income women generally do not have a choice between career and family. Many are single parents. Their chances of escaping poverty are hurt by the long-term costs of taking time off after childbirth and having little flexibility in their schedules.

Taking the next step toward workplace equality probably has to start with an acknowledgment that most parents can’t have it all — at least as long as part-time work, flexible schedules and long leaves do so much career damage. […]

The best hope for making progress against today’s gender inequality probably involves some combination of legal and cultural changes, which happens to be the same combination that beat back the old sexism. We’ll have to get beyond the Mommy Wars and instead create rewarding career paths even for parents — fathers, too — who take months or years off. We’ll have to get more creative about part-time and flexible work, too.


[SIDENOTE: There are HUGE, I say, HUGE problems with this article.

First, he’s really vague about what types of jobs he is talking about. It feels like he is talking about higher paying, more corporate positions. He mentions low-income women, but he is really focusing on things like medicine and law. But this is almost always an issue when this topic is discussed, especially in the mainstream media (and perhaps within Feminism, too). The experience of all mothers is not the same because it isn’t simply about being a “woman”. It’s about being a poor or a wealthy mother. Or a black mother or latina mother or white mother. Or a single or married mother. Or a mother with a kid or six kids. Or a mother who dates women or one who dates men or one who dates both. All of these things factor into how people perceive these women and treat them accordingly. It’s not as simple as mother versus non-mother. Ever. Period.

And then there’s this:

The fact that the job market has evolved in this way is no accident. It’s a result of policy choices. As Jane Waldfogel, a Columbia University professor who studies families and work, says, “American feminists made a conscious choice to emphasize equal rights and equal opportunities, but not to talk about policies that would address family responsibilities.”

In many ways, the choice was shrewd. The feminist movement has been fabulously successful fighting for antidiscrimination laws that require men and women to be treated equally. These laws have not eliminated the blatant sexism of past decades — think “Mad Men” — but they have beaten back much of it.

Yes, yes. Those feminists and their policies. Whatever. I call “Bullshit” on this red herring. Feminists are rarely the people who make policy decisions, either legislatively or corporately. Just because American feminists chose to emphasize equal rights and equal opportunities does not mean that this is their fault. If he wants to stop the “Mommy Wars” (which I hate in and of itself because it implies that the “internal” fighting between women is the problem), then maybe he should stop only looking at the ladies. Sheesh.

Finally, in our society, women, in general, are expected to be caregivers. That doesn’t necessarily mean that you have to be a mother or even a caregiver to a child. Childfree/childless women, within their families, are probably still expected in most cases to take on the responsibilities of being the primary caregiver, either to their partner, their parents, their brothers or sisters, etc. (Of course, I am not saying this is true for EVERYONE, but it is true for most. Even in my family where we do our best to be “fair” about everything, we are also both working in the cultural frame that surrounds us and that was modeled for us by our parents, our friends’ parents, other family members, etc. And it is hard to work against that all the time and I often find myself, both because I want to and because it just works out that way, being the caregiver). So, while it is easiest to talk about women with children and their obligations in both the professional and personal aspects of their lives, when people talk about the disadvantages of the marketplace for working mothers, I really believe they mean “women”. Obviously that is not true for this article. At all.

At the same time, though perhaps it is true that women are the main caregivers for all sorts of people in their lives, not just children, having children does seem to be one of the largest detriments to advancement in jobs and careers, certainly in the kind cited in this article (though perhaps we know this because people look for it – I think it will be interesting in the coming years as the children of babyboomers begin to take on the caregiving of their elderly parents. Elder care may be the new front in the fight for maternity and paternity rights in the business world. It would also be nice if these reports and studies focused on a wider range of working mothers, especially when it comes to choices of careers, income levels, etc.)


Here’s my thing about companies that have benefits that specifically target people who have children. First, these benefits are about ladies (and, therefore, a feminist issue). And second, when a company focuses on how to make their business more friendly to people (or women, really) with children, everyone benefits from a better corporate atmosphere that acknowledges and promotes a personal/professional balance.

I’m going to get personal here and talk about what I know.

My husband’s company provides benefits to employees that they would otherwise not receive if they do not have a child. The one main benefit I am talking about (and that I know about) is the subsidy he receives that helps us significantly pay for our son’s day care. There are, of course, stipulations. First, both parents have to work or be in school full-time. Second, this is obviously only something you receive as long as your child is not in school. Third, there are certain types of care they will pay for (mainly day care centers) and many that they won’t (i.e. nannies). Fourth, the subsidy is returned to us via his paycheck so we pay taxes on it (though that is hard to complain about, at all, but it is a stipulation).

Let’s be honest about this. First, it’s an awesome perk of his company and we are forever grateful for it. It’s a privilege. Second, it is a benefit that was created so his company could hold onto female employees, the ones who are more likely to leave the business world after having a child, especially as child care costs continue to skyrocket (it’s basically a crisis). Though I have no hard data, we all know that if this benefit did not exist, the main people (by a huge margin) that would be affected would be female employees (if you link here, you have to also to read Womanist Musing’s response to this NYT article). So, while, yes, it privileges “people” with children, it, most often, is giving a benefit to a group (women with children) who are already at a disadvantage because they are women who have children. This benefit that my husband receives may seem unfair to those without children, of course. And I get that. But I believe it was a benefit created by a company trying to even the incredibly unequal playing field for not just parents (men and women), but specifically for working women, since women bare the significant burden of childrearing (and that is a fact that we can’t simply push aside even if there are plenty of child-less women).

And also, while it is there to help female employees of his company, it is also benefiting the spouses of male employees who work there who may otherwise have to give up their jobs if there was no subsidy (like me, for instance). Thank god for the subsidy because it allows me to remain a poorly-paid ABD graduate student.

So, onto my next point: companies that focus on giving benefits to women with children are (probably) going to widen their scope of benefits in a way that promotes better personal/professional balance for all (or most) employees. Again, my example comes from my husband’s company.

His company has been voted not only the best place in America to work (this year, during the recession) but also, and importantly, one of the best companies to work for if you are a mom (Oprah even highlighted it because of its amazing benefits, campus, etc., though I can no longer find that video anywhere. 60 Minutes also did a piece on it in 2003 for the same reasons.). A HUGE part of why the company is so stellar is that it is built around the idea of “family” that is all-inclusive (because as the commenter above said, we ALL have families, those with or without children). So, all employees have more flexibility and more resources. And I feel like the fact that it is great both overall and for working mothers isn’t an accident. Here is what the company says about its efforts in the 1980s to provide in-company cheap/free childcare and how that effort led to other benefits across the board:

Faced with the prospect of losing some valuable programmers who were hesitant to return to work following maternity leave, the company opened the first on-site childcare center in the basement of one of its world headquarters buildings in 1981. This was at a time when corporate-sponsored daycare was almost unheard of.

A recreation and fitness center, health care center and a café serving gourmet meals followed the opening of the childcare facility, further enhancing a culture that had always been responsive to employees’ personal as well as professional needs.

And they have remained at the top for decades now, for both working parents, mothers in particular (because stats almost always exclusively focus on working moms) and simply for employees. They are one of the companies that has also done really, really well through the economic turmoil of the last year.

In response to Fortune‘s listing it as the number one company to work for this year, the Orlando Sentinel showed how the top companies on that list were also good companies for parents (surprise!), with my husband’s company leading the way with the lowest out-of-pocket expense for child care for its employees.


Yes, there are most certainly cases where people with children are favored at work. But it seems that having children only favors men. Women with children have a harder time in the business world (probably any arena of employment) than women without.

So, benefits like subsidies for child care appear, on the surface, to favor ONLY and ALL parents but, in truth, really are there to help women stay in the workforce, to feed their families, and to lessen their burden on balancing the personal and professional. And that leads to benefits for everyone.

Because, based on what I know, companies who focus on women with children and try to make it easier for them to remain on the job often end up making their work environment more attractive for all employees since we all (ALL) struggle with the balance of personal and professional in our own way.

Let’s face it, the corporate/business/professional/employment world is built in a certain way to favor people who can give and give and give and give and give (whether you are salaried or working per hour, whether in a corporate cubicle or behind the register). As my friend Mo said about her profession, “[it’s] not anti-woman, it’s just damn hard to have any sort of family life. everyone in my office with kids has at one point or another gone home just to put their kids to bed, come back to the office to work til 3 or 4, gone home for a couple hours of sleep, then woken up with the kiddos to start the work day over again. so in some cases it’s not particularly that an office is anti-woman or anti-family, it’s just the standard expectations of the profession, in which there are deadlines and clients that are more important than any employee, whether male or female.” A change in the way business and employment works is a first step. My husband’s company is one company leading that way. And, to be repetitive, one of the main reasons it is in the lead is because decades ago it chose to care about its working mothers and that – in effect – opened the company up to many, many other benefits for all its employees.

One would imagine that a government and the society it serves that focuses on making life easier for women with children would also make for a government and society that is more attractive to all its citizens, since we almost all struggle with balance, resources, time, etc.

My point, once again, is that if we are fighting for the equality of women, we have to fight for mothers as much as anyone else. That’s all.


3 thoughts on “On Working Mothers and Everybody Else

  1. You were really able to spin straw into gold with this post. That was an incredibly silly comment that you used as a bouncing off point for a fabulous post. I was absolutely stunned by the abject selfishness of some of those anti-child Feministe commenters. I’m childfree myself, but I would nonetheless like to live in a civilized society where we treat one another decently even when it does not immediately benefit myself, with the idea in mind that a well-adjusted society always benefits us all in the long term. I had thought that to be a central philosophy of progressivism, so, wow, it was something to read those threads. The straw men were just flying right and left; I think I’ve been disturbed by ill-behaved children in a restaurant all of one time and *quite* a bit more often by ill-behaved adults. It’s hard not to feel like there’s something being heavily projected onto children and mothers there, and I think you’re absolutely right to point to the larger societal angst of a corporate run America. Thansk for this.

  2. Thank you so much for reading and commenting. They really mean a lot, especially about this topic.


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