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opinion | Kathleen McCartney

Time to rethink our social construct of motherhood


Nearing the end of her three-month maternity leave, my daughter is celebrating her first Mother’s Day with her daughter, Tessa. In 1985, when I was pregnant with her younger sister, I was an assistant professor at Harvard University. I remember asking the chair of my department, a child development scholar like myself, for a maternity leave. He declined my request, arguing that a leave would not be fair to my male colleagues because I might spend some of the time working on research. I suspect all mothers know that a maternity leave is not a sabbatical.

My daughter is among the lucky ones who has paid parental leave as a work benefit. Alas, a mere 12 percent of employed workers in the United States have access to paid family leave, a figure that also encompasses those caring for sick children or adult relatives. Not enough has changed in the decades separating my daughter’s first Mother’s Day from my own.


Motherhood is a cultural invention. It reflects a belief adopted by society that is passed down from one generation to the next. In US culture, we hold to the idea that young children are better off when cared for exclusively by their mothers. Mothers are bombarded by this message in the media, especially in programming directed to them. Only after five seasons does Claire Dunphy, the iconic mother of “Modern Family,” return to the workplace.

Anthropologists have attempted to disavow us of this view. Specifically they have demonstrated that child-rearing patterns are driven by economic considerations. In foraging societies, mothers stay in close proximity with their babies, while in agricultural societies mothers share child-rearing responsibilities with those less able to be productive in the fields, like grandmothers and young girls. Shared child-rearing has been and continues to be the norm across cultures.


In contemporary society, child care is our form of shared child-rearing. In the 1970s, when mothers of young children entered the workforce in large numbers, the Mommy Wars, which pitted employed mothers against nonemployed mothers, quickly followed. When correspondent Meredith Vieira left her job at “60 Minutes” after the birth of her second child, commentators lauded her decision to put her children first. Employed mothers like me felt too guilty to publicly proclaim that we, too, put our children first — never mind demand maternity leave.

Our culture’s ambivalence about maternal employment spurred research on whether child care was a risk factor for young children. In time, social scientists demonstrated definitively that infant care did not disrupt the mother-child bond and that children thrived in quality child care. I conducted some of this research, as one of the principal investigators of the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development’s 20-year, longitudinal study of early child care.

Earlier in my career, I believed solid research findings, like my own, would lead to policy change. I was wrong. Culture trumps data every time. Our romanticized views about motherhood continue to sow division and guilt, undermining our energies to organize for the policies that employed mothers and fathers deserve.

Our cultural construction of motherhood is rooted in a particularly strong American bias toward personal responsibility, reflected across our social policies. This is why, in the United States, my daughter’s three-month paid leave is considered generous. In Sweden, where new mothers are guaranteed 16 months paid leave, it would be laughable. The United States ranks last among 38 developed nations in paid parental leave benefits: we guarantee none.


Mother’s Day is a good day to double down on the work required to reconstruct our conception of motherhood. An essential step is to make the invisible visible, helping young mothers and their partners realize that social constructions of motherhood are just that — constructions. By doing that, we can build the political will necessary for change.

There is some encouraging news. In his 2015 State of the Union address, President Obama called attention to the need for paid family leave and affordable child care, framing attention to working families “not as a side issue or a women’s issue,” but as a “national economic priority.” Numerous analyses have demonstrated the benefits of parental leave policies to workers and employers. Parents have time to bond with their children; health care costs go down; and fewer families are pushed to rely on public assistance. On the employer side, turnover is reduced, while morale and productivity increase.

Someday, Tessa might choose to become a mother. The supports we set in place today will enable her and her generation to be the best citizens, employees, and parents they can be.

Kathleen McCartney is president of Smith College and a researcher on early childhood education and policy.


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