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What It's Really Like To Be a Working Mother

Rebecca Bowen Rebecca Bowen
9th May 2021
What It's Really Like To Be a Working Mother

Note: The views and opinions expressed in blog/editorial posts are those of the author. They do not purport to reflect the views or opinions of Misbar.

I am a working mother. I work as I watch my father play with my infant son. Tomorrow, my first Mother’s Day as a mother, I intend to work while my husband helps. I am not alone in my pursuits. Mothers make up a significant percentage of the workforce and the realities of work/life balance are often blurred or even forgotten. 

 In the United States, being a working mother starts early. According to the International Labor Organization, the U.S. remains one of only three countries in the world to not guarantee paid parental leave. Between six to 25 percent of mothers go back to work only two weeks after giving birth, and another ten percent go back after four weeks. In the U.S., six weeks is considered to be the standard amount of time a woman needs to spend with her baby before she goes back to work. To put that in perspective, the American Kennel Club suggests keeping puppies with their mother until at least 8-10 weeks of age.

Childbirth takes a toll on a mother but not being allowed to form the proper bond with an infant is even more alarming. Dr. Mary Beth Steinfield, a pediatrician in California, writes:

“The importance of bonding with the primary caregiver cannot be overestimated. Failure to do so profoundly affects future development and the ability to form healthy relationships as an adult… Babies who are held and comforted when they need it during the first six months of life tend to be more secure and confident as toddlers and older children.”

From increased stress and anxiety to behavioral issues, taking mothers away from their children too early creates lasting effects for both. That bond begins development from the first moments of birth. Called “The Golden Hour,” women are encouraged to spend the first hour after birth holding the baby with skin-to-skin contact and attempting to breastfeed. This action promotes the release of oxytocin in the mother and infant—a powerful hormone that initiates bonding, nurturing, and even creates calmness and relaxation. Oxytocin is responsible for forming strong relationships in humans. A person petting their pet dog even receives a nice boost of oxytocin. Contact among us is essential.

Marcia Killien, an Associate Professor in the Dept. of Parent & Child Nursing at the University of Washington notes in her paper “Postpartum Return to Work: Mothering Stress, Anxiety, and Gratification” that mothers have higher rates of sickness for the first year after childbirth. She reports that the large majority of women report a failure to return to their normal energy levels by six months, though the majority had returned to work by that time. Her research also shows that shorter maternity leave is linked to depression, and mothers who work more report lower levels of gratification in childcare. Tired women, forced to be away from their infants, often do not get to enjoy the experience as much.

The guilt caused by this knowledge can be immense, especially as women often cite financial issues as the reason for their early return to work. According to the most recent census reports, working mothers in the U.S. make up one-third of women in the workforce. They also show that 30 percent of mothers that only work part-time cite caring for a child or someone else as the reason. The census reports also show that mothers of young children take incrementally more leave time from work than other groups. In order to care for their children and work, they are faced with a tough decision as employers generally do not welcome mothers needing more leave.

This lies in direct opposition to motherhood because gender roles historically keep women as caretakers for the family. A Cornell study called “Getting a Job: Is There a Motherhood Penalty?” reports that for mothers under 35 the wage gap between mothers and nonmothers is even larger than the wage gap between men and women. Women who are mothers are seen as less capable, and pregnant women especially are thought to be “less committed to their jobs, less dependable… more emotional… and more irrational.” Mothers are hired less and promoted less. While a man displaying photos of his family in his personal workspace is seen as dedicated and reliable, the same display by a woman can hold her back from climbing the corporate ladder.

In a world where few can afford to live in a single-income home, these outmoded ideas of women’s caretaking roles do not stop at the office door. Expectations exist for women to work full-time, then come home and care for and manage life for their entire family. The previously mentioned gender roles have not advanced as fast as women’s suffrage or their need and desire to enter the workforce. Sociologist Aliya Hamid Rao writes for The Atlantic, “Married American mothers spend twice as much time on housework and childcare than do married fathers.” Infants and children require a large amount of energy and attention and women perform the brunt of it. Nurturing a child does not always mean quietly relaxing on the couch watching television. Dinner must be cooked, baths must be drawn, and constant attention that fingers are not going into light sockets can never wane. Even after a full day of work, many mothers arrive home to more work. Social media sites for mothers often tout “self-care” and “me time” but only some acknowledge the burden and guilt in even taking 10 minutes alone. 

On being a working mother, CNN reporter Frederika Whitfield recently said, “There is no juggling, or even balancing. It’s just kind of prioritizing.” While finishing my thesis paper for graduate school I carried my son in a harness strapped to my chest. He happily watched me type as I bounced from leg to leg, rocking him to contentment. Often now while I’m working, my son will crawl over to me, tug on my leg, and look up at me with those big, blue eyes. His need for attention and love is obvious, though he cannot outright state it. In those moments I do not try to continue typing while picking him up. I do not try to handle a call from a client. I focus on my son. I prioritize his need for my care over anyone else and I am so grateful to be able to do so—I will not always have the luxury of being able to and he will not always need me as he does now.

So thank your Mother. She may sometimes fail. She may sometimes not be there when you need her and she may sometimes say or do the wrong thing. But she tries her very best and the world places so very much on her shoulders.

Photo via Getty Images

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