Behind the Cover Story: Judith Warner on Working Mothers

Interview with Judith Warner (New York Times) You write about privileged, middle-class women because they are the ones who had the opportunity to leave the work force in the first place. Had any of these women since dropped out of the middle class because of the financial crisis or divorce? Do you have a sense that women with fewer resources make similar calculations to these opt-out/opt-in women, or are they too busy hustling to provide for their families?

I would just say first that these are upper-middle-class, not middle-class, women. I think it’s really important to make that distinction; there has been a big tendency in the past to blur the distinctions and make it sound like this was — or is — a phenomenon of “women” of a certain generation. It’s not — most women (like most men) have no choice in how they set up their work and parenting lives. I think that point can’t be made often enough. People perhaps don’t want the lives of the rich and angst-filled shoved in their faces; they don’t want the reminder of how tough and different their own lives are shoved in their faces — but we all need to face the unfairness of the fact that having a choice, in this country, is a privilege of the wealthy. And yet, at the same time, finding yourself in an essentially unlivable situation work- and home-wise is a universal. It just plays out differently among wealthy versus poor or working-class (or middle-class) women.

Many of the women I spoke with were so well off that they were sheltered from the fallout of the Great Recession — this, actually, was something that surprised me a great deal. But I know from reading Hewlett that this is not typical. Again, there are big differences of wealth even within the upper-middle class. All this brings us back to the fact that the very top earners in our country have pulled away from everyone else — and live lives that are now quite divorced from the pressures weighing on other families, including upper-middle class families that are better off than most but still struggling.

??Before leaving the office, Sheilah O’Donnel tried to work part time but felt marginalized. In some countries, like Germany, there is still prejudice against working mothers; part-time work arrangements, along with long maternity leave, are common. You have written about spending the first few years of motherhood working in Paris. Those commenting online to your article also suggest that this is a structural problem in the United States. Do you see any way forward?

There absolutely is a structural problem in the U.S., and that structural problem is, for me, the most important take-away from this article. Successful women — successful people — are now facing 50-plus-hour work weeks, plus endless hours on evenings and weekends spent tethered to e-mail. This makes for a really poor quality of life for a family with two working parents. It is not at all surprising to me that families that can afford to have one member of the couple drop out or scale way down choose to do so. And it’s not surprising that that member usually turns out to be the woman, because the choice is more socially acceptable for them and because they usually earn less money than their husbands. We certainly need the sorts of work-family supports that all other industrialized nations have: paid maternity leave of a decent length, paid sick days, the ability to work part time without losing your job, etc. But we will also have to be smart about how we implement these policies — if we ever get them. They have had some really perverse effects in terms of women’s work force advancement in places like France and even Sweden. When the structural supports are too generous, it seems, employers sometimes avoid hiring women of childbearing age, and when a really large number of mothers take extremely extended leave and then work part-time, it holds back the workplace progress of all women. That said: I don’t believe those perverse effects are an argument against the policies. They just have to be well thought out in terms of optimizing both time and home and progress at work. And they have to be addressed to and used by both men and women, so that women don’t end up on a separate track. That brings us back to changing the culture of work again.