I had a knee-jerk reaction when the latest “having it all story” about women, work, and motherhood, hit the news last week—I turned off NPR on my car radio. While as a work-family scholar, I’m happy to see issues I care about take center stage, the relentless focus on “having it all” makes for pretty dull reporting about why it’s not possible for women to work 100 plus hours a week and have ten children. (Shocking! Thanks for the update, national media!) It also hides real differences in the ways that women work and some of the shared cultural expectations that women feel they must live up to.
In my research with eighty women living in New York City in 2006-2007, I discovered that it is working-class mothers who are more likely to interrupt their work careers and often face prolonged periods out of work, as they move into and out of the labor market in search of a good position. Working-class moms have a harder time cobbling together childcare so working outside the home has to be worth the effort—meaning jobs that provide benefits, the promise of promotion, a fair wage, and the respect of employers (characteristics often lacking in the service sector jobs these women most often found themselves in).
It turns out that most middle-class mothers are weaving work and motherhood. Women with higher education and higher-status jobs benefit from more than just their larger incomes, they typically have more “social capital,” including an insider’s understanding of the ways that the workplace functions and connections to people who can help them find jobs. These resources make it easier for middle-class women to stay in the labor market when faced with a bad job because they are connected to networks that can help secure better employment. Rather than opting-out of the workforce, many of the middle-class moms that I met switched jobs (sometimes multiple times) in an attempt to balance home and work.
All of the mothers who participated in my study, whether or not they worked, shared the common fear that someone would sit as judge and jury to their crimes of imperfect motherhood. This pressure to be good mothers did not lead women to leave work—in fact the majority of women in my study, like the majority of mothers nationwide, work. But it has led to a common response when women are asked to justify their decisions about work.
Whether the decision is to stay home or go to work, the majority of women justify their work decisions as being made for their families. Women who work explain that labor market participation fulfills their families’ needs. Cynthia, a working-mom married to a husband earning six figures, explained that she stayed at work, “so I could make all the extras and everything for [my kids].” Those who leave work explain that they, too, make their decision for their family. Virginia, a stay-at-home mom whose husband was unemployed, said she left work to “be home for the kids,” although she only left work when a new boss reduced her job flexibility and publicly belittled her. These responses allow women to emphasize behavior they believe is acceptable, such as decisions made to care for family and to minimize behavior that might be seen in a negative light, such as taking advantage of a job opportunity or finding disappointment at work.
The endless discussion of “having it all” is a red herring. It draws attention away from the real issues that all women face in the workplace: a lack of workplace flexibility, few childcare options, few sick days, and little parental leave. All women would benefit from policies that addressed these concerns, but we also need to focus our attention on creating better work environments for working class women so that these women, too, can find the respect and fair wages that will lead them to stay at work. Creating better work environments will mean more women will stay at work and that stability will be better for mothers, families and the economy in the long run.
By Sarah Damaske, assistant professor of Labor and Employment Relations and Sociology at Penn State University. Dr. Damaske is author of the book For the Family? How class and gender shape women’s work, which was reviewed in the August 2013 issue of Gender & Society. To read the review click here.