Hot! The Motherload sheds light on the unfinished business of feminism

MontrealGazette.com – life
January 19, 2014.   By Celine Cooper, The Gazette

“I just can’t go on like this. It’s so stressful to be letting people down at work and it’s incredibly stressful to feel like you’re not there for your family when they need you.”

Sound familiar?

Chances are if you are a mother who works outside the home you’ll see yourself in here somewhere.

The quote above is from a woman — a lawyer and mother of three children — profiled in a compelling CBC DocZone feature called The Motherload. Produced and directed by Cornelia Principe, the documentary surveys the current situation of working mothers in Canada and the United States. Instead of fixating on the question “can women have it all?” it probes what I think is the more accurate issue today: Can women balance the demands of motherhood and a career and still be healthy and sane?

Asking whether women “can have it all” may already be irrelevant. For better or worse, the fact is most of us are already doing it all, all the time. Overwhelmed is the new state of motherhood and work in North America. The point is that women are burning out in massive numbers because of it.

The film not only looks at how we got here, but also the consequences of this phenomenon.

One of the interesting points raised by Washington Post reporter Brigid Schulte in the documentary is that women are actually spending more time with their kids today than they did in the 1960s. But if we are working full time and mothering full time, how are we doing it? What are we giving up to make this happen?

Sleep, for one thing. But we’re also forgoing leisure, exercise and social time with friends and family. More important, the stress of it all is taking a serious toll on our health and this is where we need to sound the alarm.

In the United States, for example, where there is no legislated maternity leave and women are pressured to return to work a mere 12 weeks after giving birth, a study conducted at the Harvard Centre for Social and Development Studies found that the stress associated with juggling work and motherhood is actually killing women: poor American women are now dying on average five years earlier than their mothers.

Mothers in North America are suffering from higher levels of depression, anxiety, weight gain and high blood pressure. Studies have also suggested that educated, upper middle class, professional mothers are drinking more to cope with anxiety and guilt.

In a competitive world marked by a shaky economy, part of the problem is that our society has amped up expectations at work (demands for increased performance and around the clock availability) and home (the pressure to feed your children organic homemade food and have them speaking Mandarin and playing piano by age 2, for example). No wonder the cracks are starting to show.

For some mothers, returning to a career they enjoy is a conscious decision. But for many, the decision to work is not a matter of choice. There are many reasons why women return to the workforce after giving birth, even when they might prefer to stay at home with their children.

For example, according to Statistics Canada (2011), 30 per cent of Canadian households are couples with children, but they account for 50 per cent of all Canada’s debt. It is extremely difficult to survive on one salary in our current economic and precarious workplace climate. For many mothers, there are additional factors at play. If you have children with special needs, if you are a single mom, if you are poor — all of these things ratchet up the need to get back to work to pay the bills.

The struggles facing working mothers and the health consequences that flow from them are the unfinished business of feminism. The idea that women are “naturally” better at caring for children remains a core assumption underpinning our public policy, and our home and workplace practices. Broader social attitudes that continue to see raising children as something without value, something that is not real work continue to hurt us all. This is not a “women’s issue” (whatever that is) but one that affects men, women and children in multiple different ways.

If there is a silver lining to be found in this epidemic, it is this: women are finally starting to talk about it. That is always where social change begins.

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1 Comment

  1. “The Motherload” is an excellent documentary, which can be accessed online:

    http://www.cbc.ca/player/Shows/ID/2429069222/

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