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NPO publishes blog articles to inform and to stimulate conversation about issues of importance to NPO's mission.  All blog articles express the opinions of the authors as individuals and do not necessarily reflect the views of National Parents Organization, its Board of Directors, or its executives.  

August 1, 2014 by Robert Franklin, Esq.

I’ve written a fair amount about the phenomenon of women, often highly educated ones, hopping off the career track in favor of the mommy track. As I’ve said before, countless studies demonstrate the phenomenon. Time and again we see women who are well-educated and poised for success in the worlds of business, law, medicine, academia, etc. who opt for childbearing and childrearing instead.

Strangely, few of the studies, few of the articles — the one linked to being no exception — fail to state the obvious — that mothers are strongly bound to their children via various hormones stimulated by pregnancy (New York Times, 7/31/14). Those hormones are the very things that tell parental mammals (and birds) to do the work of caring for and protecting their offspring. Without them, adults would simply pursue their own interests and our offspring, too weak and immature to survive on their own, would die and with them, the species.

So human biology at its most powerful is what all but demands that mothers spend their time raising their children. (Fathers too have a hormonal connection to their kids, but so far science hasn’t gotten around to learning much about it.)

But those studies are only what they are, and what they’re not is the Times article. It’s an essay by one of those high-achieving, headed-for-a-job-in-academia women, Yael Schonbrun, who, when she had a baby was so powerfully drawn to staying home with it to the exclusion of all else, she almost chucked it all to stay home. She didn’t, but her half-a-loaf solution to the problem of children vs. career looks and feels much like no solution at all. Her essay is thoughtful, but it’s hard to escape the feeling that she’s not happy with either half of her life.

Just a few years after completing my Ph.D. in psychology, I was on the path to what I considered possible research greatness. I had been awarded a grant from the National Institutes of Health to conduct research on treatments for couples in which one partner has an addiction. Throughout my pregnancy, I was working on a new grant proposal that, if approved, would set me up for a promotion to assistant professor.

I recall going for a waddling pregnant walk with my husband and, feeling confident, saying how excited I was to become a mom, and how positive I was that I would still want to have my career…

But then my son was born, and everything changed. Something seemed to physically shift inside me. Being apart from him was viscerally uncomfortable. I cried often in those first months of leaving him at day care to go sit at my desk to analyze data and work on grants and papers. I wanted so badly to want my career. I had worked so hard to get there. But as I strained to finish my postdoctoral fellowship, it seemed as if I no longer had the stomach to do what was needed to achieve my goals…

So finally, after months of agonizing, I made a decision: to back down, but not bail out.

Today, after the birth of my second child, 15 percent of my income is paid through my university for my research, and I work another two days a week as a private-practice psychologist. This setup allows me to be engaged in multiple roles, as a researcher, therapist and home-based mom.

But it also means that my productivity within each role is limited. My kids are probably the most satisfied — they enjoy our days home together, and they also love going to day care with their friends. But my patients get frustrated with my limited availability, and my colleagues at the university sometimes seem baffled by my desire to stay in academia in a way that is not particularly ambitious or impressive.

In short, she’s caught between two worlds, two roles, neither fully contributing to nor opting out of either. But in the process, she’s let us know a little bit about the powerful, visceral need on the part of mothers to do that job. What she’s describing is what women face when they conceive and give birth. We see it time and again for the good and sufficient reason that nature seldom takes a break from connecting parents to children. It’s as predictable as the sunrise.

And, given that it is predictable, given that we know the pull of motherhood on women and their response to it, shouldn’t we wonder about our priorities, our use of resources? The fact is that, for about three decades, we’ve significantly refigured our educational system toward the way girls tend to learn best. In the process we’ve made school a less than hospitable place for boys and their ways of learning and being engaged. Our culture has also provided a decades-long message to the effect that boys and men are, more than anything, dangerous, stupid and worthless. In the process, we’ve medicated boys to the point where at least some scientists suggest we’ve destroyed their ambition. Unsurprisingly, we now find ourselves with about 58% of college enrollees being female and 42% male.

That’s a heavy investment in women, but the many studies showing women opting out of paid work, and more recently out of the workforce altogether, bring it into question. The writer of the Times piece all but brings the subject up herself.

I wanted so badly to want my career. I had worked so hard to get there. But as I strained to finish my postdoctoral fellowship, it seemed as if I no longer had the stomach to do what was needed to achieve my goals.

Yes, her particular focus is on her own feelings, but it doesn’t take much to expand exactly those sentiments to an entire couple of generations of women. And when we do, it’s hard not to wonder about what we’re doing with our educational system. An astonishing percentage of it is being devoted to students studying science, medicine, law, business, technology, engineering, etc. only to see those advanced degrees, those fine minds, used for the admittedly necessary but pedestrian purpose of raising children. Does this make sense? The Times writer worked hard and well; she was on the cusp of a promising career. Now she sees she’s closing the doors to advancement, achievement. She and millions of others.

I believe our culture needs that achievement that so many women are foregoing in favor of motherhood.

Meanwhile, Schonbrun’s husband merits barely a mention. Although she doesn’t spell it out, it’s clear that her decision to work and earn little placed most of that burden on him. As is so often the case when Mom decides to opt out (or in her case, part way out), it’s Dad who pays the freight. He works full-time and often ramps up his earnings; he becomes Ward Cleaver on steroids. He supports her choice.

Maybe he shouldn’t. Maybe when Mom says “Honey, I’ve been thinking. I don’t really enjoy work that much and I’m so drawn to our kids,” Dad should say “Me too.” Instead of redoubling his efforts so she can opt out, maybe Dad should demand equality in his relationship. Maybe he should demand time with his children too and if that means she needs to work more than she’d planned, it also means their children don’t lose their father to the corporate grind. Equal parenting, equal earning and the kids grow up with two parents instead of just one. What a concept.

Of course as I said, if her Times piece is any indication, her husband is barely a shadow in her life or their children’s and it’s fair to think he’s in fact more than that. But her article does tend to reflect the zeitgeist. After all, how many articles have we seen on the “work/family” struggle women engage in, and how many of those have paused to consider that, when a woman opts out, she does so because a man is there to pay the bills?

It’s that type of taking men and their breadwinner role for granted that Schonbrun’s article typifies. Why mention him? What part could he possibly play in her drama that has her in the lead role? As her husband appears in her piece and indeed as men appear in all similar ones, he’s little more than a function, a tool. When we hammer a nail, the hammer isn’t supposed to ask “why?”

And it’s exactly that question that men and fathers need to start asking if we’re ever going to achieve equality in marital roles. Until men stop accepting the role of selfless provider who sees the kids only in his limited spare time, we can’t wonder why divorce courts treat them that way. And we can’t too much bemoan the fact that mothers’ opting out does a lot to waste our educational resources.

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National Parents Organization is a non-profit that educates the public, families, educators, and legislators about the importance of shared parenting and how it can reduce conflict in children, parents, and extended families. Along with Shared Parenting we advocate for fair Child Support and Alimony Legislation. Want to get involved?  Here’s how:

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