The young generations of women raised with the ideal of the family in which the man and the woman are team partners, equal both at home and outside it, discover that their expectations have taken precedence over the real course of society. The most surprised are, unpredictably, women who are highly educated.
With her eyes wide open, as though she wants to take in the entire screen, but in reality trying not to fall asleep, M. is trying to take advantage of the fact that her little girl has been sleeping well for a few months, and wants to write a few lines for that client who was not in too much of a hurry with their site, agreeing to work with the new mother by fits and starts. She knows how to write without looking at the brief: short, jovial, flavourful. Exactly her style, the one she developed over years at the journalism faculty, and thanks to which the client was willing to wait for her.
She takes a sip from the orange juice she had brought with her and finds it to be a little stale. She had poured it into her glass earlier than she now remembered. She leans heavily on the back of her chair and puts her hands on the back of her neck, in a position that used to help her when she needed inspiration.
She closes her eyes for a second, and wakes up in an hour to the already familiar sound of her little girl’s cries. The thought that scares her more than the sudden awakening is that this is how it’s going to be from now on. No matter how much she wants to, she won’t be able to write anymore.
Women who have graduated from college are most likely to underestimate the difficulty of parental responsibility and the many obstacles that stand in the way of successfully combining this responsibility with work tasks. An analysis conducted by two researchers from Princeton University, in collaboration with two other researchers from Yale University and the University of Singapore, accurately describes the main “surprises” that come with motherhood nowadays.
Researchers have reached this point by trying to solve one of the most interesting economic mysteries of recent decades: why don’t we have more women in the workforce? The paper is focused on the American environment, but its conclusions are worth analyzing in other environments too.
The proportion of women working in the United States peaked in the 1990s, according to research, after rising steadily for half a century. This is all the more curious as there are more women graduating from college today than men. Moreover, women today have access to types of work that they could not access in the past, and unlike previous decades, women tend more recently to postpone both marriage and the birth of their first child. Therefore, researchers asked themselves, why is this difference not also reflected in labour statistics? Where are all these women?
The main answer comes from the statistics on the employment rate of women after the birth of their first child. Analyzing data from the US, but also from the UK, researchers found that although about 90% of women worked before having children, in the first year after the birth of their first child, between 40 and 50% of them no longer work, and the percentage remains relatively unchanged in the next 5-10 years.
The authors say that, despite expectations that women who have invested heavily in accumulating human capital (education and work experience) would be “protected” from the risk of disengagement, this is not really the case. “Women systematically underestimate the effect of motherhood on employment. This underestimate manifests in the short run (i.e., in the years right before the first birth) as well as earlier in their lives,” the authors say.
Around the age of 18, only 2% of young women imagine themselves as stay-at-home mothers, although they imagine that they will have two, maybe even three, children. However, the same longitudinal statistics that revealed this expectation of young women also revealed that, around the age of 30, the proportion of women who are stay-at-home mothers has been around 15-18% for years now.
For many women, giving up their jobs after they become mothers is an unplanned decision. Nevertheless, the statistical difference, seemingly inexplicable—especially given that young women “could in principle learn from the experience of their own mothers and that of their peers”—still has a basis. Even if some aspects of motherhood are predictable, or passed down from one generation to the next, others are completely unpredictable.
One of the reasons why women change their plans, the researchers found, is that new mothers’ attitudes about gender roles change after their first child. If, before becoming mothers, women say that work will not limit their ability to be both good wives and mothers, after the birth of their first child they become much more reluctant about women employment, being more inclined to consider that women cannot both work outside the home and perform the tasks for which they are responsible at home.
Although more educated mothers were less likely to resign than less educated mothers, they were more likely to express ideas against working mothers and ideas on the unexpected difficulty of becoming a parent.
The researchers’ explanation is that today it is harder to have children and work than in the past. The invention of the dishwasher, powdered milk, disposable diapers, and other “aids” eased the responsibilities of the women of the previous generation. However, according to the study, the cost of raising a child, as a personal investment of time, energy, and finances, has increased by at least 65% compared to the 1980s.
However, in order to avoid this economic quantification, we could reproduce it by saying that today, as a result of multiple opportunities, but also of fierce competition, the pressure that parents feel is much stronger than the pressure that parents from previous generations felt.
The authors of the study quote only two examples: (1) although nowadays milk formula is available, 80% of women in the United States today breastfeed, compared to 20% in 1965, which means a higher cost (more time and more personal effort for the mother); (2) The number of hours that parents spend with their children has increased exponentially compared to the time that parents of previous generations spent with their children. The study also revealed that in the case of highly educated parents, this time has even doubled.
Both examples represent decisions by which today’s parents differ from yesterday’s parents. These are decisions that new parents make in favour of their children because they produce benefits. However, this does not mean that these benefits are free; they come at a price, which parents feel compelled to pay out of love, but also because of the pressure of society.
American writer Beth Berry made a very accurate assessment of the latest attitudes towards the status of parenting, especially that of motherhood, making a list of no less than 33 reasons why frustration is a mother’s most common feeling (after the feeling of love for their children, of course). Berry also recalls the impossible standards set by society, but also the loss of safety nets that mothers once enjoyed by virtue of tradition.
“Grandma doesn’t live next door, we don’t have much interaction with our elders, sacred ceremonies and rituals are few and far between, and we’re almost entirely disconnected from oral traditions, story and song circles, and myths that honour a woman’s journey and help us make sense of our lives, growth, and struggles,” Berry says.
Under these circumstances, in an analysis of the new coordinates of motherhood, or the lack thereof, The Economist finds it appropriate to issue an apology for giving up motherhood altogether. After all, according to the prestigious economic publication, five of the G7 countries are run by men and women without children, which shows—in contradiction of Pope Francis’ statement that people who choose not to have children are “selfish”—that you cannot have descendants and still care about the future of the world you live in.
Those who decide not to have children are not necessarily those who put too much pressure on the pension system, according to the magazine. If those who want to have children make more than one, the situation would be balanced—like in Ireland, which not only adjusts demographically with the help of families with more children, but is also led by a head of state who has no children.
However, the dilemma that necessarily arises from the current situation is not whether or not to have children but how to enable society to adapt as quickly as possible to the new cultural coordinates. Whole generations of girls have been taught that they can become whatever they want, that they can have a flourishing career while their family and children thrive.
However, time has shown that both professional development and raising children will consume resources that are claimed by competing goals, and society still does not provide enough support in this sense. The current culture has lagged behind the ideas it preaches, which is also evident from statistics that show that, while women work harder for money, men do not do more housework or work harder in raising their children. This is one of the most substantial surprises for young women who expect more egalitarian partnerships, according to the New York Times.
If it is unrealistic to expect society to change in due time, according to our needs, personal change remains the most controllable. The first step towards this is that among the large amount of information on “parenting” with which even those who do not want children have been bombarded, we are able to convincingly insert the information that having both a child and a job involves a huge cost for mothers. Moreover, judging a woman who gives up either is neither proof of emancipation nor of traditionalism, but of pure ignorance.