I knew I wasn’t the only one who felt undervalued and misjudged as a mother.
And I knew that the way our society treats women has been at the forefront of people’s minds, especially lately, thanks to the Harvey Weinstein imbroglio, the #MeToo movement and the election of Donald Trump.
But the number — and sources — of substantive reactions to last week’s piece, “Why don’t we respect mothers more?,” surprised me. In the days that followed, I heard from women between 30 and 86, women who are single, married, mothers, not mothers, women who work (or worked) in the professional sphere full-time, part-time, and no time.
I heard from each of these demographics’ male counterparts, too.
One retired lawyer and full-time mom of three told me that the piece “left [her] in tears for some reason.”
A 40-year-old pediatric oncologist and mother of two young children said, “My husband is a stay-at-home dad and, no doubt, his days are much harder than mine. Fortunately, he feels that he has the most important job in the world and, no doubt, he does.”
A close male friend vowed to forward the piece to his wife. She’s a small-business owner, the primary caregiver to twin daughters and CEO of your home — I hope she can’t identify with any of this!, I thought. But, of course, she can — so much so that she forwarded the essay to friends and colleagues in New York.
A female executive and mother of three said, “I tell clients who are re-entering the work force just to use their Mom Skills and lead. Unsurprisingly, this usually works out well for them. Nothing hones your leadership skills like being a mom.”
Two married mothers and psychologists lamented acquaintances’ — and even patients’ — reluctance or refusal to call them “doctor.” Now, my friend Julie knows why I insist my son call her “Doctor Julie,” despite the fact that our families are close.
Another female doctor friend told me that she had sat on a panel with a male colleague. The panel’s moderator addressed my friend by her first name but her counterpart by either “professor” or “doctor.” The moderator also referenced my friend’s children, but not the male panelist’s.
I challenged her to speak up next time. (And there will be a next time.)
A friend from Rome has delayed finishing her medical degree for years to raise three daughters. On Facebook, she posted: “Same exact life and feelings on the other side of the ocean.” In response to the abundance of comments before hers, she added, “Feels so good to be in such great company.”
A single female friend with no kids — and lots of married mom friends — said that the most egalitarian marriage she knows is between two gay women. “The mom gets stuck with more crap in all my straight friends’ marriages, regardless of who earns, who works more hours, or any other factor, really.”
She’s onto something. Several moms in heterosexual marriages bemoaned the disproportionate mental and emotional loads they carry. “My husband will happily take our sons to birthday parties, but never thinks to buy presents beforehand. That’s on me,” said one.
“When my husband is out of town, he’s off the hook. When I’m out of town, I’m responsible for preplanning the kids’ carpools, play dates and appointments and running point [from afar],” said another.
I’VE ALSO heard a lot about Mom Guilt. It kills me that the deepest wounds are often inflicted by other moms. One friend, a nurse and mother of two young girls, had just gone back to work when an acquaintance hit her with, “Wow, I could never give up these crucial years in my babies’ lives for a job!”
This “reeked of judgment and hurt me at a core level,” my friend recalled.
Another mom remembers feeling similarly sucker-punched when she left the workforce to care for her first baby. “A former colleague said something like, ‘I wish I could just stay home with my kids, but — for me — I need something more.’ I felt worthless.”
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“Why are you working?” our neighbor snarked at my own mom one day. “You don’t need to.”
My mom worked as a commercial illustrator out of our house, was on a tight deadline, and had just refused to watch our neighbor’s son for the afternoon. Our neighbor’s frustration was selfishly motivated — who doesn’t love free babysitting? — but Mom felt demeaned all the same.
An active mom of three, who does the unglamorous, impactful kind of philanthropic work that doesn’t ever make the society pages, excitedly shared with a group of other moms that she was about to hire a promising new nanny.
A professional mom asked her, “A nanny? But you don’t work.” The comeback was perfect and immediate: “What’s your point?”
PREDICTABLY, I’VE heard a lot about how the American workplace undermines mothers. One friend was unable to pump often enough at work to maintain her milk supply post-maternity leave. She should have felt like a bad ass for getting through a five-day week on 10 minutes of sleep. Instead, she felt wretched for “failing” to feed her baby. (The baby got fed. He’s now four and has the best set of cheeks I know.)
Another observed that, though she never feels comfortable leaving work early to be with her children — when they’ve been sick or had a bad day at school, for example — her male colleagues feel comfortable leaving to attend their children’s sporting events because “you know — dads need to be there.”
One professional and mother of two cringed when her father-in-law asked how much money she made last month. (To her credit, she told him it was none of his business.) Did his question imply that, because his son makes more than she does, her work wasn’t valid? That she doesn’t earn enough to justify not “staying home” with her children?
“My parents never ask my husband how much he makes,” she noted.
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It’s been a rough few weeks, full of heart-wrenching #MeToo stories and inescapable truths about the insidious, pervasive abuse of male power. But the discussions I’ve had leave me feeling buoyed.
The evolving conversation about gender equality that so many brave women have dedicated their lives to pushing forward seems to have taken a leap in the right direction. Women know they’re not alone. The feature story in this week’s Time is titled, “The Goddess Myth: How a Vision of Perfect Motherhood Hurts Moms.”
And men are buying in. One man whose wife ran their home and raised their two now-grown sons felt compelled to forward the article to his entire law firm. And a single man with no children said: “I hope we can one day let mothers and families make their own choices … without there being all sorts of assumptions and prejudices and implied criticisms that seem to come with the territory, all based on gender. We have a long way to go.”
He recognizes that how we treat moms isn’t a “woman problem” or a “family problem” but, rather, a universal social problem.
Lots of us are starting to think about how we can better support other women — women who’ve made different choices from our own. Maybe the pot has — finally — boiled over. Maybe we can rededicate ourselves to cleaning up the mess.
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Emily Wolf is a recovering lawyer and emerging writer. In 2009, she moved from Chicago to Houston, where she lives with her husband and two young sons.