All such good works to walk in: motherhood and female achievement

Yet another article on the crowded intersection of motherhood and career is making the rounds this month. Elizabeth Corey, a professor at Baylor University, has written a reflective and erudite piece for First Things that is prompting discussion among my sisters and friends. She makes no policy recommendation, assumes no position in the culture wars, but explores the seemingly intractable dilemmas facing young adult women in a melancholy key.

She argues cogently, if necessarily inconclusively, that “work and family evoke from us two distinct modes of being and of relation to others. … [T]he personal qualities required by professional work are directly opposed to the qualities that childrearing demands. They are fundamentally different existential orientations, and the conflict between them is permanent.”

I don’t know whether to be relieved or distressed that she’s wrong on that point.

To be sure, there’s a lot to like about the piece. I appreciate her sober tone, and her allergy to easy answers. This topic is one that calls forth all manner of wishful fantasias on both sides, and I share her skepticism that the psychological turmoil that mothers experience in managing work and motherhood can be calmed with the right combination of childcare subsidies, corporate culture, or willpower — though it’s still worthwhile to pursue the sanest of those proposals.

Nor do I disagree that the tension women feel as they combine the work of mothering with the work of career is likely to be a permanent state — as long as the economic and ideological conditions of modernity, with its particular model of selfhood, prevail over the decisions we make, at any rate. Let’s hope that’s a long time, given the alternatives.

But I do disagree, strongly, that the deepest psychic motivations powering career and motherhood are fundamentally, ontologically distinct. The work of motherhood, in Corey’s view, requires self-abnegation, patience and meekness, while the work of achievement requires self-culture, ambition and drive. I believe, on the contrary, that a mother’s drive to care for, relate to, invest in her children is fundamentally related to the drive that powers her achievement in other endeavors.

I come to this belief by way of a remarkable book that, no exaggeration, permanently changed my worldview and self-understanding, Sarah Blaffer Hrdy’s Mother Nature. Using the tools of evolutionary psychology, Hrdy (yes, that’s how it’s spelled) turns the stereotype of selfless, altruistic motherhood on its head. Hrdy shows that successful primate mothers combine nurture with fierce ambition, mother love with ruthlessness, devotion to child with canny self-preservation. The successful raising of a hungry, curious, vulnerable human child requires a vigorous, canny mother with a strong support network. Successful motherhood, in other words, requires women to protect their own health, resources and social status. There is no ontological distinction between a woman’s drive to mother and her drive to succeed: they are one and the same, evolutionarily.

I do concede that it often feels as though the conflict between cultivating my children and cultivating my self is unresolvable. For me, this sense is especially acute when I have newborns. Newborns require such an intense investment of time, attention, and energy from me that my sense of self is deeply compromised, even ruptured. For a while after I have a baby, I feel like a completely different person — and not in a good way. I temporarily disconnect from the plans and interests by which I have defined my adult life; everything outside of the demands and yes, intense pleasures of the baby melts away.

But as my children have grown, I see more and more clearly how my ambition for them is one with my ambitions for myself; how my achievement in other realms becomes deeply connected to my investment in my children; how the same desires and values that motivate my work also motivate my mothering. It is only the logistics of industrial modernity, the specialization that sorts bodies into separate spaces, that would divide my mothering from my work.

Admittedly, this insight does little to guide young women attempting to work out their own settlement with our common dilemma. Perhaps it may quiet the sense of inner fracture, of psychic division, that torments so many mothers. And perhaps it may dissolve the zero-sum framework, in which time spent at work is time away from children — and thus every hour marks another a loss for either family or work. Beyond that, though, it leaves me no closer to knowing how to advise my own daughters.

Corey opens her essay with an anecdote in which a student, reflecting on her desire to be a mother and to pursue other work, quotes a prayer from the Anglican liturgy beseeching God for assistance to “do all such good works as thou hast prepared for us to walk in.” This moved me, and it reminded me of a vision, of sorts, that came to me on my mission. I had a particular dress that I wore often. It was, indescribably, both tailored and yet free-flowing over the abdomen. One day as I walked up the street with my companion, carrying the briefcase in which we kept our books, I glanced at my reflection in a shop window. In the image I saw, I had a flash of both a professional woman with a suit and briefcase, and a pregnant body. This opened into a vision of a life, a possible future life for me: overflowing with children and pregnancies, and also with books and work. I had a sense of chaos and disorder but also abundance, joy, energy, optimism, and love. I responded to the vision with a deep “yes” from my soul. Years later, circumstances have not put my life into the bifurcate form I imagined in that moment, but the feeling of abundance and affirmation is as fresh as ever.

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  • Rachael

    This article has also sparked a lot of conversation among some of my friends and female classmates at graduate school. I enjoyed your take, but I’m not clear on how you distinguish the collapse of ambition for yourself and your children as being different from what Corey warned against, which is treating parenting as an extension of self-achievement (and thus, to helicopter-parenting, vicarious living through children, over control, over-identification with your children’s success/failure). Could you clarify more, this desire that drives both your work and your parenting?

  • Y. A. Warren

    My hope for the future of parenting is that both parents share the balancing of priorities that human families take to thrive. For too long, women have born the full burden of the brokenness encountered by being both only participating parent and working woman in the outside world.


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