The discourse of balance: balance as metaphor and ideology.
Working mothers experience the tension between work and motherhood because work and motherhood are arranged as opposing structures. Feminist political economy explicates the relationships between these structures; they are not merely, as they were once described, "greedy institutions;" they are arranged in contradiction to each other (Fox 1998; Luxton 1990, 1997). Participation in one precludes full participation in the other because work assumes the support of home and family to maintain workers, and family structures delegate the responsibility of care to a wife and mother who is presumed to be fully available to do this. Working women, and working mothers especially, are faced with the task of managing their lives astride the division between these structures. In the neoliberal climate that frames caring for children as a mother's personal choice rather than a social responsibility, there are few social supports to help mediate this tension. Women experience dissatisfaction and frustration with the difficulty of combining work and motherhood; but there is little progress forward to resolve this tension. It is up to the working mothers themselves to find a way to negotiate between these two, and it has become common parlance to use the term balance to refer to this negotiation.
In this paper I make the argument that the term "balance" both assists women to manage the tension and at the same time reinforces the structures that cause it. The paper is motivated by the findings of a broader study, and the interview data that is the focus of my analysis came from that study. The narrative that emerges from these interviews reveals a complex view of motherhood (the mothers adopt a deep personal commitment to motherhood at the same time that they devalue it as a social role), and I explore the social influences on mothers' perceptions with a brief discussion of the discourse about motherhood in popular media. My analysis is guided by a socialist feminist perspective, which directs my focus onto the way that motherhood and work are currently structured. Feminist political economy provides a powerful explanatory framework because it explicates the structural interdependence of work and family, which makes any dance that tries to partner them difficult. Both the interview data and the analysis of structure are critical because the question the paper examines touches that difficult space where agent and structure interact.
One of the first ideas that undergraduates in sociology have to come to terms with is the notion that society is socially constructed, actively created by agents, and at the same time it is a structure that constrains how individuals experience the world and respond to it. Generally, sociologists focus on one part of this interaction or the other; however, the interaction is particularly fluid in the lives of contemporary working mothers and this throws the interaction itself into high relief. The discourse of balance can be observed as both a construction of mothers and a constraint that they face; here we see what was once a rigid familial ideology and structure being challenged and changed by the working mothers as they negotiate their way through the structures that shape family and paid work. As agents, working mothers use balance as a metaphor to make sense of the situation they find themselves; however, at the same time that they are negotiating their way through established structures, they are creating new ones as they arrange their daily lives according to new understandings. In this paper I suggest that working mothers use the idea of balance as a kind of metaphor to help them manage their lives in the face of unsupportive structures, but that this metaphor meshes with existing ideologies and structures in a way, which is not liberating.
The paper draws on data from intensive interviews with 21 working mothers. The interviews came from a largely homogenous sample of relatively privileged mothers with a university education who saw themselves as successful, profeminist women with supportive partners. The characteristics of the sample reflect the research question of the larger ethnographic study and deserve some explanation here. The broader project explored tensions between work and motherhood in the lives of both working mothers and stay-at-home mothers and involved extensive interviews with both groups. That study began from the premise that work and motherhood have significant meaning in both groups and explored how these were experienced from the two locations of a working mother's status and a stay-at-home mothers' status, particularly in the context of the dichotomizing of these locations, as, for example, in the rhetoric of the "mommy wars." This led me to avoid women for whom the meaning of work and motherhood might be shaped predominately by either patriarchal ideologies or by an economic necessity to work. The result was a sample of women who saw themselves as "sympathetic to feminism," had the education to pursue remunerative and interesting careers, and the support of partners if they chose to stay home. I limited the sample to mothers who had at least one preschool child because this made interrupting work to stay home with the child a reasonable option within contemporary motherhood beliefs. This resulted in a sample of women with significant homogeneity. The women all worked and established careers before children, so none were in their early 20s. None of the women included in this discussion had situations that dramatically increased the work of parenting; for example, none had over three children, children with serious disabilities, or live-in dependent parents to care for. Most had jobs with sufficient status to allow for some negotiation of work hours and times, although there was a significant price to be paid for flexibility in terms of actual work load (the few who had little ability to negotiate work face-time worked in situations where others would "cover" for them when they did take time for family). The advantage of the homogeneity of this sample is that I was able to interview women for whom the tension between work and motherhood is acute.
The research design assumed working mothers who were engaged in full-time work and committed to careers with opportunities for advancement, but a few did not fit this description in a strict sense. For reasons that are not relevant here, I chose to use a snowball method to identify my potential participants, and one of the consequences of this method of recruitment is that some participants fulfilled the spirit of my requirements rather than the letter. Participants were very thoughtful about recommending other mothers to me; they tried to find women who they felt fit the parameters of the study, and in a few cases, recommended someone who they saw as a strong, independent, ambitious working mother, rather than my, rather drier, criteria of a profeminist mother of a preschooler with a university education and a supportive partner. Thus, I had two mothers who had not completed university, but held responsible jobs that they enjoyed. I also found that my categories of "full-time work" and "stay-at-home-mother" were sometimes interpreted liberally by the interviewees. On a couple of occasions mothers presented themselves as working full time and I would find out in the course of the interview that they had a 4-day week (or that a "stay-at-home" mother had some paid work). However, these were minor variations from the intention of the research design; all of the working mothers defined themselves as full-time, career-oriented women and were proud of their paid-work accomplishments. Flexible work and part-time arrangements were either short term, or more frequently (and more disturbingly) involved no real decrease in work responsibilities, but were negotiated with the employer to allow flexibility of work hours.
The question I explore in this paper, how mothers use the idea of balance to manage work and motherhood, does not require such a privileged sample; working mothers from all social locations are faced with managing work and motherhood and many would use the language of balance. However, this sample did allow for the tension between work and motherhood to be heightened because their position in the upper middle class brings increased pressure of expectations from both work and motherhood; they are expected to demonstrate their independence from outdated norms of traditional femininity and achieve success at work, and they are also expected to participate in the particularly middle-class mode of intensive mothering. The women in this study did not feel able to withdraw from the tension in any way, lowering their sights in either career or motherhood. It must be acknowledged that their privilege allows them to marshal a variety of resources to help them manage the tension; two examples are, first, that their status at work allows them some power in negotiating working conditions, and second, they have significant financial resources to help them with the purchase of services to directly relieve the competing demands of work and motherhood. However, this does not reduce the tension they feel, perhaps in fact it is the reverse, because they are seen, and see themselves, as being a group who should be able to have it all.
The interviews varied in length. The interview was designed to take approximately one and a half hours and the pretest interviews fit this pattern; however, the interviews were generally much longer than this. Most working mothers talked for at least two hours and some for over four. The interviews were guided by a list of topics that gave some consistency to each interview, but the order of the topics was not followed precisely. This follows DeVault's (1990) notion that the research and participant make meaning together. Participants would often bring much more to a topic than was directly asked and I let the interviews flow; although, if a topic had been raised out of the order of the interview guide I would touch on it again in the intended sequence. The participant's responses became more and more intimate and complex as our mutual sympathy grew. The interviews were interrupted by much laughter and not a few tears. I felt honored by the trust of the participants.
The interview began with very general questions about paid work, the experience of being a mother, and managing these together. More specific questions followed, focusing on the women's understanding of the role of mother and her activities as a mother, her role and her experiences at work, details about the management of work and motherhood, her sense of her own status and the perceptions of others who respond to her as a mother, as a working person, and as a working mother, and finally, questions about her experiences of obstacles and supports for her as working mother. It is important to note that as the interviews progressed both the tone and the content of the discussion changed. The early part of the interviews, in which the mothers are talking generally about their paid work and how they integrate it with family responsibilities, is characterized by optimism and an assurance of control. Later in the interview, particularly when the participants are discussing their experience of motherhood and how it affects their lives, they reveal more difficulties and their discontent with the challenge of balancing work and motherhood. Some of this change in tone was a result of increased trust as the interview progressed, but it was also related to the topic under discussion. When mothers were talking about work and managing work and motherhood, their presentation of themselves and their situation was much more upbeat than later in the interview; later a more reflective and intense mood accompanied discussion on specific details of the motherhood experience. The contrast is important here because it is germane to how "balance" operates as both metaphor and ideology.
There are several steps in the analytical narrative of this paper. In order to understand the transformation of "balance" from a metaphor to an ideology the narrative moves from the way mothers interpret their situation to a discussion of the emerging script for motherhood that they see reflected in popular literature, and from there to what the mothers say about their actual experience of this emerging script. In the first step in the narrative we explore the interviews and focus on how the concept of balance fits into the motivations of working mothers and lends itself to a harmonious interpretation of the tensions between work and motherhood. We will find the mothers approach work and motherhood from an optimistic stance, that balance is a comforting metaphor used by the working mothers in the study because it promises that the difficulties are ephemeral--that a manageable solution can be found by learning the right organizational skills. The second step in the narrative moves to a brief discussion on the magazines and books aimed at working mothers in order to illustrate the point that the metaphor of balance is reinforced by culture--it has become part of a new social script for working motherhood. With the third step in the narrative we return to the interviews to look at the actual experience of working mothers, which, we find, reveals that there is a gap between the promise of their adopted discourse of balance and their actual experiences. When the women speak of the details of motherhood and their work of the balance, the confident optimistic tone often disappears and they reveal a different part of the picture. Balance, it turns out, misrepresents reality. The dissonance between the ideal of balance and their reported experience suggests that social structures shape their experience in a way, which gives the lie to the promises of the discourse.
In the analysis of this narrative I first address the question of why the mothers' frustrations do not lead to a critique of the promises of balance. I examine the way that balance operates ideologically to obscure the contradictions that emerge in women's daily experience. Here the relationship between metaphor and ideology is at its most complex because it is at this juncture that we touch the interaction between the mothers as social agents, who are creatively responding to the situations they find themselves in, and the social structure that both limits and is transformed by, their response.
I then consider the underlying structures that force the working mothers' experiences into something so contrary to their hopes. I will review the insights of feminist political economists who have explicated these structures, and argue that, ironically, these working mothers participate in the construction of an ideology, which legitimates an oppressive organization of motherhood. Working mothers create new meanings of motherhood as they adopt the discourse of balance, but they do this in the context of structures that separate production and reproduction, and the ideology of balance protects those structures. It obscures the contradiction between paid work and motherhood and legitimizes the inequity of women's unpaid domestic labor by defining the problem as merely one of busy individuals living rich full lives.
Finally, in the last section I suggest that the dialectic between agency and structure in working mothers' lives has implications for feminist scholars' use of the term balance. Feminist scholars have explored women's ability to work around structures, trying to create a whole life for themselves in social contexts, which fragment life. A number of different terms have been used to describe how working mothers manage this: balancing, weaving, and juggling to name three. I argue that the use of these terms should not go unexamined. None of these three terms accurately describes the situation of working mothers, and they may unwittingly reinforce the structures that penalize women. As an example, I examine the use of the term weaving, which has been suggested as a way to empower women, viewing them as agents creating new realities rather than dupes of structure, but which has the unintended effect of putting social relations in the background and contributes to the illusion that women are individuals able to make free choices. I argue that scholars have a particular responsibility to examine critically the terms that are used to describe women's lives, and "balance" is one example of a term that needs to be understood ideologically.
WORKING MOTHERS USE "BALANCE" AS A COMFORTING METAPHOR
The working mothers are surprised to find that they experience the structures of work and motherhood as profoundly unforgiving. Despite their profeminist orientation they do not challenge the double demand of work and motherhood; they are more likely to see their dual responsibility as an indicator of their accomplishments than as an issue of women's subordination because they are committed to the notion of personal achievement in the world of paid work and personal responsibility for their lives outside of paid work. Connie makes it c]ear that career was a strong focus and it did not occur to her that motherhood would interfere:
If you'd asked me at twenty-two, 'Where do you see yourself at thirty?' 'Mother' wouldn't have been in the equation. Not that I didn't want to be a mother, just that you don't think of that when you are a young professional. I was within a community of high achievers, and I just assumed it would all happen.
Connie's view reflects the liberal perspective dominant in this group; this perspective contains a contradiction, which defines women's work in the family as their personal leisure. The liberal ideal posits a society of autonomous individuals who are free to choose to participate in paid work (Held 1993) because, in this ideal, the private sphere of family holds no obligations other than those we choose to indulge in as part of personal life. Motherhood is not a constraint on her freedom to work because it just "happens." The discourse of balance resonates with the individualistic perspective of the working mothers because it reflects this liberal assumption of autonomous individuals moving freely between the two spheres of work and family.
The act of balancing two different but necessary spheres has a sense of controlled and reasoned ease about it. Words like equilibrium and proportion are used in association with balance, promising that disparate aspects of life can be reconciled with a little attention. The metaphor of balance is comforting because it acknowledges the difficulty of the task: it admits that work and motherhood are separate, and not easy to integrate, while implying that both work and motherhood are important and valid, and that neither can be subsumed in the other. The implication is that they can be likened to other dualisms, also understood as widely separate but equally necessary: laughter and seriousness or chores and play. The seduction of the promise of balance is the notion that managing work and motherhood is a matter of finding the equilibrium point in life. It is merely a matter of getting all one's ducks in the row--a matter of logistics. Patricia explains her strategy:
When I'm at work, it is work. That's it. Work. I can't even skip out and run an errand. I can't do that. I am doing my work. But, come 4:30, I'm out of here. I have twenty-five minutes on the way home--and I unwind. I can deal with all the stresses in those twenty-five minutes. That's what I've given myself, that block of time. And then I am home and I am with the kids.
The management of work and family becomes an objective goal that the efficient mother can achieve; this presents childcare as an individual responsibility, rather than a social problem. The mothers in the study agreed with this definition of their situation; in their view, the job of motherhood is to do this negotiation between work and motherhood and find the place where both are in harmony. This quote from Connie suggests she has round that place:
The kids look at me working and they say 'Mom can do anything.' I mean, I can come home from work, whip up a batch of peanut butter cookies, go out into the yard and play on the bike, teach Andy his French lessons, and go to work the next day. Nobody's the worse for wear, really.
The responsibility of managing the tension of work and motherhood becomes a personal quest, and working mothers do not expect any acknowledgment or assistance from society. They frequently used phrases, which reveal the individualistic nature of the balance idea: "you have to do what is right for you" (Pamela); "we found what works for our family" (Michelle); "I'm able to find proportion and balance" (Connie).
This individualistic orientation toward balance also contains a competitive edge, as success and failure are attributed to personal ability. Miriam Peskowitz, the author of The Truth Behind the Mommy Wars, says in an interview with Judith Tucker (2005: paragraph 17): "I loved thinking of myself as the mom who could make it all work out, the mom who could win." The narrative here is not of mothers' "winning" against an oppressive social structure, it is the individual mom who wins the race and grasps the prize of balance that other, lesser mothers have been not quite good enough to seize for themselves. It is the individual mothers' actions, their attention to opportunities, their creativity, and their organizational skills that create whatever harmony exists between work and motherhood in their lives. Despite her self-description as a "feminist daughter" with a PhD in Women's Studies, Peskowitz says that as long as her schedule worked out for her, she "thought less and less about other mothers, and less and less about the big picture. Until, that is, my schedule was changed mid-year, and I found myself scrambling for a different mixture of preschool hours and babysitting" (Tucker 2005:paragraph 17). At this point Peskowitz began the process of questioning that led to her book. Like Peskowitz, the mothers in this study did not see the arrangement of institutions and organizations that affect work and family life with any clarity. For example, Patricia recognizes, but gives little credence to social constraints and advantages that affect her ability to shape a balance:
There's some who would say that you can't work and still be a mother. I just find that there are different opinions. In my opinion I think you can balance it very well, and that opportunity came up when I got the job here.
Similarly, Pamela generously acknowledges the success of another mother, and hopes to learn from her how this can be done:
This is not a perfect world. But, I have this colleague at work who I always thought had a great balance. She was good at what she did at work, she was always in a great mood, and she had three kids. I always wondered how she managed to cope with all of this, and I thought she must have something I could learn.
The success of Pamela's colleague, a mother of three, is not seen as an exception so unusual as to be dismissed; she is an example of someone who got it right. Not only does Pamela's remark remind us that achievement is attributed to the individual, it tells us that the emerging new social script for the holy grail of balance makes no attempt at synthesis: the model of working mother is fully mother and fully worker. The standard for a good balance is to add the always available, fully involved worker to the always available, fully involved mother. Neither can be compromised. Pamela expresses this as she continues, describing her admiration for the balance achieved by another mother:
There is actually a mother who lives across the street from me, and she told me that somebody was surprised when they heard she was working because they thought she was a full-time mother, because she is always around with her kids at different activities. She has just worked her schedule. She works from eight to two-thirty, and picks the kids up at school, and she has a job without too much that has to be done at home, so when she is at home, her time is around her family. She said that it was a real compliment to her, that people thought she was a full-time mother. She had been balancing her schedule the right way for her kids. Isn't that great to hear?
(It should be noted that "without too much that has to be done at home" meant there was some time devoted to paid-work tasks after the children were in bed.) The lesson is that full-time motherhood and full-time work are just a matter of individual mothers learning how to find the balance.
Liberal notions of individualism are hegemonic in Western culture. The working mothers in this study are invested in the liberal perspective in two ways: first, the group in this study is ambitious and successful, and have internalized modern liberal notions that the rewards they reap in society are a result of their talents and hard work (few of these women would attribute much of their success to membership in a dominant race, class, or global power); second, these women attribute historical improvements in the status of women to the liberal precept of equality. They claim their right to work and succeed in society on the basis of equality with men. They see themselves as free to choose to work, as their mothers were not, and also free to choose to have children or not, as their mothers were not. Thus, work and motherhood are personal choices that they are free to make.
From this point of view, the problems that are experienced trying to both work and be a mother cannot be seen as an issue of structure, or of justice, or ideology, or of gender polices. They are merely problems of logistics: a time crunch. It is the responsibility of working mothers to find time for work, for children, and for themselves. When asked directly about the task of managing work and motherhood only three of the women gave an indication that they felt working motherhood was problematic; all of the rest identified their juggle as a positive thing. Two phrases came up in discussions about the basic injustice of a working mother's situation, these phrases were, one, that people should get off the "pity pot," and two, that to talk of sacrifices was "just excuses." Motherhood was a personal choice, and a responsibility, and people should just get on with it. Wendy has little sympathy for people who complain about the costs of motherhood: "One of the most self-seeking things is to get on the pity pot ... and say 'I'm doing this all alone,' and, 'I didn't sign up for this.'"
When the working mothers reflect in a general way about their situation or their level of satisfaction they are consistently positive. Despite this, at various points in the interviews they describe extraordinary difficulties. The details they recount of their personal leisure time are an example of the reality they contend with--such leisure time would sound pathetic to those who do not work the double day. Connie described activities that she enjoys as time for her even when these activities are not strictly leisure: "I do some things for me. I knit a little bit. I have little projects. I write letters. I keep in touch with people, that's for me. And I travel a bit to courses. Reading is for me." Michelle made the point that activities that are just for her pleasure have to be planned:
Activities and things just for me ... let me think ... I do small things for me, I go for a walk with the dog. You have to plan for this now, when you are a mother. You really have to organize everybody if you're going to say, 'Mom is going to do this tomorrow afternoon.'
Mothers are creative in finding ways to live their lives within the structures, playing down difficulties, and enjoying their working and their mothering lives. In this they are acting as agents, rejecting the traditional gendered roles, still a significant force in our culture, which define women as primarily mothers. As they confront traditional ideas they create new understandings of what it means to be a woman, a mother, and a worker. It is here that the moment between agency and structure may be accessible to analysis and critique. What kind of an impact does women's rejection of the limitations of the motherhood role and their involvement in paid work have on the structures of work and family? Will claiming a place in the world of paid work disrupt the structures and rearrange them into a configuration that supports equality between men and women? The answer seems to be no: the social script that we see emerging out of the engagement between these women and established structures poses little challenge to the status quo.
A look at the how-to literature aimed at working mothers illustrates that the expectations of mothers have changed little. Although the paid-work ambitions of working mothers are lauded, and the tension between this and family responsibilities is acknowledged, there is no questioning of established structures.
BALANCE MAKES IT ALL POSSIBLE (WITH A LITTLE HELP FROM THE EXPERTS)
In the plethora of books about the work family balance available at Amazon.ca a quick survey of the titles alone conveys the message that finding the balance between work and family is a skill that can be learned if you are committed to doing so: Getting It Right: How Working Mothers Successfully Take Up the Challenge of Life, Family, and Career (Zappert 2001), Briefcase Moms: Ten Proven Practices to Balance Working Mothers' Lives (Martin 2004), and (with the most unabashedly individualistic title) CEO of Me: Creating a Life that Works in the Flexible Job Age (Kossek and Lautsch 2008). (1) These books promise to impart the set of skills that will bring balance.
It is not hard to find titles that make it clear that there is no wiggle room for mothers in either work or motherhood; the balance must be a balance where neither loses. This is impossible, of course, as there are no more hours in the day of a working mother than there are for anyone else. An Orwellian aspect of the language of balance is evident in these titles; consider the following: The Guilt-Free Guide to Your New Life as a Mom: Practical Ways to Take Care of Yourself, Your Life and Your Baby All at the Same Time (Gurrentz 2000), and Having It All ... and Making It Work: Six Steps for Putting Both Your Career and Your Family First (Mills, Mattu, and Hornby 2004). These titles make if very clear that the balance is not between work and family, but an addition of work to family. This is a "balance," which allows no diminution of either element.
Regardless of her work responsibilities, the mother's task is to ensure that the family and the home are an antidote to the fast-paced, impersonal world of daycare, school, and work. Mothers are to create the sacred home as a relaxed, calm place, with activities that build connections between family members and communicate love and security to all within the circle. The Intentional Family, by William Doherty (1997), and The Book of New Family Traditions by Meg Cox (2003) are two books that give advice on how to achieve this. Experts offer information on using time management tools and efficiency techniques to create this circle of calm; women are expected, and expect themselves, to perform the magic of stepping into this circle of calm, instantly shedding the adrenalin and stress that went into its creation.
Not only must a mother be a calm, loving keeper of a refuge as well as a hyperefficient organizer and ambitious worker, she must get the proportions of these correct in her balance. The fineness of the equilibrium is illustrated by a couple of articles in the "Work and Family" column at the Wall Street Journal's Internet site, Career.com, which tells working mothers that too much time away from children and too much time with children are both bad. One week the column was titled "How Much Child Care is Too Much?" (Shellenbarger 2005a) and warned against using childcare for too many hours, citing studies that aggressiveness manifests in children who spend long hours (30-45 hours a week) in daycare; two weeks later the same column carried the title: "The Emotional Toll of Being Too Involved in Your Kid's Life" (Shellenbarger 2005b), and cited research that parents who are not sufficiently detached from their children have poor mental health. Examples like this are not uncommon; we have become familiar with the stereotypes of the overbearing helicopter mom as well as the disengaged mother with the latchkey kid. These are both cautionary tales for mothers, warning them not to err on either side.
The extent to which the responsibility for the balance is seen as a mother's task is extraordinary. Not only must mothers manage the tensions between work and motherhood, they must also manage the stress that this tension causes them, lest they let this leak into the mothering role. Both The Mother's Book of Well-Being: Caring for Yourself So You Can Care for Your Baby (Braner 2003) and Byers' (2005) book, The Mother Load, promise practical suggestions for finding pockets of time for solitude, maintaining friendships, physical workouts, and personal spiritual growth, making the mother load seem heavier with every so-called helpful tip.
The lesson is clear. Work and family are separate, both are critically important, and the individual need only make good choices and plan adequately to arrange a rewarding life in both spheres. The only social script for working motherhood is to excel in your work and to excel as a mother. It is neither a balance between the two nor a juggle where you can have one ball in your hand and one in the air. It is a magic trick where both, in their fullness, exist in the same woman.
THE CONTRAST BETWEEN BALANCE AND THE REALITY EXPERIENCED BY WORKING MOTHERS
A metaphor of balance obscures the reality that the structures are unyielding. The mothers do realize this; but they continue to use the discourse of balance because they see no alternative. As the interviews progressed, after an early enthusiastic presentation of their working lives, the women described frustrations with the structures of working motherhood. Lauri said: "I used to think that you could have it all. You can, but there's a huge price, and so ultimately you can't have it all, you pay for it." Working mothers walk on a precipice, trying not to fall off one side or the other. On the one hand they speak proudly of being a new generation that combines motherhood and work, and on the other, they describe the difficulties they have in making this work, and they speak of their understanding that the accommodation between work and motherhood is hard won. At some points in the interview when the mothers reflect on their situation they do not relinquish their optimistic stance entirely, but some evidence of their struggle comes through. For example, Michelle said she struggles to find a "middle ground":
Working and being a mother has worked out well, although there is no utopia out there. There is no perfect situation. There are certainly days when I think I'm crazy and should be home, and are some days that I'm home and I think work is hot that bad. We've tried to find a middle ground that works for our family.
Pamela also made it clear that she is charting a course of compromise:
I like to say I'm proud of what I do, but in some ways I wish I was a stay-at-home-mum to be there for my children. I'm not sure what the right balance is. And to not feel guilty about what you do.... At the end of the day I think there is no right answer, you have to do what is right for you, and it is a different choice for different people, and some choose to stay home. I think I could be in that group, I could stay at home, but in the field that I'm in it would be very hard to go back, so this is the compromise that I make.
These accounts are a sharp contrast to the optimism expressed in other parts of the interviews; as I mentioned earlier, these comments tended to emerge well into the interview. It is not a repudiation of what they have said before, in fact, they do return to their optimistic stance of the "balance" metaphor at other points in the discussion; but it is another side of their story, which emerges when trust is established. When they discuss the details of their lives they reveal a contradiction experienced, if not clearly expressed, between the promise of "balance" and their lived experience. These accounts belie the metaphor of balance: they do not describe a state of equilibrium, rather, a picture of a tug-of-war emerges, an irresolvable tension, a squeezing of life. Here is Michelle's reflection:
What I miss is time at home with them, and a simplification of life. At home there is a lack of rushing. I find that is a big thing, I'm always rushing, always busy. There is less chaos when you stay home. Yes, the problem with working is the whole loveless chaos.
To combine both roles into one life, working mothers shave a bit off one, and smooth the edge off the other. Angela and Monica accepted that they cannot do both roles as fully as they would like:
When you become really overwhelmed, you start to realize you can't do everything. You realize the whole ship does not sink when you cut some of this stuff out. I'm doing the best I can, and I get to things when I can. (Angela)
Let us face it, you have got to make compromises, to live in this world you have got to make compromises. In everything, even relationships. (Monica)
The results are hot always satisfying. Working mothers are familiar with the feeling that on both fronts, they could always do more. In Pamela's words:
That's what I find hard, not been able to focus anywhere. Maybe that's what being a parent is. You are always distracted.... I do nothing well. Everything is done in little bits. And nothing done in a really full way.
It is not possible to find the right proportion of these two demands; both are greedy to fill all the space the working mother can spare. Working mothers try to have maximum work and maximum motherhood, squeezing both into the one life. They are constantly making triage decisions in both spheres, cutting the activities that they believe are least essential to motherhood, and least essential to their career development. The personal costs paid by working mothers are well documented. (2)
Balance is not just a metaphor, a way to talk about busy lives--it papers over a contradiction that cannot be faced. The idea of balance contains a set of assumptions that the mothers are loathe to challenge, although on some level, they know them to be untrue. The idea of balance takes for granted the liberal ideal that individuals freely construct their own lives. The concomitant idea that, in our personal private lives, we are free from the obligations of paid work means that motherhood is cast as a personal activity which individuals choose to participate in, little different from a passionate and time-consuming preoccupation with old-timers hockey or volunteering with a favorite cause. Despite this framing of motherhood as a personal activity, the mothers are well aware that they have a social responsibility; they know that they are held accountable for their children's well being and that they reap blame if their children disregard society's mores. Working mothers may use the discourse of balance because it is a comforting way to think about coping with conflicting demands of work and motherhood, but, it in no way alleviates the real difficulties of working motherhood: however, motherhood is framed, the mothers understand that the script for motherhood is not theirs to design. Mother work has been socially set, and is based on an expectation of full-time motherhood with full responsibility. Connie expressed her awareness of this social expectation: "I know I can't be ultimately responsible for my children, but you know I'm going to feel as if I can. There's always going to be that little niggling doubt: 'What if I stayed home?'" The working mother cannot be "ultimately responsible" for her children and for paid work at the same time; she knows it is impossible, but she feels it is even more impossible to choose between them.
BALANCE: FROM METAPHOR TO IDEOLOGY
Working mothers' experiences reveal that much is lost when they try to balance work and motherhood. They experience the promise of balance as a farce; but, that experience cannot be turned into real knowledge because the idea of balance is not just metaphor, it is ideological. On the one hand, the term "balance" plays the part of a comfortable metaphor that describes the dual tasks of working mothers, but at the same time, it plays an ideological role: it supports the individualistic ideology of the status quo and functions to maintain elements of women's subordination that are of critical importance to capitalism. "Balance" is ideological because it fogs the possibility of clear understanding; it masks something, presenting social reality as if it were something else, and, more critical to its ideological character, it does so in order to maintain exploitative social relations that benefit one social group at the expense of another.
It is important to remember that the discourse of balance is partially created in an interactive process as women live their lives in social environments of opportunities and constraints. It enables working mothers to maintain the fiction that their investment in an individualistic work culture and their commitment to motherhood are not in contradiction. However, it is also shaped by existing inequitable structures and has consequences that extend beyond the experience of individual mothers. The maintenance of social inequities associated with the contradiction between work and motherhood is what gives balance its ideological character. An ideology of balance disguises the real relationship between motherhood and paid work. It nourishes the continued adoption of the belief that motherhood is a woman's personal private pleasure, not socially necessary work. It presents work and motherhood as irrevocably separate polarities, which nevertheless have equivalent value in the life of the working woman, and this transforms the difficult reality of being squeezed between two incompatible activities into the promisingly simple matter of establishing the correct proportion of these activities. It promises, falsely, that work and motherhood can be integrated at the level of the individual. Balance presents working mothers as individuals free from obligations (as all workers are assumed to be) when they enter the sphere of work, and as fully available, loving mothers who are free from the cares of paid work when they enter the sphere of home.
The discounting of the obligations of motherhood has significant consequences: it reaffirms the grotesque undervaluing of women's care-work, which continues to be key to women's subordination. Feminists have found it difficult to make the undervaluing of women's care-work a visible and contentious issue because, first, gender ideologies construct it as, not-work at all, but simply an expression of women's disposition; and second, liberal ideologies also construct it as not-work, but personal activity with little social significance. The ideology of balance plays an important role bridging the incongruity between the liberal philosophy of free individuals and the reality that women have obligations both as mothers and as workers.
Liberalism presents work as a realm where individuals come with their skills and talents, participate in the market place in the creation of something of value, and are rewarded, on the basis of their performance, with money and status; in contrast, home is presented as a realm of personal freedom, where individuals do not work, but engage in activities of their choice with others whom they love. This idealized scheme is non-sensical for working mothers: much of what they do at home is organized around the necessities of work, and decisions they make about work are closely related to the requirements of family life. The belief that we are all free to determine our life courses blinkers us from seeing the social constraints all around us; our focus is narrowed onto small areas of choice, which we then suppose to be the entire landscape. Working mothers do understand that they are surrounded by constraints, but, with the help of the balance discourse, these constraints are downplayed, and thus the structure of those constraints is unexamined. Constraints appear minimal and idiosyncratic rather than systemic. It is the function of ideology to keep it so.
The ideology of balance affects mothers' ability to see social reality clearly in another way as well: there are moral overtones in the ideology of balance that make it troublesome for working mothers to question their responsibility for the work of care. In the liberal ideal the individual is responsible, not just for his/her own achievements, but more broadly for the course of his/her own life, as it is freely chosen, and the ethical correlate is that he/she should not restrict the lives of others by neglecting to take on the consequences of freely chosen actions. This ethical principle stops working mothers from challenging the burden of their double workday because, to demand that the burdens and costs of children be shared would be to inhibit the free choices of those who did not choose to have children, forcing them to bear responsibilities and costs that are not the result of their own personal choices. From this perspective, a society that shared the costs and responsibilities of raising the next generation allows mothers the indulgence of having children without counting the consequences and a call for reforms that share the cost of raising children may be interpreted as a moral failure in society because it encourages mothers to shirk their own responsibilities. In a liberal culture, such an interpretation is hard to counter with an alternative vision of shared care of society's children. The power of these individualistic ideals is exacerbated by women's sense of themselves as path breakers: they see themselves as taking part in a great historical transition for women through their individual accomplishments in the work world and this makes it especially difficult to set aside their attachment to individualism and consider the social value of children.
BALANCE: RATIONALIZING THE CONTRADICTION BETWEEN WORK AND MOTHERHOOD
What are the roots of the contradiction obscured by an ideology of balance, and how has it become such an integral part of women's lives? The best explication of these roots can be found in the work of feminist political economy; it is this work that explains how broader social structures compel working mothers to juggle two falsely separated areas of life. Feminist political economy uses the conceptual tools of Marxism: motherhood is understood as part of the larger undertaking of society's reproduction and the organization of paid work is understood as part of capitalist production. The Marxist concept of contradiction is a powerful way to explore the relationship between production and reproduction; it refers to elements of structure that cannot be altered to work harmoniously without dramatic change. The tension between work and motherhood is at this level of structure--a resolution would require a radical reorganization of society, revolutionizing both work and family.
Feminist political economy explains that the contradiction between work and motherhood has its roots in the capitalist mode of production where work is primarily organized as wage labor, with labor power bought and organized according to the priorities of capitalist production (Armstrong and Armstrong 2003; Luxton and Maroney 1987; Seccombe 1974). In capitalism, the pursuit of personal interests, civic involvements, and family responsibilities are separated by time and place from wage labor, and so wage laborers are assumed to have no other responsibilities that interfere with the time for which their labor power has been purchased. This appears as a natural arrangement to most people today, however it is a particular form of economic organization, and a historically recent one. Feudalism, slavery, and economic systems of small home production integrate the production of goods and services with the care and reproduction of workers themselves; only industrial capitalism has managed to separate the reproduction of the worker from the production of goods, placing the costs of this reproduction largely on the individual.
The separation of production from reproduction has allowed the capitalist mode to be incredibly productive. To maintain the advantages that industrial capitalism has had over previous economic systems, it is necessary to maintain the clear control that the capitalist has over the production process, keeping the complex goals of social reproduction (such as child rearing) out of the matrix of factors involved in organizing production for profit. Only those parts of social reproduction, which are profitable can be allowed into the sphere of production; for the most part, capitalism relies upon individual workers to undertake social reproduction themselves. When the burden of the cost of social reproduction has been excessive, rather than integrate these costs into capitalist production, the state has relieved some of the burden from individuals, and as a result, some aspects of social reproduction, such as education and care for elderly and infirm, are not the entire responsibility of the individual. Nevertheless social reproduction remains largely the responsibility of individuals, most notably through the primary care of children by mothers (Luxton 2001; Zaretsky 1976, 1982).
The work of feminist scholars has explained the role of nuclear family as the primary vehicle of organizing mothers' work in social reproduction: men participate in wage labor, and women enter wage labor as a secondary work force, doing part-time and occasional work, while their major responsibility is social reproduction (Duffy, Glenday, and Pupo 1992). Women's role as mothers and carers became idealized in the nuclear family, and an ideology of motherhood evolved to support the exclusivity of this role and to cast it as outside the sphere of productive work. Motherhood ideology, by portraying motherhood as the fulfillment of women's nature, and as a sacred relationship free from any association with selfish motives, casts motherhood as personal and private (Oakley 1974; Thurer 1994). The sphere of motherhood is a place where achievement and contribution matter for naught; the notion of acting toward particular rewards is anti-thetical to the traditional ideology of motherhood. Mothers act out of the intensity of love for their children (Nelson and England 2002).
The personal and private nature of motherhood continues to free the capitalist mode of production from most of the costs of social reproduction. Mothers, working or hot, continue to support capitalism for free, and even when we recognize that motherhood is work, the reality that mothers' work sustains our economic system remains unacknowledged. Working mothers have a growing awareness of the double day, but this is limited to a concern with the quality of family life, and outside of feminist political economy, the intrinsic connection between the double day and the production process is unexamined. The contribution that feminist political economy brings to sociology is the explication of this hidden connection between women's work and the production process as the underlying root of the contradiction between motherhood and paid work. Working mothers stand directly on this contradiction: motherhood is a profoundly social activity required for the continued survival of the species, and integral to the economy; however, within the dominant ideology of liberalism of capitalism, it is conceived as private and personal.
The contradiction is sustained by structural barriers to combining work and motherhood. These barriers are challenged by women's participation in the work force, and the ideology of balance is crucial to controlling change by keeping ideals surrounding paid-work motherhood distinct. The character of the changes to work-family structures that will evolve from working mothers' activities depends partly on the success of this ideology.
A challenge to the dualism of work and parenting could transform both work and motherhood and generate broad social change. There is reason to be hopeful: there is evidence that ideas about the separation of work and family are eroding as women and men increasingly engage in both spheres and disregard the norms that have established gendered modes of action in these spheres (Fox and Fumia 2001; Hochschild 1997; Williams 2001). However, even as the separation between work and motherhood appears increasingly farcical, it is nevertheless true that, because motherhood is a profound source of meaning and connection for women, rivaling work as a source of identity and of personal growth, women see this area of their lives in private, almost sacred, terms. The question remains: how will women continue to make sense of their location at the crux of contradiction, and will their understandings challenge ideologies and alter structures?
WEAVING AND WOMEN'S AGENCY: FACILITATING A CRITICAL PERSPECTIVE
In this study the ideology of balance met with little challenge from the women I interviewed. Although the mothers saw the places where the fabric of this ideology is stretched thin, they did not fundamentally challenge it. Such a challenge may feel like a rejection of their status as either mothers or as workers--neither of which they wish to question. Popular feminist discourse does not critique individualistic structures and offers no alternative view. If feminist scholarship is to play a role of a midwife to change, then it must aim to lay plain the complexity of women's lives. It is important that sociology of women is reflexive, constantly reevaluating the changing relationship between women's lives and the social structures that have bound them. The ideology of balance may appear at first to working mothers to be liberatory, promising women very different lives from those of their grandmothers, however, we need to celebrate women's paid employment very cautiously, constantly examining and reexamining the impact that the new shape of working motherhood has on the deep structures that shape social relations.
In any social analysis, there is a difficulty in finding a clear view of the reality between the individual actor and social structure. Often the solution is to take an approach that reinforces the dualism: we either see the individual constructing a life for him/herself within the walls of social structure, or we see monolithic social structures filling the landscape, dwarfing puny individuals into insignificance. In socialist feminist analysis the elements of structure have the most solid presence in the intellectual landscape, and it is this work that has explicated the contradictions that shape mothers' lives. However, a focus on women's choices and actions is also necessary to feminist scholarship because without knowledge of these we remain ignorant of how people actually live in the frames of structure; we may miss the vitality of movement in social relations, and perhaps even neglect new emerging elements of structure. Even so, I suggest that in the study of work and motherhood it is risky to emphasize agency because doing so may blind us to the geology of structure that forces the pathways of agency, and the effect of this blindness may be unintended support for the ideological nature of the discourse of balance by analyzing it primarily in terms of women's creation of social meaning.
This is evident in the work on work and motherhood that uses language that emphasizes the agency of working mothers sometimes at the expense of an understanding of the constraints of structure. The activity that women do to manage the tension between work and motherhood is variously called balancing, weaving, juggling, and as I noted at the outset of this paper, there are consequences to the use of these terms. The concept of weaving, for example, allows us to see how women, as agents, pick up the various threads in their life and manage the tension between work and motherhood. Naming the management of work and motherhood weaving illuminates the activity that women do; however, it obscures other aspects of the tension. The emphasis is on agency. The structures, which provide the threads women have to weave with, recede into the background. When they are used as concepts these terms capture something about the social reality of women's lives; but, without disparaging the insights gained by scholars who focus on women's agency, I believe it is important to be clear about the limitations of these concepts.
The term weaving has an established connotation within the feminist vocabulary. It suggests that, contrary to masculine modes of thinking and acting within well-defined boundaries and careful hierarchically arranged priorities, women act in the world on the basis of connections between things. The suggestion that women can weave work and motherhood together has very positive connotations, suggesting that women can make a harmonious and peaceful whole out of the various and disparate threads of their life. Anita Garey (1999) makes this argument in her book Weaving Work and Motherhood. (3) She argues that, by responding to motherhood and responding to work, women do create a harmonious whole. They have a single vision of themselves, which includes themselves as committed mothers who are available to their children, and also, by working, setting an example of independence and contribution; their vision of themselves includes an understanding of themselves as workers who know that they are entitled to the accomplishment and status rewards that come from participation in work. The women in my study have a very similar perception of themselves both as workers and mothers to those in Garey's study. What is not emphasized by Garey (1999) and others working with this perspective, is that although, as individuals, these women managed to shape an identity where they can see themselves as both workers and mothers, they do not manage to weave the spheres of work and motherhood together such that the nature of work itself or the structure of work is significantly altered by them as mothers. Rather, they construct a motherhood identity that is wrapped around work and adapts itself to the work structure. This is an important distinction: women weave an identity for themselves out of the very different threads of work and motherhood--a cloth shot with two colors; however, they are not able to weave the structure of work and the structure of motherhood together--at the level of structure the threads, or cables rather, bend very little.
This pattern of women creatively weaving an identity for themselves, managing with what is available to build a meaningful understanding of life emerges in this study as well. However, the question remains: as many women weave this new cloth for themselves, how will the structures be changed? Balance is an ideology, which promises that women can weave the structural contradiction of work and motherhood together into a whole cloth, which of course, they cannot. Instead, the structural contradiction, the underlying geology of the problem, has a profound impact on the finished weaving of women's lives. Working mothers construct a new kind of motherhood, and so far this has been one that maintains the essential structural elements of dualism: private individual responsibility for motherhood and the privileged status of work as the essential human activity.
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University of New Brunswick
(1) These books came up in the first two pages of a search on Amazon.ca for books on "working mother" in 2008; similar titles appear today.
(2) Keller (2000) reports on a Cornel| University study, which points out that women in dual earner families have higher stress and report feeling emotionally drain and frustrated with their jobs. Sigle-Ruston and Waldfogel (2007), Folbre (1994), and Crittenden (2001) report on the financial wage gap of mothers with other workers. Lopata (1993) reviews the stress of role conflict and women's overwhelming responsibility for domestic labor. Fox (1998) points out that gender inequalities emerge as couples make joint rational childcare and work decisions, and, similarly, Gerson (1985) in her study of how women make choices about careers, reports on the difficulties women face trying to combine work and motherhood. Williams (2001) outlines the disadvantages that women face through their care-giving role. Williams & Cooper (2004), Luxton (1997), and Christie (2000) all address the costs women face because of public policies that disadvantage caregivers.
(3) Similarly, Hattery (20007 makes a similar argument, examining the various strategies that women use to negotiate work and motherhood, and Morehead (2001) examines how women bridge the divide in their own lives, experiencing both work and motherhood at once even though the two are in conflict.
Hester Vair, Department of Sociology, Room 123, Edmund Casey Hall, Saint Thomas University, Fredericton, N.B., E3B 5G3. E-mail: email@example.com
Sociology Department, University of New Brunswick, Fredericton, N.B., E3B 5A3. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
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|Publication:||Canadian Review of Sociology|
|Date:||May 1, 2013|
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