Author: Caitlyn Collins
Publisher: Princeton University Press
Publishing Date: February 12, 2019
Pages: 360 (Hardcover)
I meet monthly with a close friend at a local coffee shop. We’re both aspirational women with growing careers, and this 90-minute meeting over lattes has become a professional haven as we collaborate on difficult work situations, share leadership and business resources, and support one another while we manage the complexities of family and career.
We, and middle-class working women like us around the world, are the subjects of Caitlyn Collins’ book Making Motherhood Work. Her research is intended to shed light on the delicate work-family balance that women globally struggle to manage, and the political and social structures (or lack thereof) that help or hinder their success. She faces the reality that 78% of working mothers in America are employed full-time, yet still complete the majority of child raising and housework, giving them a “second shift” job that most working fathers do not participate in at the same level.
Collins’ work is meant to be a deep dive into a few subjects to determine if national policies that seem supportive of working mothers make a positive impact. She wants to know what working mothers really experience. To accomplish this, she conducted 135 in-person interviews with middle-class employed women from five countries in the developed world (Sweden, Italy, East Germany, West Germany and the US).
For women in other countries, varying levels of government programs are in place to encourage all members of society to contribute through work. These women experience benefits such as mandated paid maternity leave, government funded childcare to fill schooling gaps until preschool, monthly child financial stipends until college, and universal healthcare that help to create a social structure to assist working families. When interviewing women in the US, she found a striking difference: women were left on their own to figure things out, making “mothers’ work-family conflict both their own fault and their own problem to solve” (245). This has created an environment where the average American woman works until she has children, and then oftentimes spends the remainder of her career compensating for this choice. Accommodations often mean American mothers step out of full-time work for an extended season and then focus the rest of their career on playing catch-up to their male counterparts.
Collins’ goal is plainly stated in the first few pages of the book: “I issue a rallying cry for a movement centered on work-family justice. This change in phrasing matters because it politicizes our understanding of mothers’ stress and socializes the responsibility for solving it” (7). With no mandated social support systems for working families in America, the burden has been placed on the individual family, and disproportionately on mothers, to create a hodgepodge of fragile solutions whereby women must continually juggle the responsibilities of career and motherhood, acting in each role as if the other were invisible.
Collins’ research highlights one particular area of struggle for women globally that points to a broader issue of gender inequality to which the church can speak. How powerful would it be if the organizational structures of our church were empowering both men and women to equally participate in church life, expecting both mother and father to share in parenting responsibilities so that both can focus on leadership aspirations within and outside the church. What if this became a model for the world to follow? The question of whether we should allow women to hold leadership offices in the church seems grossly archaic in a world where female church members are managers, vice-presidents, CEO’s, or members of the Supreme Court. Perhaps asking how our church can support the working mothers of our community would be more relevant to today’s parishioners and encourage more creative participation.
At one point in her research, Collins is asked the question, “How did this research make you feel?” Her answer? Angry—and I found myself nodding in agreement. Diving into the reason behind my own anger, however, is more difficult to define. Though Collins’ research was conducted pre-pandemic, COVID-19 has revealed the depths of dysfunction surrounding working mothers in this country . What little support structures women had to assist their careers were closed overnight, adding childcare and in-home schooling to the litany of responsibilities working mothers were already bearing. Many fear the setbacks experienced by American working women during COVID could last a lifetime. There is much at stake.
Collins’ work ends with a call to place a higher value on mothers’ participation in the labor force. To highlight a practical move towards this goal, I recall a story of the late Ruth Bader Ginsberg that I believe pushes us in the right direction. It’s been told that one of Ginsberg’s children was sick, and when the school called her, yet again, she reminded them that her son had two parents, and she would appreciate it if they alternated calls between her and her husband for family concerns. Both parents were full-time working members of society and thus both shared the blessing and burden of parenthood.1 This, it seems, is moving towards the kind of social family justice that we can all rally behind.