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Froma Harrop: Mothers who do too much

Here’s a true story about a fine woman with an advanced degree whom I will not name for obvious reasons:

We were chatting one day, when her little girl broke in to say she was hungry. It was 4:30 in the afternoon. Rather than respond with “Here’s a cookie to hold you until family dinner,” the mom took out her pots and pans and started cooking an elaborate meal. Our conversation, of course, was over.

I’ve seen several friends transform from cool, super-smart women to virtual robots in service to their 4-foot charges. Their days are filled with cultural activities, specialized courses and highly organized play dates – all for the kids, none for them.

These stories came to mind on reading a new working paper on motherhood. It noted that many working women express surprise at the toil and stress of parenting. Educated women were most surprised, the researchers at Princeton, Yale and the National University of Singapore found.

This phenomenon helps explain a recent marked drop-off in employment for American women after their first child is born. But there’s a more complex reason. Many women have greatly expanded the requirements for good parenting, making that job far more time-consuming.

Though presented as a problem, this is a high-class problem. The women taking up full-time motherhood tend to have partners earning enough money to free them from outside work. That’s not the case for single mothers doing double time raising children and breadwinning. If they don’t make a ton of money, they have real problems.

Dishwashers, birth control and other 20th-century inventions initially freed up time for mothers. Ambitious mothers now believe they must provide children with far more executive supervision than in the past, according to the study. They feel they must take the kids to science enrichment classes and college prep sessions, to monitor their screen time, and to ensure that every meal is nutritionally excellent. Even older children go under constant surveillance.

Many of these mothers profess they also want a job, but there are no easy fixes. They complain of the stress of long, inflexible work hours, the study notes. But the deeper problem may be the stress of the inflexible 24-hour day. Only so much activity can be stuffed into those 1,440 minutes carved from one rotation of the Earth.

Single childless working women (and men) also find it hard to “fit it all in.” They have the gym, dentistry and laundry. Add in the enormously time-intensive job of child care – even the non-hovering kind – and something has to give. Employers’ offering flexible-hour deals to parents and not everyone else would not be very fair.

Of course, many of the fathers could do more. And improved access to day care would be a fine thing, though one suspects that mothers intent on raising super-babies would not regard the usual child care offerings as good enough. At the end of the day, each family unit must devise its own arrangements.

One suggestion might be for mothers (and fathers) to adopt a more relaxed parenting style and stop pushing their children to place first in the rat race of life. They might rethink their measures for success – and also whether their offspring might be better off with a less competition-driven childhood. Play and boredom have all been linked to greater creativity.

My intention is not to question the motives of these women. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with choosing full-time motherhood if that’s a possibility. And raising children is one of the most important jobs anyone can do. This is merely to suggest that a little less striving could help ease the struggle for a sane work-family balance.


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