The motherhood penalty

I sprint into class, glasses askew, hair pulled back into a hasty ponytail, dried cereal on my shoulder. As I skid to a stop, I tell my students, “I’m so sorry I’m late. My daughter missed the bus and I had to drop her at school. Pretend like I’m a man right now, so instead of thinking, ‘wow, she doesn’t have her shit together,’ you can think, ‘what a heroic dad!’”

They laugh, and I laugh, and nobody really cares that I was 2 minutes late.

Except me. I care.

Next week, I’m having outpatient surgery done. The surgeon told me to expect to feel terrible for at least a week, and maybe after two weeks, I can get back to normal work activities. The surgery is scheduled for Tuesday, which is the final day of the semester. I scheduled it this way on purpose, because there is a lull at that time, and I won’t be needed. I’ve asked for an afternoon surgery, so I can teach my final class in the morning.

I think it’s completely realistic and normal to teach a class at 9 a.m. after “not having anything to eat or drink after midnight” and while freaking out about surgery in a couple of hours. Right?

Except. Except the dean wants to meet with me for a review, because those types of meetings are best done in the lull times. Can I meet on May 10th? Three days after surgery.

I go back and forth about it. I’m sure I could make it work. Except I was also sure that brain surgery would be a breeze and it was more like a hurricane. I grit my teeth and ask if I could meet after the weekend. They want to know: could I do May 14th? “Of course!” No problem. The surgeon kind of said I’d be kind of okay after a week. I’ll probably be okay. I feel guilty for “underperforming” – for not being capable of meeting on the first option. In no way do I feel heroic and/or foolish (reality: I’m both) for coming in a full week before I should.

When Viv was born, I took her to my office with me when she was 8 days old. I wasn’t doing anything too taxing, catching up on lesson planning and researching, e-mailing with advisees, putting syllabi together; she cooed happily in a bouncer beside me (that’s how it worked, right? Babies? Always cooing happily? I actually don’t know because I black out for most of the first few weeks after birth). She was born on January 5, the semester started on January 29. By the time she was three and a half weeks old, I was in full swing.

I didn’t have to go back to work then. I am one of the “lucky” few in America who had the possibility of taking six weeks off of work for maternity leave (“lucky” because everywhere else in the world sees six weeks as nothing short of barbaric).

But at the back of my mind, at all times, is the motherhood penalty (basically, mothers are treated as though they will be worse workers, and compensated as such, compared to women without children; fathers are often treated better than men without children). It informs everything I do at work. The simple truth is that because I am a mother, many people assume that I am also a crappy worker.

I know that my kids take up a lot of my time. If they are sick, I’m typically the one who calls off to stay home with them. When one of them peed in their pants at school, I dashed off with a clean set of clothing. I’m running, from one thing to the next – from work to grab a kid to rush to the dentist, rush home, let the dog out, rush to soccer practice. Get food in them somehow, feel guilty about it being fast food if it’s fast food, feel guilty about not spending quality time with them so I can slap together homemade food if it’s homemade.

But I’m also a stellar employee. At an earlier review this semester, the committee started out with, “congratulations on how well you are evaluated, by students as well as colleagues!” I volunteer for committees, crack jokes in otherwise dry and boring meetings, turn in all of my paperwork well in advance of the deadline. I take pride in my work, and if somebody asks me to show up to a meeting a week after surgery, even though I have been advised not to by the surgeon, I do.

Not because I want to. But because I feel like I have to. My husband also has three kids. He also takes time off for caretaking, heading home early if I’m working later, calling in sick so he can take his mother to the doctor. I know, I know, that people see his caretaking actions as indicative of having a strong character and they see mine as indicative of being a weak employee.

We live in a society where, often, both parents work. We also live in a society where often, people live far from their families of origin. Somebody has to take care of the thousands of responsibilities that come with caretaking. Many times, it’s the woman. I wrote a post about the premium women pay for flexibility – but the penalty goes beyond simply lower pay or missed opportunities. Just mentioning that you are a mother means you get paid less or are offered fewer opportunities, on the assumption that your attention will be split (Remember that time that a male colleague refused to help me out with recruiting students for a conference, “out of concern for your infant daughter”? Yeah, me too). Just mentioning that you are a father comes with a bump in pay, on the assumption that you need more money to take care of the family.

As if I don’t need more money to take care of the family.

There are so many ways that make me happy that I am a woman today, in America. I had equal access to education, to employment, to property. I didn’t have to fight to be able to go to school or drive a car. I generally think that I’m treated equally by my peers. While we have a long way to go, just a few years before I was born, women were not allowed to apply for credit on their own.

But the patriarchal tendencies remain. Somewhere, deep in our reptile brains, there is an insidious belief that a woman can’t be a good worker and a mother. If she’s opting to have children, she’s opting to put work second, regardless of what her actions show.

So I did my best to plan my children’s births around breaks between semesters. I don’t take off work when I’m sick, saving up for when my kids are sick. I started working ridiculously soon after child birth. I will come to a meeting one week after surgery, and I will pretend like my body isn’t in pain, doesn’t need anything. I make sure to turn in every report early, to make sure everything is done thoroughly. I give 150% just to prove that I’m not giving 75%.

To be a working mother in America is to understand that to be treated the same as a working father, you have to be twice as loyal, twice as efficient, twice as much of a team player. Mothers don’t have the luxury of phoning it in at work – it’s already assumed that they are going to slack in some way, so they are always on probation.

We’ve come a long way in terms of gender equality. We have a long way to go.

7 thoughts on “The motherhood penalty”

  1. I’m not a mother (yet), but the gender stuff you’re talking about resonates with me so much. I started my first semester on the tenure track three weeks after having my thyroid removed. It’s a butterfly shaped gland in your neck that regulates metabolism and cognitive functions. Nothing super important for being a functioning woman in higher ed, right?! No one even suggested that I take medical leave. Towards the end of that semester, I put the students‘ exams online since I needed to be away for a week for additional treatment and would be quarantined for three weeks after. Radiation is fun. A student asked if I was taking a vacation. /sigh. Meanwhile, I Skyped into meetings and pretended that quarantine was totally a normal thing. TL; DR: gendered expectations are real.


    1. Oh yes, I had a student refer to maternity leave as vacation.

      I think childfree women are sometimes treated as “pre-mothers,” which is doubly (triply? Quadruply) insulting.


  2. I’m currently reading Fed Up: Emotional Labor, Women, and the Way Forward and this post was very timely for me. I’m expecting our first child in July and I am already anxious about how to balance and navigate working and motherhood. I know millions of women have done it (including my own mom) but still society has these expectations.


  3. I am late to this conversation–I only just found this blog– but I wanted to say that you are so, so right.

    I am the breadwinner in my family, and I’m also self-employed–my husband works, but his job pays less. My income dropped by half the year I had my child. Since then, it’s been about 2/3 of what it was pre-kids. Some of my most consistent clients quit giving me projects entirely. I do good work: that hasn’t changed. But I can’t work outside of daycare hours anymore, and even if a project doesn’t need that kind of extra time commitment, people don’t want to take the risk. It doesn’t matter that “daycare hours” results in a 50-hour week. They want the option of more, or the option of evenings or weekends. Even if they never use those hours, they want to feel like those hours are available.

    I cannot adequately express how unhappy I am about the situation. It’s not just about income, though the income is important. It’s about the lost respect, the lost relationships, and feeling like I’m being penalized for something that shouldn’t be a problem to begin with.


    1. I’m glad you’re here, and I’m sorry you are up against that. I hate that when families have children, it’s overwhelmingly the mother who faces the penalty, even if nothing has changed in terms of work, just “there is a child here.”


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s