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Kids Don’t Damage Women’s Careers — Men Do

Stop blaming motherhood for a problem created by fathers

Credit: Stella/Getty Images

by Jessica Valenti

One of the most pernicious modern myths about motherhood is that having kids will damage your career. Women are told that we need to choose between our jobs or our children, or that we’ll spend our most productive work years “juggling” or performing a “balancing act.”

For those of us uninterested in circus tricks, a bit of perspective: It’s not actually motherhood or kids that derail women’s careers and personal ambitions — it’s men who refuse to do their fair share.

If fathers did the same kind of work at home that mothers have always done, women’s careers could flourish in ways we haven’t yet imagined. But to get there, we need to stop framing mothers’ workplace woes as an issue of “balance,” and start talking about how men’s domestic negligence makes it so hard for us to succeed.

Yes, we know American men are doing more than they have in past years: Fathers report spending about eight hours a week on child care, or three times as much as fathers in 1965. (Though keep in mind that the data is self-reported, and men tend to overestimate how much domestic work and child care they do.)

Men doing more, however, is not the same thing as men doing enough. Despite progress made, mothers are still spending almost twice the amount of time that men do, 14 hours a week, on child care. And not all parenting is tangible, quantifiable work — it’s the mental labor of having kids that’s often the most taxing. It’s easy to split, for example, who packs a school lunch or dresses a child in the morning. But someone also needs to keep track of those days when lunch needs to be bagged for a field trip, or when it’s time to buy new underwear or sneakers. How many dads do you know who could tell you their child’s correct shoe size?

This kind of invisible work almost always falls on women, and we rarely talk about the impact it has on our professional lives. Imagine if instead of our mind being filled with to-do lists about grocery shopping and dentist appointments, we had available head space for creative thinking around our work and passions. For mothers, the freedom to just think is a privilege.

Studies also show that fathers continue to have significantly more leisure time than mothers and that mothers use their off time to do chores and child care while fathers use time off for hobbies and relaxing. This, too, is about careers: We know that people who have more leisure time and time for creative activities tend to perform better at work.

To be sure, there are also “motherhood penalties” in workplaces that have nothing to do with men. (At least, not the ones we share beds with.) Mothers are much less likely to be hired than non-mothers, and when they have children, their wages fall off a cliff. Studies from 2017 led some analysts to come to the conclusion that the wage gap was almost entirely attributable to motherhood. Men, on the other hand, tend to see more money once they have children. Individual and structural discrimination against mothers remains, and that takes a tremendous toll on women’s abilities to achieve in the public sphere.

But the answers to workplace discrimination are straightforward, and more importantly, they’re finally being recognized as necessary. That men do less child care is widely known, but it’s not widely condemned. We hear again and again, for example, that women just “care” more.

I promise you, there is nothing fulfilling about remembering that your daughter needs hair ties, or that she’s about to grow out of that pair of sandals. There’s no joy in changing a diaper or clipping tiny toenails. If women in relationships with men seem to be more concerned with these tasks, perhaps it’s because we know it’s not our husbands who will be looked at askance if our kid goes to school sporting inch-long fingernails or ill-fitting shoes.

Americans need to stop believing that women do the majority of care work because we want to. It’s because we’re expected to, because we’re judged if we don’t, and most of all, because it’s incredibly difficult to find male partners willing to do an equal share of the work.

So let’s stop saying that it’s motherhood that holds up women’s careers; it’s not the institution of parenthood that makes advancing at work difficult. It’s not our kids. It’s that there’s no chance of equality at work while there’s inequality at home. It’s not that women can’t “have it all,” it’s that men won’t stop taking it.


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