American Motherhood Is 'Messed Up,' Author Says. Here's How She Wants To Fix It

Download Audio
Forget “Having It All” How America Messed Up Motherhood—And How To Fix It, by Amy Westervelt. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)
Forget “Having It All” How America Messed Up Motherhood—And How To Fix It, by Amy Westervelt. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)

In her new book, "Forget 'Having It All': How America Messed Up Motherhood — and How to Fix It," journalist and mother Amy Westervelt argues that in order to alleviate the plight of working, American mothers, both major policy and cultural changes need to be made.

In Japan — a capitalist, patriarchal society like the U.S., Westervelt points out — the government instituted several programs aimed at easing people's work-life balance, but failed to make the necessary changes to its intense work culture so people would actually take up the programs.

Westervelt says there are various changes families can make to help solve this problem — from getting out of the mindset that work and motherhood "are two competing forces in someone's life," to teaching boys at an early age how to be maternal.

"This whole idea that women are somehow naturally better at dealing with kids is just totally manufactured," Westervelt (@amywestervelt) tells Here & Now's Elise Hu, "and perpetuated by the way that we continue to raise kids."

Interview Highlights

On societal expectations of parents in the U.S.

“Women should parent like they don't work and work like they don't parent, and it extends to men too. We've done this thing where, just as we've sort of allowed women into the workplace but not really accommodated women's complete lives, we have now asked men to step up as parents, but they are still in this same sort of ideal worker scenario that women are.

“There's just this American individualism thing that has been there since the beginning, in part because of necessity — if you were here and your extended family was across an ocean, you kind of had to figure it out on your own — and in part because of the Puritan thing that really focuses on each individual person's interpretation of the Bible, abilities to succeed and that being tied to how good they are as a person. And all that kind of stuff just really got wrapped into this idea that every family is an island unto themselves.

“Also, I think motherhood has just always been sort of entwined with capitalism in a weird way in the U.S. … We put a big emphasis on competition over care. … We do this thing a lot in the U.S. where we talk about mothers in this way of like, 'Oh, they're nurturers, and they're so valuable, and the family is so important,' but when it comes down to it, we don't give any actual value to caregiving tasks. So, there is no monetary support for mothers in any real way. We focus on competition and capital and individual achievement at all costs over the public good.”

On how the problem of balancing work and family has significant resonance with women of color

“Even this whole idea of the American family, it's so different depending on what background you come from and what you saw growing up, what was normal to you, all of those kinds of things. I spoke with a woman who specifically researches black, middle class mothers — her name is Dawn Dow — and she was saying that she found that in most black communities, the idea that you would stay home is actually the weirder thing. These are women who've been balancing work and motherhood forever, and it's considered a good thing, a valuable thing, that you're modeling that for your children, that you are giving something to the community, that your life isn't just about you and your nuclear family. It's about a broader community and a broader public. … There's also the fact that in many cases, for both low-income white women and women of color across the board, there was not really an option to not balance those two things for a really long time.”

On Japan as an example of a country that introduced top-level policy changes to fix this problem, but that failed to change cultural issues playing a part in it

“I hear a lot from people — who talk about this whole work-life balance, motherhood-work balance thing — the dream is always, ‘If only we could just be like Sweden,’ and I'm always like, ‘Yeah, sure.’ ... When I started researching the book I wanted to specifically not point to Scandinavian policies, because I feel like there's a cultural mismatch there, and then I ended up doing some research in Japan and realized that actually they had done exactly this thing of taking Scandinavian policies and plopping them on top of a pretty patriarchal capitalist system, and it didn't work.

“There were several [Japanese] government workers who went and did research in Scandinavia and Western Europe, and they came back with specific policies that they were like, 'These are the ones that we need to do,' and so they rolled out subsidized daycare and equal parental leave for men and women and flex time for working parents of young children — all these things that we think would be the fix a lot of times. … What they found was that there just wasn't any uptake of it, in part because the culture hadn't changed along with the policies. So, you had these great policies, but you still had a culture that said men are the primary breadwinners and women are the caregivers and that said there is value to being the last person at work, and you had this older guard of executive bosses, who had not come up working in a system that allowed for balancing work with really any other aspect of life, so it was hard to get them to sort of shift their thinking too.

“So, it's been about 10 to 15 years now and they've since had to roll out a lot of sort of like cultural propaganda campaigns. The first was the Ikumen project — it was to encourage involved fatherhood, so they had a lot of famous men, who were dads, that would be on posters and things like that. There was a big push to include involved fathers in TV shows and to show rock stars with their kids. … Now, in the last couple of years, they've rolled out the Ikuboss program, which focuses on retraining these older, mostly men, who are in power in most companies, to enable their employees to take advantage of some of these policies.”

On what American mothers can do themselves to help fix their situation

“We do this thing a lot where we kind of expect things to just sort of naturally work out in ways. We have this tendency to think that if you have to try too hard or do anything too practically, that then it's flawed in some way or it's lame or whatever, but I kind of feel like that's what it takes to actually change things. You do actually have to make a concerted effort to be like, 'I am going to make sure that my kids don't see me as the one who's always doing household chores.' Or, I talked to a mom who regularly takes days away, even when it's not for work … just to sort of force this situation where she's not the only person who knows how to be a solo parent to her kids.

"If everyone needs to jump on the bandwagon and tell a 5-year-old that it's not OK for him to have a baby doll, then that seems like a problem to me."

Amy Westervelt

“Or — I think I mentioned this in the book — a lot of people maybe don't live near extended family or just don't have that kind of relationship with their family, but you can kind of create these bonds with people in your community. For example, I have a couple of my kids' friends who their parents and I trade off picking the kids up, and sometimes we'll trade off doing dinners at someone's house or whatever. Just find ways to kind of create that support system in your own life if it's not being offered to you externally.”

On teaching boys early on how to babysit and be maternal

“Having boys babysit is huge. I think letting boys be maternal in different ways too. Like my son, when he was like 4 or 5, really wanted a baby doll, and so many people just squashed that. They were just like, 'No, boys don't have baby dolls,' and I was just like, 'OK. Now we know why men aren't good with babies. Jeez.' If everyone needs to jump on the bandwagon and tell a 5-year-old that it's not OK for him to have a baby doll, then that seems like a problem to me if we want to genuinely encourage men to be involved parents and give them the skills to do it.”

Book Excerpt: 'Forget "Having It All" '

by Amy Westervelt

Much has been written, and will be written, about the myriad ways in which we embed gender rules and roles in both women and men at an early age. We learn early on—from our parents, extended family, teachers, religious leaders, society—which tasks and behaviors are expected and acceptable for boys and girls, and those ideas persist well into adulthood. In fact, various studies have pointed out the connection between what kids see in their households growing up and how they expect the division of labor in their homes and families to be divvied up as adults. We often encourage girls to be nurturing right from the start, buying them baby dolls or suggesting babysitting as a first job. If the reaction to my then four-year-old son asking for a baby doll for his fifth birthday is any indication—people either thought it was a weird request or a clear indicator of his homosexuality—the notion that babies are for girls is still very much entrenched in American culture. And that impacts who seems qualified to care for children farther down the road. As Brigid Schulte, former Washington Post reporter and current director of New America’s Better Life Lab, notes in her excellent book, Overwhelmed, “Both men and women are naturals at child care. It’s just that the culture has given women more time to get good at it.”

For me, the impact of sexism is at least as much about financial stability and basic survival as about more ephemeral things like feeling valued as a woman or a mother. Don’t get me wrong—both are important, and they tend to go hand in hand—but 70 percent of mothers in this country work, with mothers serving as the primary or sole earners in 40 percent of American households, and in recent years forces have conspired to make it exceedingly difficult to be a working mother in America unless you’re very rich. Sexism contributes to lower wages, particularly for mothers, and then there’s the high cost of childcare, diminished access to positions of power, and the expectation that women always put family before career.

In January 2016, I was walking down my street and had a revelation: At some point, mainstream feminism became more about teaching women how to game capitalism than it was about actually replacing or improving a system that fails both genders. Many people have continued to suffer under this approach, and mothers have been particularly screwed.

While chewing on this admittedly unoriginal idea, I shuffled my two-weeks-post-partum body down the street to the mailbox. There was a check waiting for me, which was a huge relief because rent was due, and I had no idea how we’d pay it if that check was late. On my way back home, I patted myself on the back. Having a second baby had not slowed me down at all! I was supporting all of us, and I had only had to take an afternoon off to give birth. I was emailing from the recovery room, and I hit a big deadline two hours after delivery. No one I worked with even knew I’d had a baby. Go me! Power woman!

Except, wait a minute. Why on earth was anything about that scenario good? Why did I feel that was an accomplishment—or that I couldn’t tell people I was having a baby? And why did that seem somehow stronger or more feminist than taking a normal amount of time to recover from giving birth and to bond with my child?

In the year after his birth, this was my average day:

4:00 a.m. Wake up (I use the phrase “wake up” loosely as it implies actually being asleep at some point. With an infant and a toddler, this is not a given.)

4:15 a.m.– 6:15 a.m. Work

6:15 a.m.– 7:30 a.m. Make and eat breakfast

7:30 a.m.– 8:15 a.m. Pack lunches and snacks while husband gets kids dressed

8:30 a.m. Drop off kids at day care

8:45 a.m.– 4:15 p.m. Work

4:30 p.m. Pick up from day care

5:00 p.m.– 5:30 p.m. Make dinner

5:30–6:00 p.m. Eat dinner

6:00 p.m.– 7:00 p.m. Hang out with baby, put him to bed

7:00 p.m.– 8:00 p.m. Hang out with preschooler, husband puts him to bed

8:00 p.m.– midnight Work

It was grueling, and that’s with being able to afford part-​time day care. Before you say, “Where the hell was her spouse?” consider that in 30 percent of American families, one person is doing all of this. In my case, my husband was there, putting the toddler to bed, and often picking the kids up or making dinner, and looking after the baby half the time so we didn’t have to pay for full-​time day care. But he was also trying to get a company off the ground and trying to rustle up other paid work so that I wouldn’t have such a crazy schedule (and for the record, I like to cook and I’m picky about what I eat and what the kids eat, so I’m not great at letting him help on the food front). I have, of course, made several personal choices that contribute to the current state of affairs in my own life: I chose to have kids, I chose to live in a small town, and back when I was nineteen and couldn’t predict the media apocalypse, I chose to hitch my career to an industry that’s been paying steadily lower wages since 1970.

Still, the idea that any one person’s choices are the only thing to blame for misfortune in a system that in reality offers limited choices is problematic, as Ann Crittenden spends an entire chapter detailing in her best-selling book The Price of Motherhood. The notion that women deserve to be paid and promoted less because they choose to have kids, and thus spend time on something other than a career, Crittenden points out, “assumes that raising a child is just another lifestyle option, like choosing to run long distance or play serious tennis”:

The consequences of those decisions are private, of no concern to the rest of us. If people who opt to nurture and educate the next generation are systematically handicapped in the labor market, if they find it hard to make a decent living or get ahead without neglecting their children, why should we care? It’s their choice. . . . The big problem with the rhetoric of choice is that it leaves out power. Those who benefit from the status quo always attribute inequities to the choices of the underdog. The modern version of the old “true woman” argument—the true woman appreciates that her proper place is in the home—is the “choice” argument.

Crittenden goes on to point out the stark lack of choice available in work arrangements in the United States, particularly in comparison to various European countries (Sweden, of course, and also the Netherlands), where a variety of well-​paid part-​time jobs are available. In fact, in the years since her book was first published, the European Union has mandated parity in wages and benefits for part-​time workers, providing working parents with valid choices.

The “myth of choice” is particularly problematic for women of color. As Michelle Alexander points out in The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, the idea of personal responsibility and choice enables both institutions and individuals to justify every form of systemic oppression, telling themselves that the oppressed “deserve” their fate.

I spoke to literally hundreds of women from all walks of life. I keep coming back to something one of them, Shirley, a former Mormon and mother of four grown children, said: “When my children were young, I just understood that that was not my time, that that was a period of time in my life that was really for my children.”

In some ways, it’s a lovely sentiment, the picture of maternal devotion. It’s somewhat appealing too. It feels simple and stress-​free to be pulled only in one direction. But for me it was also deeply rattling, and not just because it assumes that all mothers can afford this level of self-​sacrifice (in my case, as in the case of many mothers, it was not an option to give up work, financially). Mostly it bothered me because it insinuates the need for a prolonged “time-​out” for mothers that I see as unrealistic and not entirely healthy. It underscores an expectation of selflessness in mothers that’s a trap for women. It also implies that any mother who works for reasons other than financial security is selfish. But it’s not as though you can just cease being a human because you have a child.

Furthermore, what happens when that child no longer needs your time? How does one reboot back into a sentient being? I’m not saying that children don’t need an adult, ideally a parent or at least a close relative, around in their early years. And of course, it’s important for mothers to bond with their children and vice versa. But ultimately, I don’t believe that choosing to have kids should have to mean the total self-​abnegation and self-​betrayal that it continues to require of women.

Excerpted from "Forget 'Having It All': How America Messed Up Motherhood--and How to Fix It," by Amy Westervelt. Copyright © 2018. Available from Seal Press, an imprint of Perseus Books, LLC, a subsidiary of Hachette Book Group, Inc.

Emiko Tamagawa produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Jackson Cote adapted it for the web.

This segment aired on November 13, 2018.



More from Here & Now

Listen Live