Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Judging and Juggling Motherhood with Work

One of my favorite radio shows is Michele Martin’s “Tell Me More” over on NPR. Earlier today, Martin posted a story that she read to close out her show titled “Motherhood Shouldn't Be A Competitive Sport.” With the sporting metaphor in the title, I was immediately drawn to the piece.

Martin’s thesis is that mothers are constantly being judged by various sectors of society, not only by men, but also by women – mothers and non-mothers alike. And much of the criticism is rooted in the expectations of mothers having to balance their working lives with their parenting lives, and the financial costs it takes to raise a child in today’s society.

Can I just tell you? Over the two years I have been doing this program, I have also heard all kinds of crazy stories from people believing they have a right to weigh in on the lives of mothers they do not even know. I have a few myself: When I was pregnant I was about to start an interview with a very famous and well-respected faith leader. I had been speaking with this man for about, oh, 30 seconds before he asked me if I planned to stop working when my children were born.

I asked him if he planned to send my children to college when they were grown.

Then there are all the people who think they can ask you why you aren't putting your kid in math-rocket-ship-piano camp. My answer is always the same: I'll be happy to take your input when you start writing the checks.

And speaking of that, don't get me started on the kinds of judgments poor mothers encounter when they fail to meet society's standards for their children.

Martin ended her piece with a great athletic metaphor, noting appropriately at the end of her piece, however, that parenting is not a competitive activity, even if it is covertly treated that way by society:

My take on this? It goes back to the judgment that people think they can direct at mothers. I think it comes from an attitude of powerlessness, or a sense that power is only derivative (it's handed over by someone else). So your worth is never your own accomplishment; it's always in comparison with others. It's like the difference between track and figure skating. In track, you just have to be the fastest. In figure skating, you have to please the judges.

And it's as if, as mothers, we are figure skating all the time, always looking for the perfect 10. And it's never going to happen because it isn't a competition.

I noticed something Martin did not address was that fathers are not held to these same parenting expectations. Especially in today’s western nuclear family, fathers are expected to go to work, be the breadwinners, and leave the parenting (i.e., mothering) to the mothers. As Sharon Hayes writes in The Cultural Contradictions of Motherhood, mothers are defined by society to be the better-suited parenting figures because:

…men are ‘emotional midgets’ with ‘one track minds’ who only think ‘man-thoughts’ and can only understand bread-winning (and dinosaurs). Women, on the other hand, can keep track of all the details, are good at juggling many tasks at once and, above all, are inherently good nurturers (p. 129).

This societal perspective leaves men free to work, free from familial responsibilities, free from nurturing and spending quality time with their kids, while working mothers must accept the dual role of being super mom and working professional. There is no serious concept of sharing parental nurturing between mother and father, let alone extended family members. Instead, working mothers must juggle dual roles or give up their careers, along with the financial/political power that accompanies occupational success.

Martin’s piece also reminded me of ESPN’s Sunday Conversation with WNBA basketball star of the Los Angeles Sparks, Lisa Leslie (see below):

In professional sports, obviously athletic moms have to deal with pregnancy and childbirth, which affects their athletic play temporarily (and in rare cases permanently). But notice how the piece opens, with the interviewer asking Leslie about how she copes with being a mom and professional athlete, as well as how the piece focuses on Leslie not only playing with her children, but also nurturing them and how she juggles motherhood and basketball.

How many male sports figures will be asked these types of questions on Father's Day? Would a sports reporter ever ask Shaquille O’Neal these questions about nurturing his children (as opposed to paying child support)? I suppose if that happened, Shaq would have to talk about all the kids he’s had with various women.

Sure sporting dads are shown playing with their kids in sports human-interest stories. However, there is rarely a distinct focus on raising and nurturing their children. So while professional moms are scrutinized for rendering their familial duties secondary to their careers, fathers are excused from being involved fathers.

Although the image below doesn’t speak exactly to the issue of mothering, it still relegates professional women who stand at the apex of their professions to the domestic sphere. It also shows that the expectations haven’t changed much over the years. Martina anyone?

For further sports media examples that highlight the societal obligations of athletic mothers, see these stories. I couldn't find too many on sporting dads, other than THIS ONE.

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