I have followed the #metoo movement with interest these past months. Many women have come forward to talk about negative experiences that limited or derailed their professional careers, and there has been much discussion of gender, equal pay and equal opportunity. While I can relate to many of the stories that have been relayed, the discussion seems to be skirting the gender issue that, for me anyway, has had the biggest impact- motherhood. Eight six percent of women in the United States are mothers by the time they are in their 40s. Women continue to be the primary caretaker in most families, whether they work outside the home or not. Women also bear the burden of pregnancy, childbirth and breastfeeding.
To achieve gender parity in the workplace, and in the home, we need to have a frank discussion about how women’s bodies are uniquely different than men’s. Women’s bodies are certainly objectified as sexual objects, but this also happens to men. But women alone have the experience of bearing children, constantly sharing their body with another person for many months. This is a privilege, but also an incredible burden. The responsibility of staying healthy not just for yourself, but because another life depends on you, can be very stressful and exhausting. All pregnant women take this on, some facing more problems than others. In not acknowledging the hard work of pregnancy, we undermine women. It seems the theory is that it would be discriminatory to take note of a women’s status as a pregnant person, and as a woman who worked while pregnant several times, I certainly did not want to be denied interesting work because of my pregnancy, but it is also true that a pregnant woman, even the healthiest, luckiest pregnant woman, is under physical and mental stress. And, perhaps most importantly, the very fact that from the beginning a mother is physically bonded to a baby makes it much harder to institute shared parenting responsibility after a baby is born. Men cannot be pregnant, and they cannot breastfeed, so the mother is established as the primary caregiver from the beginning. It’s a hard subject, and nuanced, but by ignoring it, we perpetuate the problem of women being limited in their career opportunities because of motherhood.
As mediators we are trained to identify shared values and interests and then organize our discussions around how to promote those values and protect those interests. Instead of focusing on the challenges of being a working mother, I think it is makes sense to focus on values and interests that many of us share, across the political and social spectrum. 1. We want women to have healthy pregnancies. 2. We want babies to be healthy and well cared for. These two priorities represent both values and interests. As a humane society we care about pregnant women and babies, but also we have an economic interest in maintaining the health of our population. If we can agree on those two values/interests, then we can start shaping policy around them.
Instead of engaging in an emotional debate about the nuances of supporting pregnant women, let’s talk about numbers. A healthy pregnancy will require about 15 standard prenatal visits, basic prenatal testing would add at least a couple more visits. A working woman will need to squeeze 15-20 doctor appointments into her schedule in 6 months. She will also, at the same time, be gaining approximately 20-40 lbs. A woman with a complicated pregnancy, whether due to multiples, fertility treatments or advanced maternal age, or a multitude of other issues, can expect to have many more appointments. Women with high risk pregnancies may visit the doctor two or three times a week during the last trimester. This is a lot to squeeze into a schedule that also includes work, and possibly caring for other children. After the baby is born, a new set of appointments must be made for the baby: one week, one month, 6 weeks, 2 months, 4 months and 6 months, and those are just well visits. Meanwhile the mother is still recovering from child birth and will need her own 6 week check up. Unless she is lucky enough to work for an employer with a generous maternity policy, she will likely be back at work 6 weeks after the baby is born. As if that does not sound hectic enough, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends breast feeding exclusively for the first six months of an infant’s life, and continuing to breast feed until the baby is one years old- so nursing or pumping needs to occur every 3-4 hours, every day, for six months to a year.
Depending on how many children they have, women will go through this process several times in the span of 5-6 years (average spacing of children in the U.S. is 2-3 years). And, of course, most reproduction occurs when women are in their 20s and 30s, key professional years.
Juggling work with pregnancy and nursing infants, something I have done four times, was a huge challenge. And I ended up working 80% after my second and third child was born, and stayed home after my fourth. This is not just a personal struggle, but has profound professional implications for women. Each time a woman scales back, she diminishes her earning capacity. In some cases scaling back allows her husband or partner to earn more. That works well for a bigger pie for the family, if the family stays intact. A large percentage of marriage end in divorce, however, and when they do, the financial implications of a mother’s diminished earning capacity impacts everyone— child support and spousal support payments to the mother have to be higher to make up for her lack of earnings, and everyone’s quality of life is less.
I hope in the midst of the #metoo moment we can take some time to talk about women’s bodies not just as sexualized objects, but also as reproductive engines. If we want to support women in the workplace, supporting mothers, and really talking about what it means, practically, to pair motherhood with a job, should be one of the central discussions. We all want mothers and babies to be healthy, organizing our discussion around those values may lead to generating productive ideas and positive change.