Motherhood is a pedestal. It is mostly desired and even prescribed. It sits high in the rank of achievable things set in the life course of the average woman. With preconceptions of mothering centered in the household, the migration to a more industrialised society has resulted in shifts that have changed what motherhood is, what it looks like and what shapes it takes when contextualised to survival in a capitalist system. This begs the question – what is mothering in capitalism?
The declining influence of traditional motherhood as an institution designed to keep women within the confines of their homes has garnered them independence, as well as violent anxiety.
The declining influence of traditional motherhood as an institution designed to keep women within the confines of their homes has garnered them independence, as well as violent anxiety. From cultural expectations for mothers to be the best nurturers and in the same breath to be ambitious ladder climbers in the corporate capitalistic world, this has made modern motherhood a paradox that is not easy to navigate. Working mothers’ domestic contributions in the form of their love and care for their children is at best limited to the weekend and after working hours, and the caregiver role is outsourced in the form of daycare schools and hired help in early childhood. While this structure has given women more buying power and freedom to achieve their ambitions in the various industries they occupy, whether in single parent homes or two parent households, it has also caused a discomfort which leaves many feeling like they are not doing ‘enough’ emotional nurturing and bonding, which impresses feelings of guilt, shame, loneliness and ultimately exhaustion. Mothering in capitalism is a constant movement of manoeuvring a system that expects them to thrive in work centered environments and still have enough time to be cherished caregivers that fulfil their children’s needs.
Practices of motherhood in our modernity are largely romanticised. Words such as ‘strong’ and ‘resilient’ are used as synonyms for women who have managed to become workers and mothers. The act of balancing the roles is seen as an achievable feat that takes dedication. Nowadays, there are programs prescribed to women who want to be the best in both worlds, albeit their success is still quite unknown and one wonders if there is provision for honest expressions that are contrary to the assumption that women can do it all without burning out eventually. Even though women and men now occupy the labour market in close range proportions, the responsibility for nurturing children still falls on mothers while fathers often occupy a supportive role. This is largely due to the traditional expectation that women must take the lead in parenting as the nurturers in society. As noted by the International Labour Organization (ILO), the current global labour force participation rate for women is close to 49%. For men, it’s 75%. This implies the disparity in roles relative to household participation.
Capitalistic violence for mothers often presents itself as unpaid household labour, occupational lifestyle diseases, burnout, depression, postpartum depression and many other physical, emotional and psychological distresses
In society’s pursuit to emphasise the importance of motherhood, it has done little to highlight the anxiety and tension that has surfaced for mothers who exist in a capitalist system. Women across the globe when asked if they preferred to work in paid jobs, care for their families, or do both in a study by the ILO, the data showed that a staggering 70% of women – regardless of their employment status – prefer to work in paid jobs. This points to the changing narratives that have occurred in the conceptions of motherhood as something women sacrifice their careers for, and how women find motherhood to be ‘restrictive’. In the past, it was highly celebrated and embodied as an unquestionable rite of passage for women.
Capitalistic violence for mothers often presents itself as unpaid household labour, occupational lifestyle diseases, burnout, depression, postpartum depression and many other physical, emotional and psychological distresses. This is evident in the statistics of mothers who decry being ‘burned out’ by day to day activities that leave little room for self-care and rest. Burnout can be defined as a loss of enthusiasm, energy, idealism, perspective, and purpose. It is a state of total exhaustion brought on by unrelenting stress. The fear of being labelled an underinvested mother also makes it difficult for one to share their challenges.
Globally, statistics illustrate that if both women’s paid professional work and their unpaid housework are taken into consideration, women are “overworked” compared to men. According to C E Bird on “Gender, household labor, and psychological distress: the impact of the amount and division of housework,” the results indicate that men’s lower contributions to household labor explain part of the gender difference in depression. Inequity in the division of household labor has a greater impact on distress than does the amount of household labor. Other research has also shown that psychosocial work stress and, in particular, job strain, are important risk factors in the development of depression. A study conducted in the U.S. at the end of 2019 found that roughly 9.8 million out of 35 million working mothers., indicated that they are suffering from workplace burnout.
To begin to remedy the clear struggles of mothers in our society, we must perhaps consider what community as a safe and holding space is in relation to parenting.
With the COVID-19 pandemic forcing workers to work from home, this again put pressure on women globally to relook motherhood in a changing world. Currently, working from home is not helping the overload feeling, according to hrmorning.com. “People with kids under 12 at home spend many more hours per week on cooking, cleaning, childcare and other domestic duties. COVID has about doubled this time, but for parents this went from 22 to 40 hours per week while child-free workers went from 12 to 16,” stated writer Alexandra Moser. At a time when the pandemic could be assisting mothers to reflect on how to better manage their time, it is further putting strain on them due to their commitment and roles in our capitalistic driven work structure.
To begin to remedy the clear struggles of mothers in our society, we must perhaps consider what community as a safe and holding space is in relation to parenting. Due to the evolution of the family, as more people migrated to cities for work, the nuclear family became the standing structure of the modern family, breaking away from the extended families and other support structures. Bruce Feiler, author of Council of Dads, notes that our current mode of living alone in our homes, often far from extended family and valuing privacy — has inadvertently worked to wipe out this support system. Due to mothers commonly assuming the role of ‘home managers’, this burdens them with the expectations of doing more to prove themselves as loving nurturers. It would help for women to reflect on ways they can rebuild such similar support for themselves, in their own ways, which are safe for their children.
More importantly, mothers must find ways to pressure this capitalism driven system to accommodate their lived experiences in a more healthy and rest oriented manner instead of it prescribing how they must occupy their roles. This can be encouraged through programs at their workplaces, at home and in the larger society to redefine what healthy motherhood looks like. What is clear is that the violence of capitalism is not a conducive structure for mothers, and must be dismantled to be one.
International Labour Organization (ILO); The gender gap in employment: What’s holding women back?
C E Bird; Gender, household labor, and psychological distress: the impact of the amount and division of housework
Bruce Feiler; Council of Dads
HRMorning.com; Why women struggle more working from home during COVID