“It’s not my fault you’re bitter about being a failure. That’s on you for making bad decisions.”
I was still half-asleep that morning when I read the text, which had arrived late the night before. It was as unexpected as a punch in the gut. I was being called a failure. The word had an ugly, anti-social ring to it.
The day before I had foolishly engaged in a social media debate with a woman of my generation, someone I considered a casual friend. I will call her “Jane.”
We had met a few years earlier through mutual friends. I was in my early-30s, a freshly minted PhD in English, a full-time instructor at a college on the prairies. Jane was a wunderkind lawyer in town, in her mid-20s. We were both married, both homeowners, both striving young women in our chosen professions. Over the next few years, we both gave birth to our first child.
We were both diligently following the script set for upper-middle class and upper-middle class-aspiring women: get an undergraduate education; get more education to qualify for a white-collar profession; get married; wait the prerequisite few years to “establish” yourself in your career; then and only then have a baby or two; go back to work and carry on exactly as if you didn’t have a baby or two; outsource the raising of those babies to other (typically poorer) women; encourage your children to perpetuate this cycle.
But then I diverged from the path. My husband and I left the prairie town, I gradually left academia, and I began raising our son more or less full-time, albeit more through circumstance than intention. My stock fell in my old friend’s eyes. I had left the ranks of “young professional women” and had descended into the sub-caste of “stay-at-home moms.” And to Jane, a strong self-identified feminist, being a stay-at-home mom meant being a failure.
Jane Is Representative of Her Kind
Jane is not an outlier as a white-collar feminist contemptuous of women who choose full-time motherhood. She’s only notable because of the bluntness of her articulation of disdain. My female peers in academia were more careful to disguise their rigid expectations.
Some would casually ask if I was taking my full maternity leave, implying that doing so could be career-damaging. A few years earlier, as a single graduate student, I said nothing as I listened to two older female professors—supposedly my mentors—mock another young woman in my program for daring to get pregnant during her studies. “She’s not taking this seriously,” was the general sentiment.
Camille Paglia, one of the most insightful feminist voices on this topic, has long noted mainstream feminism’s devaluation of motherhood. She assigns much of the blame to second-wave feminists, going back as far as Betty Friedan. (It is worth noting that Gloria Steinem, who makes all the right noises today when asked if stay-at-home moms can still be feminists, called housewives “parasites” in the ‘70s.)
Paglia often observes, correctly, that feminism is still dominated by bourgeois women’s values and concerns. The amassing of degrees and career advancement are viewed as critically important, child-rearing and household management, lesser accomplishments at best, and at worst, even degrading.
She writes, “Motherhood has become so secondary to professional ambitions in the American middle class that it is impossible to imagine a second-year undergraduate to an Ivy League university, for example, announcing to her friends that she plans to drop out, get married, and have a baby. She would be treated as a traitor to her class. ‘You’re wasting your life,’ she would be told.”
Dismissing Women Who Choose Full-Time Motherhood
Hillary Clinton, a frequent target of Paglia’s ire, is the archetypal example of the second-wave feminist who is dismissive of full-time motherhood. Her “deplorables” comment was not the first time she made a classist remark that cost her politically.
In 1992 she told a reporter who had asked her about continuing to work as a lawyer while her husband was governor of Arkansas, “I suppose I could have stayed home and baked cookies and had teas, but what I decided to do was fulfill my profession, which I entered before my husband was in public life.” It was a revealing statement, clearly communicating Clinton’s belief that “professional” work is more important than domestic labor.
We are several removes from the heyday of second-wave feminism, but these are the cultural currents that still feed feminism today. Although it has become politically imprudent to say outright that stay-at-home mothers are “wasting their potential,” a stigma remains. Among a certain group of high-achieving young women in the West, it is understood that being “just a mom” is not enough.
Working-Class Women Have a Different Perspective
I have noticed a sharp division between the views of working-class women and professional-class women on the topic of stay-at-home motherhood. Unlike many cultural commentators, I have a toe in both worlds. I grew up in rural New Brunswick, Canada, in a village of about 500 people. Most people worked in farming or forestry.
I stepped out of that Norman Rockwell-esque setting to attend university, eventually completing a master’s in Toronto and then a PhD. I worked in Ottawa and for an non-governmental organization abroad. In these settings, I noted the vast difference in cultural attitudes among the governing class and the working class.
There is variation among individuals, obviously, but the non-college-educated mothers I know are often of the opinion that a person is lucky if she can afford to stay at home with her children. It means her husband or partner is making enough money to support the entire family, something increasingly rare today.
Many working mothers would choose to work less or not at all if they had the option. Equity feminist Christina Hoff Sommers often cites a 2012 national Pew Research Center poll asking mothers what their “ideal” life-work situation would be. Forty-seven percent would prefer to work part-time, 20 percent would prefer to stay home with their children; and 32 percent would prefer to work full-time. That means a good two-thirds of American mothers do not want to be working full-time.
Outsized Expectations that Hurt Women
A feminist culture that disparages full-time motherhood necessarily places intense pressure on women to continue working and to maintain their level of professional success even after becoming mothers. Serena Williams is a good example. Her infamous on-court meltdown in the final of the 2018 U.S. Open was viewed by many commentators as the righteous rage of an athlete long subjected to racist and sexist double standards.
That’s not what I saw. I saw a bone-tired, 36-year-old working mom trying to compete with a 20-year-old childless woman at the peak of her personal fitness.
All year long in the media and on her Instagram, Williams talked about her struggle to balance the demands of motherhood and being an elite athlete. In Vogue, she discussed postpartum emotions so intense they caused her to break down “many times.”
In a CNN article earlier that year, Williams also revealed the life-threatening ordeal she went through giving birth, including an emergency C-section, and the discovery of an embolism and a hematoma. She spent the first six weeks of motherhood confined to bed. That was September 2017. Yet by February of the next year she was back out on the court, visibly heavier and slower, but willing herself to compete as Serena Williams 2.0: Supermom.
There was a masochistic quality to Williams’ rocky return. I couldn’t help but wonder why it was deemed antifeminist to say what was blindingly obvious, given her record in 2018: that she was not as competitive post-baby as she was pre-baby. At least not yet.
But why did she have to be? Why was she pushing herself to the brink of exhaustion? And why are so many people so invested in the idea that Williams has to be as great of an athlete as she was before giving birth?
I blame mainstream feminism. Women of my demographic have been marinating in the same toxic feminist cultural stew our entire lives. We must be as fit, attractive, and competent as we were pre-baby. As a result, our internal critic hisses, “Failure!” into our ears when we don’t immediately bounce back from childbirth.
Perhaps Williams will bounce back and win another Grand Slam or Two. And perhaps she won’t. But until it’s okay for Williams—and all of us—not to bounce back, feminism has failed our generation of women.
When I envision female role models, the formidable Paglia comes to mind, but so does a woman who has chosen to embrace a more “traditional, gender-based role.” “Laurie” is a relative from my home town, a warm-hearted woman in her early 70s. She is the matriarch of a family of three grown-up children, their spouses, and six grandchildren. She has been married to her husband “John” for over 50 years.
Their division of labour was conventional: he worked outside the home and she worked inside it. Laurie does not have an undergraduate degree. Laurie has devoted her entire life to family and community. With Jane’s superficial understanding of what it means to be a successful person, I think she would view Laurie as just a small-town housewife, someone below her: a failure.
She is not a failure, Jane. She is a magnificent success.