Double Jeopardy

A mother of two children told me that she had left her high profile job at a major company and was now working as an independent consultant doing similar work.  Somewhat apologetically she explained that she felt the need to spend more time with her children – to be more available to them.  She also clearly felt she had to justify this change she had made.

I remembered this conversation when reading about Anne-Marie Slaughter’s new book, “UNFINISHED BUSINESS, Women Work Family.”  Slaughter had left her State Department “dream job” working with Hillary Clinton after finding it impossible to reconcile the demands of work with family responsibilities.  She returned to her full-time academic post at Princeton, which offered flexible hours and was more compatible with family life.

Slaughter was amazed to discover that when she told friends and colleagues why she wasn’t going back to Washington she was met with disappointment, implied criticism and even scorn for her decision – as if she had somehow let her children do this to her.  Slaughter found herself confronting the reality that caring for children is not valued in the coin of the market place and is, in fact, a detriment to promotions, salary and the esteem of others.

This reality increasingly has been noted, commented on and bemoaned as the cause of the gender gap at the top of many professions.  An anecdote told about Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg is that when asked how many women she thought should be on the Supreme Court she said “Nine.”  In response to the chagrin of the questioner she then added, “Why are you shocked?  There were nine men on the Court and no one was shocked.”

The talents and personality characteristics of women increasingly are appreciated when they become part of the world of commerce, the professions and the arts.  Yet, the steps that need to be taken to enable that participation are what Slaughter refers to as “Unfinished Business.”  She is talking about the need for universal child care and for work policies that address the needs of families.

While such steps address many reality factors women confront, there is a deeper issue that plays a significant role in decisions like Slaughter’s and that of the mother referred to above.  In discussions of child development much attention is given to the issue of attachment – the importance of a connection to a significant caregiver in a child’s life.  The focus is usually on the importance to the child.  But attachment works both ways and relates as much to a mother as to her child.

A woman’s capacity to nurture her child is a source of important gratification to her – as are professional or work accomplishments.  In the modern world the two are often in conflict that may not easily be resolved even with a changed workplace.  Unhappily, the capacity to nurture is most often less valued both by a mother and by others.  In fact, mothers often find themselves in double jeopardy: criticized for their mothering while penalized in the work world for their need to meet family demands.

Caring for children is challenging.  Their initial dependence and primitive impulses can make life difficult, requiring both nurture and education.  We encounter with children the many issues that arise in living with others; the need to consider others while also considering needs of our own.  The very qualities that are valued tools in the workplace are honed in the nursery.  Yet, most of the feedback that mothers get for their child-rearing is critical in much that is written blaming parents for perceived problems in children.  We may say we value mother care, but not when it is offered by mothers.

Yes, we should work to make work life more compatible with family life.  But we should value and support – not criticize – mothers who opt to make children a priority for a time.