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Occupy (Working) Motherhood

Susan B. Anthony

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Susan B. Anthony

Susan B. Anthony was born 192 years ago today; we share a birthday. I am 43. The late great suffragist once said: “Our job is not to make young women grateful. It’s to make them ungrateful so they keep going.” Much of my Jewish practice these days is about gratitude. But in light of our shared birthday this week, I’ve decided to dwell on some serious ingratitude.

I grew up in the 1970s listening to “Free to Be You and Me,” and singing joyfully that “Mommies Are People.” Who would have guessed, now that I’m one of those people, that the dilemmas my own working mother struggled with would become mine? In middle school, when I’d call home sick my mom would try to talk me into returning to class, so that she wouldn’t have to leave work or find a sitter. I’m pretty sure that’s what I’d do, too.

These days, the lack of affordable quality childcare options, combined with the continual calculation of income-to-babysitter-hours ratio, continues to make working parenthood — let’s face it, working motherhood primarily — a challenge, even for those of us who’ve got it good.

Certainly, our male partners are different from our dads. They contribute at home in ways our fathers might not have fathomed. And in general that makes for happier wives and mothers. According to research reported by my colleague Stephanie Coontz in Sunday’s New York Times, “The most important predictor of marital happiness for a woman is not how much she looks up to her husband but how sensitive he is to her emotional cues and how willing he is to share the housework and child-care.” It’s true.

My husband and I are Exhibit A. During our twins’ first 16 months, we were equal partners in childcare and outside work. We worked from home, me in the mornings and he in the afternoons, and gloated. We felt revolutionary, and happy, in our equally shared parenting.

Then last year, around this time, my husband took a more traditional staff job that required him to be on site, often quite late. I’m still working from home, which makes me happy. But traditional wifedom, when my husband is working late hours, makes me blue.

My blues, of course, are not personal. They are structural, endemic, and systemic — to borrow some sociological terms for my not-just-midwinter blahs. But they are personal too. Between expectation and reality, between love and laundry, there’s a sea of disconnect that even the most rugged egalitarianists find rough.

Whatever malaise I feel is nothing compared to what mothers face in other parts of the globe. In our own country, the worse off working parents are, the more disproportionally the burden falls on mothers. With states now under pressure to cut budgets, and federal stimulus funds depleted, low-income working parents are working longer hours while losing access to a government subsidy that helps pay for child care. Those struggling weekly to put food on the table have it far worse. And still, I kvetch. I’d like to call it something else. I’d like to call it tikkun olam.

As the Occupy movement has reminded us, small groups of committed people railing against a system is the only way things ever start to change. I think Susan B. Anthony would agree.

So here, dear Susan B., in your honor, is my list of birthday demands:

My birthday wish list is age-old and unoriginal, I know, but freshly, poignantly mine. It’s pretty simple. I’m feeling ungrateful. Maybe you are too. Occupy Motherhood, anyone?

Deborah Siegel is the author of “Sisterhood Interrupted: From Radical Women to Grrls Gone Wild.”

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