Mothers and philosophers.

There’s a lot of talk at the moment about motherhood and academia on the web. There’s Amy Allen’s discussion of Badinter’s book about whether stay-at-home motherhood poses a threat to feminism. There’s Rose Wood’s argument that even though being a mother is often perceived by a colleague as a threat to her career as an academic philosopher, in fact, it positively contributes to it in a number of ways.

Then, there’s the latest findings, in Spain, which show that there is a bias not just against women scientists, but against mothers, so that with equal qualifications and achievements they get fewer jobs, and lower salaries. Curt Rice has a nice discussion of that here.

It’s tempting to try and find a connection between all these findings and opinions. After all, they share a conclusion: women, whatever they do, cannot do well at work and be mothers. The evidence seems overwhelming. It’s not even that you can’t be a good mother if you work, because you can’t spend enough time at home with your children, it’s that even if you’re the worst mother a conservative newspaper could dream up, you still won’t be as successful as if you’d never reproduced.

It feels like we’re under attack from all sides, and that we might as well give up. Sure, you can be a teacher, if you’re a mother, and you can write the odd article, but forget about writing that book you think might change the face of the discipline, forget about becoming a name people in your profession recognize for anything other than your husband’s. Well, that’s defeatist. And anyone who knows anything about battle will tell you that it’s a good idea to identify the sources of the attacks, and tackle them separately. (At least, I imagine that’s what they’d say).

So how many fronts are there out there, firing at mothers? I can count three: work, family, ourselves.

Work, because that’s where the bias against hiring mothers takes place. You present your credentials, you get offered a job, or not, and a starting salary. Then you either get promoted or not. Until the academic world conducts more studies like this one, there is precious little we can do to remedy that sort of problem.

We can help raise the awareness of women’s position in academic professions,  we can be loud, so that people with half a sense of shame will feel they have to do something about it, but until we can crunch numbers, we have very little chance in persuading anyone to change. There is a sense that unless we can prove that we are not treated fairly to everyone’s satisfaction, our complaints are anecdotal, and perhaps, just perhaps, we’re really not as good as men at the job. Bear in mind, also, that all this shouting and complaining is done on behalf of women. But even among women, some would agree that being a mother puts you out of the game in some way.

Why would you be out of the game? Because obviously, if you’re a mother and a good person, you will want to spend some of the time you used to spend working looking after your children. This is true. Before my first child was born, I used to work late afternoons and evenings. I used to do so rather intensely, sitting at my computer six hours at a time, occasionally. Other times, I would go off to the department mid-morning, hang out in the common area, do a trip or two to the library, attend a seminar, and then, go off to the pub with fellow grad students. Now I can’t really do any of that. Some of those times, especially early evening, belong to my children. On the other hand, I now have an office I can use between the hours of nine to five if I wish. My children are off to school at 7.30, at which time I can either go to the gym, or start work. And they are looked after by a child-minder until 5.30, so that I can leave the office at 5.20. That, by any count, is a lot of hours during which I can, and do work. And sure, some people work longer hours, when they need to finish a paper, apply for jobs or promotion. But these are hours I can, and have sustained for twelve years now. Because I’m a mother, I have to be up and ready at some indecent hour in the morning. And if I have to be functioning enough to feed and dress two children, including one who is autistic, and send them off to school, believe me, I’m awake enough to do my job. This is how it works from the inside. Mothers are not slackers, who desperately want to stay home to fold their children’s pajamas. They’re highly organised human beings with a killer routine which just has to work every single day of their lives.

Oh, and by the way, quite often, you’ll find that where there is a mother, there is a father. And fathers, very often are also human beings, hence capable of functioning in the same way as mothers. i.e. short of giving birth and lactating: they can change nappies (not a nappy, you know but five or six everyday), get up in the night to give the baby a bottle (of the mother’s expressed milk or formula), come home from the office in order to relieve the child-minder, prepare breakfast in the morning, listen to what happened in chemistry or latin class, go to a teacher parent meeting, a birthday party, etc. Last I looked, none of these activities required a vagina, or were hindered by the wearing of a penis. All of which leads us to the question: why is there even a bias against motherhood, and not parenthood? Possibly because not all fathers are aware that they are capable of doing these things? Surely, it couldn’t be because they prefer to let their partners do all the hard work.

Now, sometimes, too often for my liking, you hear women say that children, especially young ones, need their mother more than they need their father. This is the stuff, I think, that Badinter is battling in her book, women’s own perception that being a good mother means something different than being a good father, that you have to be there, to go the extra parenting mile. The argument for this sort of view, coming from intelligent women who are not burdened by certain outdated (I wish) religious conceptions of motherhood, is usually this: a tilted head, a moist eye, a far away look, and a sympathetic smile. And this argument, whenever it is deployed, trumps all others.

So what should we do first? Shake women who believe they’re the only ones who can raise their children properly? Or force their husbands to do their share (i.e. one half exactly – no difficult maths, here)? Or perhaps start by persuading employers that motherhood, per se, does not justify lower wages? Choices, choices.


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