Beware the specter
On fearing motherhood
Welcome to The Daminger Dispatch - especially if you’re new here. (Thanks, New York Times!) Each week I share some musings on a topic related to gender, family, parenting, and the like. I’m a sociologist, so I try to ground these musings in solid academic research, but you should know that my opinions sneak in, too.
One night at the family dinner table when I was about 11, I remember calmly informing my mother that I would likely never have children of my own, because I didn’t think motherhood was compatible with my career plans. For context, I grew up in a small, socially conservative suburban town. My mom, like most of my friends’ moms, quit her job once my sister and I were born. She devoted much of her time to sewing homemade Halloween costumes, chaperoning every field trip, and dreaming up clever craft projects to occupy us on rainy days.
In my pre-teen mind, there was no way to square my burgeoning career aspirations (ironically, at that age I wanted to be a teacher and a writer, two relatively family-friendly professions) with the requirements of good motherhood as I’d seen it practiced by my own mother. Sure, I knew a handful of mothers who worked, but even as a kid it seemed to me that for the most part they had jobs rather than careers. That’s not what I wanted for myself, so I figured motherhood was off the table.
This memory of my dinner-time declaration surfaced last week when I read new research that gave a name to the fear that began haunting me at age 11 and lingers today: the specter of motherhood. Based on their interviews with STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) PhD students and post-docs, authors Thebaud and Taylor argue that this ghostly figure looms over many women even before they have children of their own. Both male and female interviewees construed motherhood (but not fatherhood) as “in opposition to professional legitimacy and as a subject of fear, repudiation, and public controversy.”
Put in more colloquial language, they expected motherhood to be a career killer. And as a result, the female students tried to hide or downplay their plans for future childbearing to avoid losing credibility in their advisor’s eyes. If they already had kids, they went out of their way not to talk about their caregiving responsibilities, lest colleagues think they were slacking in the lab. Some of the interviewees knew female faculty with children, but this did not assuage their fears: instead, they doubted many of these women were actually good mothers, because they assumed it wasn’t possible to succeed in academia while being present for your kid.
It would be one thing if the specter of motherhood was only a narrative based on outdated stereotypes about science as a “boys’ club.” But Thebaud and Taylor offer suggestive evidence that these ideas about motherhood have material consequences. Specifically, they suggest that one source of the “leaks” through which women in STEM exit the career pipeline at higher rates than men may be their fear that they will have to choose kid or career. If you worry that trying to combine motherhood and science will either undermine your scientific credibility or lead you to be a neglectful parent, well, it stands to reason that some women might preemptively look for an alternative career.
In a small, interview-based study like this one, it’s rarely possible to say with certainty that one thing caused another. Usually, after qualitative researchers propose a mechanism linking a cause (in this case, the specter of motherhood) with an effect (exiting academia, or perhaps choosing not to have kids), quantitative folks will jump in to test the theory on a larger, more representative sample or via a controlled experiment. But when we juxtapose Thebaud and Taylor’s findings with other evidence, it seems safe to conclude that the specter of motherhood indeed looms over many women in ways that likely shape their decision-making about career and family.
For instance, my friend Holly is writing a dissertation on childless women. Her findings are still preliminary at this point, but she’s hearing from some interviewees that something like Thebaud and Taylor’s “specter” played a role in their decision not to reproduce. These women seem to anticipate the physical, emotional, and cognitive load that comes with bearing and raising a child, even to women with supportive partners, and calculate that the costs outweigh the benefits.
A third interview study of young, childless, different-gender couples found a sharp gender discrepancy in who does the worrying and strategizing about how the couple will make everything work once kids come along. Surprisingly, it’s the men. Just kidding, it’s women! (With a lot of this work on gender and parenthood, there isn’t a ton of suspense about the big-picture findings; it’s in the nuances where things get interesting...) And in the process of trying to figure out how parenthood will fit with their planned careers, these women sometimes preemptively downshift in their paid work even before any babies are born.
If this phenomenon is sounding familiar, it may be because you read Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In. Somewhat famously, Sandberg was inspired to write after one too many of her younger female colleagues soft-pedaled their career ambitions in anticipation of future family responsibilities. Rather than preemptively taking your foot off the gas, Sandberg argued, the pre-motherhood years are the optimal time to “lean in.”
So-called lean-In feminism has been widely critiqued for turning a social problem into an individual problem. What holds women back is less a lack of ambition than a lack of sufficient paid leave, access to high-quality childcare, support from male partners, and so on. The specter of motherhood is more than a specter. Women who recognize this and choose not to have children or to proactively seek out a more family-friendly career are not necessarily selfish or unmotivated—just pragmatic.
In recent years, we’ve made considerable progress in expanding little girls’ imagination of their futures. We tell them to dream big and envision themselves as a scientist or a CEO or even President. But at some point, many of those little girls will figure out that it’s hard, for women especially, to combine a “big” career with the kind of family life they may want. Getting the specter of motherhood to dissipate is less a messaging or branding problem than a policy problem. We’re going to have to invest a lot more resources into making sure that motherhood need not be something for ambitious women to fear.
[For what it’s worth, I hear that motherhood also comes with a lot of joy. And just in case my parents or in-laws read this, I should note that I no longer take the hard-line stance I did at 11, even if I do know a whole lot more now about the challenges of child-rearing.]
For your consideration: I was riveted by Ezra Klein’s interview with Tressie McMillan Cottom, a sociologist and ~public intellectual~ who seems to have brilliant things to say regarding just about everything. I’ve also been enjoying her newsletter, Essaying, if your inbox isn’t already too crowded…
P.S. I welcome feedback, questions, topic suggestions, and whatever else you have to say! Leave a comment or reply to this email. I read everything, even if I don’t always reply.