Several months into the pandemic, I received a call from a troubled resident. She had been pulled from her inpatient rotations and was working remotely from home with her husband and one-year-old child. Shortly into our conversation, she confessed the guilt she was feeling at not enjoying the enhanced alone time she now had with her baby. She was instead mostly anxious about the learning experiences she was missing, and the research and leadership opportunities she usually enjoyed that had been put on hold. Before she even completed her thought, I knew what she was feeling because I was feeling it too. Were we bad mothers if we felt some resentment at having to suddenly and relentlessly prioritize our children over our careers?
We are over half a year into the pandemic, and research is emerging about the weighted impact the pandemic is having on the careers of women. With limited options for childcare, many families are forced to make decisions and sacrifices to care for children. The sacrifices are disproportionately borne by women. The impact of women stepping back from careers to focus on their children will be significant. They will likely reverberate for many years, potentially derailing academic and leadership careers and further widening dramatic gender disparity gaps that were just beginning to narrow.
Much can be done about this in the workplace, and I support any and all recommendations on broadening our classification of promotion defining work and widening opportunities for women in all venues. But it still begs the question – why is this happening? Or more to the point – why are women still expected to make a disproportionate amount of career sacrifice to attend to the needs of children with two parents?
Outside of actually gestating, birthing, and breastfeeding a child (none of which needs to occur to become a parent, of course), there is nothing about raising a child that is inherently done better by a woman. Changing a diaper is not rocket science, and the vision of the bumbling dad who doesn’t know how to hold and comfort a baby is borderline offensive and doesn’t fool anyone. So why do we allow this narrative to persist?
Traditionally our society has painted a noble and sacred picture of motherhood. We bask in the glow of how motherhood is “the most difficult/rewarding/important job.” We tell people that whatever else is going on in our lives, we “always put the family first.” Even as professionals, we allow ourselves to be defined by our “mother”ness, and we carve out “mommy” groups where we privately support each other in our shared definition of motherhood.
In a world where we are locked out of so many rooms, it can feel good to have a domain that we claim as our own. But that room isn’t where the power is held in our society. And if we continue to consider women as the only ones who can raise the children (or the ones who do it the best), when a choice needs to be made, it is women who are expected to make the sacrifice. When push comes to shove, it is still assumed that the domestic labor is better left to us.
When Betty Friedan wrote The Feminine Mystique in 1962, she described the “problem with no name.” She revealed a generation of women secretly unhappy in the exclusive role of wife and mother that society had forced upon them. She found scores of women immersed in guilt for not finding fulfillment in marriage and children alone. While many of us may have moved past the expectation that we abandon careers to raise children, we haven’t yet been able to shake the assumption that we still should find our ultimate fulfillment in the role of mother. This is followed by the feeling that maybe there is something wrong with us when this turns out to not be true.
When my resident called, I asked her if her husband shared her guilt. The answer, of course, was no. The answer was the same in my home. Both of our husbands felt a great amount of pandemic induced stress, naturally. Both worried about their careers, their families, the well being of their children. But the guilt was borne by us alone.
My resident and I are both excellent physicians, and we are excellent mothers. Our husbands are excellent fathers. Our children feel safe, confident, and loved. We lean on our partners as much as they lean on us to share responsibilities equally, and we are fortunate that we are not trying to navigate these times alone. The well being of our children is a priority for all of us, but the way that plays out in day to day reality takes many forms and changes over time and circumstances.
If we want to achieve true gender parity in the workplace, we need to address it in our homes as well. Raising children is a challenge, but the expectation that it should solely or primarily be borne by the mother is outdated and unfair. It is time to acknowledge the caretaking abilities of men, even as we promote the career-driven skills of women.
Many famous stories have been told and retold with the recent passing of the feminist icon, Ruth Bader Ginsburg. We admire her strength and resolve in fighting the system to become one of the most powerful forces in moving towards equal rights for women. Through her challenging career, she and her husband shared responsibility in raising their two children. Their marriage has been held up as an example of what a woman can achieve if she has true equity in her home, even if society is slow to accept it. One of the most famous stories occurred at a time when she had been up all night writing a brief, and her son’s daycare called her (as they had done many times before) to pick him up for misbehaving. Her response can serve as a lesson to all of us as we attempt to navigate the unchartered territory of working from home, homeschooling, and home child care. “This child has two parents … It’s his father’s turn.”
Deborah Edberg is a family physician.
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