I recently came away from a job interview wishing I hadn’t spoken so much about motherhood. When asked to outline my experience in balancing competing projects and deadlines, the best examples I could think of were from my family life. But on reflection, that probably came across as unprofessional. Needless to say, I didn’t get the job.
In the world of work, it’s often best to pretend that we aren’t mothers at all. In fact, it’s illegal for prospective employers to ask if we are.
Feminism has fought hard for women to have an equal place in the workforce alongside men. But it has largely accomplished this by separating women from motherhood. The priorities of contemporary feminism are to enable women to avoid becoming mothers in the first place (through contraception and access to abortion) and to ensure that motherhood doesn’t inhibit a woman’s career (through access to childcare and maternity leave).
But this creates a huge tension for many women—we experience a disconnect between the promises of feminism and real-life motherhood. It feels like you can’t be a good feminist and a good mother at the same time.
Feminism’s Anti-natalist Streak
We experience a disconnect between the promises of feminism and real-life motherhood.
Louise Perry’s challenging book The Case Against the Sexual Revolution (read TGC’s review) has helped me make sense of this tension. Perry evaluates what she calls “liberal feminism,” which flows from economic liberalism and shares its goal: to free individuals from external constraints and explain all relationships in terms of social contracts between consenting parties.
Perry shows that liberal feminism is incompatible with motherhood: “If you value freedom above all else, then you must reject motherhood, since this is a state of being that limits a woman’s freedom in almost every possible way” (230). Perry has identified “an anti-natalist streak in both liberal and radical feminist traditions that leaves mothers shut out” (230). Motherhood isn’t primarily about us—our autonomy and our choices. It’s an irrevocable calling to welcome the children that God places in our midst. Here are four ways liberal feminism misunderstands the true nature of motherhood.
1. (Potential) motherhood shapes all women.
Perry’s key argument is that men and women have different sexualities. On average, men are more interested in casual sex with multiple partners, without commitment or romance (105). Women, on the other hand, generally prefer to have sex within a monogamous relationship of commitment and emotional connection (106).
Perry explains why this is so: the consequences of sex are inherently asymmetrical. If a woman becomes pregnant after a casual sexual encounter, it will change her life completely. However, the man involved may go on his way experiencing minimal consequences.
Liberal feminism tries to train women to ignore these sexual instincts so they can have casual, consequence-free sex “like a man” (103–4). But this approach is proving to be damaging for women, who rarely enjoy this kind of sex and are left with regret, low self-esteem, and mental distress (115). Because of this, Perry (who isn’t religious at all) wisely counsels young women to hold off having sex and to only have sex with a man who would make a good father to her children (252).
2. Motherhood ties us to particular people.
In the modern workforce, the ideal worker is independent and interchangeable. She can move around the country and work around the clock, all in exchange for a paycheck. Like a square peg in a round hole, a mother will never fit this paradigm. As Perry explains,
The logic of individualism collapses upon contact with motherhood. The pregnant woman’s frame contains two people, neither of them truly autonomous. . . . Even after birth, the mother–baby dyad remains a unit, tied together both emotionally and physically. And for many years following birth, the young child cannot be understood as an autonomous individual because, without the devoted care of at least one adult, death is a certainty. (231)
Liberalism prioritizes relationships that can be explained in terms of an economic transaction: it values professional childcare but not the unpaid care work of parents and relatives. (We don’t all have the good fortune of Moses’s mother who managed to get paid for caring for her own baby!) Family relationships are of a different nature to commercial ones. Motherhood makes us responsible not just for some children but for our particular children. At work, we may be replaceable, but never in our family.
3. Motherhood is always full time.
Liberal feminism reduces motherhood to the things we do when we’re not at work. We talk about dividing our time, putting on different hats. But the truth is that we’re always mothers, wherever we are.
When a woman becomes a mother she goes through a transformation called matrescence: her surging hormones fine-tune her body and mind to be able to care for her baby. Even adoptive mothers experience the effects of maternal hormones. Motherhood is about who we are to our children, not just what we do for them.
Motherhood is about who we are to our children, not just what we do for them.
We gradually develop new priorities, interests, knowledge, and skills too. Many women find new ways of working, or even completely new careers that better complement their role as mothers. (I’ve offered some reflections and practical examples of how women can combine work and motherhood in a series of articles on treasuring the work of mothers.)
Mothers have always contributed to the economy. The difference is that in previous generations, they generally did this in and around their homes, with their children nearby. A mother shouldn’t have to take off her “mother hat” in order to put on her “worker hat.” And now that working remotely from home is more common, we have a great opportunity to better integrate these two roles.
4. Motherhood pays better dividends.
Motherhood limits our freedom because it creates a dependency between us and our children. But the relationship of responsibility and dependence eventually reverses: in time, the children we have cared for will, Lord willing, “return” the care (1 Tim. 5:4).
And the dividends of Christian motherhood pay off, not just into old age but into eternity. The early church leader Timothy owed his Christian faith to the teaching of his mother (and grandmother). Paul writes, “But as for you, continue in what you have learned and have firmly believed, knowing from whom you learned it and how from childhood you have been acquainted with the sacred writings, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus” (2 Tim. 3:14–15).
Sisters, liberal feminism won’t teach you the true value of motherhood. It will teach you to pretend motherhood is just a part-time lifestyle choice, a distraction from “real work,” locked away in a separate compartment of your life.
But that’s just not the way it works. Motherhood is an irrevocable calling from God to care for the children he puts in our lives and lead them to Jesus. It disrupts us, ties us down, consumes us, and changes us. But it’s a vocation that pays eternal dividends. So let’s embrace it with pride and joy.