Forget "Having It All"

How America Messed Up Motherhood--and How to Fix It


By Amy Westervelt

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A clear-eyed look at the history of American ideas about motherhood, how those ideas have impacted all women (whether they have kids or not), and how to fix the inequality that exists as a result.

After filing a story only two hours after giving birth, and then getting straight back to full-time work the next morning, journalist Amy Westervelt had a revelation: America might claim to revere motherhood, but it treats women who have children like crap. From inadequate maternity leave to gender-based double standards, emotional labor to the “motherhood penalty” wage gap, racist devaluing of some mothers and overvaluing of others, and our tendency to consider women’s value only in terms of their reproductive capacity, Westervelt became determined to understand how we got here and how the promise of “having it all” ever even became a thing when it was so far from reality for American women.

In Forget “Having It All,” Westervelt traces the roots of our modern expectations of mothers and motherhood back to extremist ideas held by the first Puritans who attempted to colonize America and examines how those ideals shifted — or didn’t — through every generation since. Using this historical backdrop, Westervelt draws out what we should replicate from our past (bringing back home economics, for example, this time with an emphasis on gender-balanced labor in the home), and what we must begin anew as we overhaul American motherhood (including taking a more intersectional view of motherhood, thinking deeply about the ways in which capitalism influences our views on reproduction, and incorporating working fathers into discussions about work-life balance).

In looking for inspiration elsewhere in the world, Westervelt turned not to Scandinavia, where every work-life balance story inevitably ends up, but to Japan where politicians, in an increasingly desperate effort to increase the country’s birth rates (sound familiar?), tried to apply Scandinavian-style policies atop a capitalist democracy not unlike America’s, only to find that policy can’t do much in the absence of cultural shift. Ultimately, Westervelt presents a measured, historically rooted and research-backed call for workplace policies, cultural norms, and personal attitudes about motherhood that will radically improve the lives of not just working moms but all Americans.



Being a Mother Shouldn’t Suck

I am writing this book hip-deep in the chaos that is modern American motherhood. My children are young (two and six), my bills are high, and my career is in an industry that is a uniquely bad fit for parents: journalism. In the course of my research, my bank account has been overdrawn half a dozen times, I’ve lost health insurance and then managed to get it again, and I’ve had my car repossessed. I’ve had to find new childcare arrangements twice, and threatened to divorce my husband at least as many times. But while the impetus to write this book came from my own life, and I will refer to my own experiences off and on throughout, this story is not really about me. Nor would I claim to have represented all types of mothering experiences, which are as many and varied as women themselves (or men, for that matter). I began to research motherhood—our perceptions of it, the ways we talk about it, the expectations placed on and around it—not only because I believe it remains, as some feminist scholars have posited, a key frontier in the fight for gender equality, but also because I see changing ideas about motherhood as the lynchpin to systemic transformation toward greater equality for all.

Our ideas of women and men have evolved over the decades, pushed by cultural dialogue and shifting policies. We have softened some of the lines around gender, broadened roles, relaxed rules, gotten more intersectional in our understanding of identities and oppression but where mothers are concerned, we have clung more persistently to rigid ideas and expectations, which limit not just mothers but all women, irrespective of their reproductive choices. Ideas of motherhood influence everything from workplace dynamics to policies and laws that impact all women and men as well, underpinning everything from gender expectations to parental leave policies to which public bathrooms have changing tables.

And while women have steadily earned more rights and status within the patriarchal system, that was never really the goal of feminism. It’s not enough to replace men with the occasional woman in a patriarchal system; the system needs to be replaced, not remodeled, and mothers are one key to that endeavor.

The popular old feminists’ tale was that the world was matriarchal before it was patriarchal—in some ways, it was pleasant to think of a time ignorant of paternity, when people believed that women just bore children the way trees bore fruit. But anthropologists have found little evidence for this notion of paternity-ignorant humans. It is true that many ancient cultures were matriarchal, and some still are. But this origin story also proved dangerous, an idea quickly picked up by misogynists who used it to illustrate that patriarchal societies represented progress forward, away from a primitive matriarchal past.

In fact, where human evolution is concerned, the opposite is true: Read any anthropologist’s description of the defining traits of chimpanzees, the closest monkey relative to humans, and it’s likely to include words like “aggressive,” “competitive,” “focused on domination,” and “reflexively xenophobic.” In other words, patriarchal. If that’s making you think, “Hey! I’m a man and I’m not like that,” or “I know many fine men who are not like that,” it’s important to understand that my use of “patriarchy” here references the values that have come to be associated with this system, not any sort of gender definition. In fact, men are not destined to be patriarchal any more than women are destined to be matriarchal. Patriarchal women are the patriarchy’s biggest and most ardent champions. Instead of simply signaling “ruled by men” or “ruled by women,” I’m using these terms to describe systems governed by particular values—because over time, these are the values that have been demonstrated most often by each system. Patriarchal systems tend to be governed by competition and domination, which means they also tend to be characterized by aggressive and xenophobic behavior. Matriarchal systems are governed by care and collaboration, and their hallmarks are communication and inclusivity. Very few people are entirely patriarchal or matriarchal, irrespective of the sort of system they live in, but in a patriarchal system that rewards patriarchal values, those values will tend to get stronger over time, just as in a matriarchal system matriarchal values are strengthened over time. As primates evolved, we have progressed in ways that could make our societies more matriarchal (or matrifocal), which again, does not mean “a patriarchy, but with women in charge,” but rather a society with a heavy emphasis on collaboration, equality, and communication, all things that bigger brains enable and that, in turn, enable the growth of bigger brains.

In observing matrifocal societies in both Indonesia and in some neighborhoods of East London, feminist theorist Nancy Chodorow explained these societies as simply cultures that value women and men equally.

Women’s kin role, and in particular the mother role, is central and positively valued. Women gain status and prestige as they get older. At the same time, women may be important contributors to the family’s economic support, as in Java and east London. And in all three societies they have control over real economic resources. All these factors give women a sense of self-esteem independent of their relationship to their children. Finally, strong relationships exist between women in these societies, expressed in mutual cooperation and frequent contact. A mother, then, when her children are young, is likely to spend much of her time in the company of other women, not simply isolated with her children.

Chodorow contrasts this general positivity about women and womanhood (including positive mother-daughter relationships) with the low self-esteem she observed in the daughters of American middle-class families. “For the daughter of a Western middle-class family, feminine gender identification means identification with a devalued, passive mother, and personal maternal identification is with a mother whose own self-esteem is low,” she wrote.

Several decades ago in the book Of Woman Born, Adrienne Rich differentiated between motherhood, which she defined as the patriarchal institution of motherhood—male-defined and often oppressive to women—and mothering, the female-defined experience of being a mother, which Rich described as potentially empowering to women. Dozens of scholars followed in Rich’s footsteps, examining both the experience of mothering and the institution of motherhood from a feminist perspective, and in 2006, feminist theorist Andrea O’Reilly pioneered the field of motherhood studies and matricentric feminism. O’Reilly positions “mother” as an identity separate from “woman” and thus in need of an intersectional lens. “Indeed, mothers are oppressed under patriarchy as women and as mothers,” O’Reilly writes in Matricentric Feminism. “Consequently, mothers need a matricentric mode of feminism organized from and for their particular identity and work as mothers. A mother-centered feminism is needed because mothers—arguably more so than women in general—remain disempowered despite 40 years of feminism.”

Of course, there are far more than forty years of feminism, and there are many other groups of women who have been unjustly ignored by the movement, but O’Reilly is pointing largely to feminist legislative efforts to create equality between the sexes. And she’s right; they’ve generally left mothers behind.

Ideas about motherhood are inextricably linked to cultural values, which is why we need to treat motherhood rhetoric as the powerful force that it is. How is it that in so many ways we still treat all women as “pre-pregnant” even if they have no intention of bearing children? Why do we praise conservative women (think Phyllis Schlafly or Anita Bryant, or more recently Sarah Palin or Kellyanne Conway) for “having it all” but criticize progressive women who try to? Or praise some women (white, middle or upper class) for having kids and vilify others (everybody else) for doing so? Why is it that attributing a maternal lens to a political cause is seen as effective by some but undermining by others? And how the heck do we expect men to want to co-parent when we place no social value on caregiving? These are just some of the questions I began with as I looked for an answer to the question I kept asking: Why does motherhood in America kinda suck?

Motherhood and Women’s Rights

Much has been written, and will be written, about the myriad ways in which we embed gender rules and roles in both women and men at an early age. We learn early on—from our parents, extended family, teachers, religious leaders, society—which tasks and behaviors are expected and acceptable for boys and girls, and those ideas persist well into adulthood. In fact, various studies have pointed out the connection between what kids see in their households growing up and how they expect the division of labor in their homes and families to be divvied up as adults. We often encourage girls to be nurturing right from the start, buying them baby dolls or suggesting babysitting as a first job. If the reaction to my then four-year-old son asking for a baby doll for his fifth birthday is any indication—people either thought it was a weird request or a clear indicator of his homosexuality—the notion that babies are for girls is still very much entrenched in American culture. And that impacts who seems qualified to care for children farther down the road. As Brigid Schulte, former Washington Post reporter and current director of New America’s Better Life Lab, notes in her excellent book, Overwhelmed, “Both men and women are naturals at child care. It’s just that the culture has given women more time to get good at it.”

For me, the impact of sexism is at least as much about financial stability and basic survival as about more ephemeral things like feeling valued as a woman or a mother. Don’t get me wrong—both are important, and they tend to go hand in hand—but 70 percent of mothers in this country work, with mothers serving as the primary or sole earners in 40 percent of American households, and in recent years forces have conspired to make it exceedingly difficult to be a working mother in America unless you’re very rich. Sexism contributes to lower wages, particularly for mothers, and then there’s the high cost of childcare, diminished access to positions of power, and the expectation that women always put family before career.

In January 2016, I was walking down my street and had a revelation: At some point, mainstream feminism became more about teaching women how to game capitalism than it was about actually replacing or improving a system that fails both genders. Many people have continued to suffer under this approach, and mothers have been particularly screwed.

While chewing on this admittedly unoriginal idea, I shuffled my two-weeks-post-partum body down the street to the mailbox. There was a check waiting for me, which was a huge relief because rent was due, and I had no idea how we’d pay it if that check was late. On my way back home, I patted myself on the back. Having a second baby had not slowed me down at all! I was supporting all of us, and I had only had to take an afternoon off to give birth. I was emailing from the recovery room, and I hit a big deadline two hours after delivery. No one I worked with even knew I’d had a baby. Go me! Power woman!

Except, wait a minute. Why on earth was anything about that scenario good? Why did I feel that was an accomplishment—or that I couldn’t tell people I was having a baby? And why did that seem somehow stronger or more feminist than taking a normal amount of time to recover from giving birth and to bond with my child?

In the year after his birth, this was my average day:

4:00 a.m.: Wake up (I use the phrase “wake up” loosely as it implies actually being asleep at some point. With an infant and a toddler, this is not a given.)

4:15 a.m.–6:15 a.m.: Work

6:15 a.m.–7:30 a.m.: Make and eat breakfast

7:30 a.m.–8:15 a.m.: Pack lunches and snacks while husband gets kids dressed

8:30 a.m.: Drop off kids at day care

8:45 a.m.–4:15 p.m.: Work

4:30 p.m.: Pick up from day care

5:00 p.m.–5:30 p.m.: Make dinner

5:30–6:00 p.m.: Eat dinner

6:00 p.m.–7:00 p.m.: Hang out with baby, put him to bed

7:00 p.m.–8:00 p.m.: Hang out with preschooler, husband puts him to bed

8:00 p.m.–midnight: Work

It was grueling, and that’s with being able to afford part-time day care. Before you say, “Where the hell was her spouse?” consider that in 30 percent of American families, one person is doing all of this. In my case, my husband was there, putting the toddler to bed, and often picking the kids up or making dinner, and looking after the baby half the time so we didn’t have to pay for full-time day care. But he was also trying to get a company off the ground and trying to rustle up other paid work so that I wouldn’t have such a crazy schedule (and for the record, I like to cook and I’m picky about what I eat and what the kids eat, so I’m not great at letting him help on the food front). I have, of course, made several personal choices that contribute to the current state of affairs in my own life: I chose to have kids, I chose to live in a small town, and back when I was nineteen and couldn’t predict the media apocalypse, I chose to hitch my career to an industry that’s been paying steadily lower wages since 1970.

Still, the idea that any one person’s choices are the only thing to blame for misfortune in a system that in reality offers limited choices is problematic, as Ann Crittenden spends an entire chapter detailing in her best-selling book The Price of Motherhood. The notion that women deserve to be paid and promoted less because they choose to have kids, and thus spend time on something other than a career, Crittenden points out, “assumes that raising a child is just another lifestyle option, like choosing to run long distance or play serious tennis”:

The consequences of those decisions are private, of no concern to the rest of us. If people who opt to nurture and educate the next generation are systematically handicapped in the labor market, if they find it hard to make a decent living or get ahead without neglecting their children, why should we care? It’s their choice.… The big problem with the rhetoric of choice is that it leaves out power. Those who benefit from the status quo always attribute inequities to the choices of the underdog. The modern version of the old “true woman” argument—the true woman appreciates that her proper place is in the home—is the “choice” argument.

Crittenden goes on to point out the stark lack of choice available in work arrangements in the United States, particularly in comparison to various European countries (Sweden, of course, and also the Netherlands), where a variety of well-paid part-time jobs are available. In fact, in the years since her book was first published, the European Union has mandated parity in wages and benefits for part-time workers, providing working parents with valid choices.

The “myth of choice” is particularly problematic for women of color. As Michelle Alexander points out in The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, the idea of personal responsibility and choice enables both institutions and individuals to justify every form of systemic oppression, telling themselves that the oppressed “deserve” their fate.

In the course of researching this book, I spoke to literally hundreds of women from all walks of life. I keep coming back to something one of them, Shirley, a former Mormon and mother of four grown children, said: “When my children were young, I just understood that that was not my time, that that was a period of time in my life that was really for my children.”

In some ways, it’s a lovely sentiment, the picture of maternal devotion. It’s somewhat appealing too. It feels simple and stress-free to be pulled only in one direction. But for me it was also deeply rattling, and not just because it assumes that all mothers can afford this level of self-sacrifice (in my case, as in the case of many mothers, it was not an option to give up work, financially). Mostly it bothered me because it insinuates the need for a prolonged “time-out” for mothers that I see as unrealistic and not entirely healthy. It underscores an expectation of selflessness in mothers that’s a trap for women. It also implies that any mother who works for reasons other than financial security is selfish. But it’s not as though you can just cease being a human because you have a child.

Furthermore, what happens when that child no longer needs your time? How does one reboot back into a sentient being? I’m not saying that children don’t need an adult, ideally a parent or at least a close relative, around in their early years. And of course, it’s important for mothers to bond with their children and vice versa. But ultimately, I don’t believe that choosing to have kids should have to mean the total self-abnegation and self-betrayal that it continues to require of women.

That belief is bolstered by the fact that motherhood doesn’t eliminate the individual identities of women in this way in many other developed countries, most of which, ironically, do not fetishize motherhood nearly as much as Americans do. In Sweden, for example, both parents are encouraged to take parental leave when a child is born and expected to equally divide child-rearing tasks as that infant becomes a toddler. In the Netherlands, flexible work schedules and well-paid part-time work are available to both mothers and fathers as a way to reduce the amount of time children have to be in day care. The United States has none of these options, but we do have a burgeoning industry that provides mothers with business cards featuring such titles as “Mom in charge” or “Mother of Angela and Tony,” or “CEO of the Smith household.” We also continue to require women without children to justify their decision over and over again, and doctors still ask women for permission from their spouses should they wish to opt for permanent birth control, despite the fact that that practice has not been legal for years. Our maternal mortality rate is increasing—unheard of in any other developed nation—during the same period of time in which we have turned a baby shower into an over-the-top, multi-event affair that now includes such things as a “gender reveal party” and a “naming party,” not to mention increasingly elaborate first birthday parties.

As I struggled to juggle kids, career, and marriage and maintain some semblance of my own identity, I wondered how it was that a culture that superficially holds motherhood in such high esteem could in fact have so little regard for women who have children.

The Pendulum

Hoping to move beyond being pissed off, I started where I always do when I have a question about why something is the way it is: the past. I wanted to understand how society got here, how our understanding and expectations of mothers evolved, what our definition of motherhood says about our culture, and how our perceptions of motherhood affect our understanding of women in general. What I discovered was that we’ve been grappling with these questions for a very long time and that there are plenty of other and better ways to do it (many of them right here in our own country).

First, it’s impossible to understand anything about American culture without, again, acknowledging that this country was colonized by people who believed very strongly in the power of the self. The uniquely American mix of entitlement and individualism is an undercurrent to everything we are as a country today, a fact that has led to both greatness and depravity. In the case of motherhood, Anglo America has always seen children as solely the purview of their parents—not their extended family (who, in many cases, were back home in England, or elsewhere in western Europe) and not their community, which was new and tenuous.

That was the case for white colonial Americans. For Native Americans and enslaved African Americans, the origins of “American motherhood” look quite different, and I believe understanding these differences and creating an inclusive dialogue about mothering is key to approaching the problems that plague motherhood today. Today, we very much talk about motherhood in the framework of the history and experiences of middle-class, straight, white women in this country, which leaves the majority of American mothers out. As Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie has said: “The single story creates stereotypes. And the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story.”

It’s worth noting that pundits and public intellectuals, philosophers, psychologists, and religious thinkers have been worrying about “the Woman Question” in America—what the proper role and authority of women should be—for as long as the country has existed. Abigail Adams was lecturing her husband John about it back in the 1700s, Ida Tarbell was writing about it in 1915, and we’re still talking about it today. We also have a long history in this country of asking mothers, in particular, to perform a specific role, and then placing them within a legal, economic, and political system that makes that role impossible to adequately perform. It started with the idea of what historian Linda Kerber terms “republican motherhood”—the notion that mothers are responsible for the moral fiber of a nation, that they alone have the power to create and nurture great new citizens. It’s an idea that has roots in western Europe, but gained new urgency in the New World, where early colonizers were suddenly concerned with both creating a larger population and ensuring that those new citizens were raised to be productive and moral members of society.

In her seminal book Mother Love: Myth and Reality, French philosopher Elisabeth Badinter traces the rise of republican motherhood in Europe and, particularly, France during the late eighteenth century. Badinter frames ideas about motherhood in the context of ever-shifting roles and power between mother, father, and child, noting that for women, during periods of history when the role of “mother” is given power, as in the case of republican motherhood, it often means that the individual woman is stripped of certain rights and freedoms.

This certainly held true in America where, at the same time that everyone from Benjamin Franklin to the popular press was telling mothers that it was their job, nay their duty, to raise virtuous citizens, our forefathers were creating a legal system that gave women no rights to protect their children, physically or financially. White mothers of America were tasked with being solely responsible for their children’s futures while being told they had no legal right to keep them from being abused. They also had no legal right to their own money or property. African American mothers, meanwhile, had no claim at all to their children and had to bear the unique torture of birthing children into a world of abject horror.

White American mothers were not only expected to form model citizens while having little actual authority over them, but also were expected to do so with zero external support. The idea of the nuclear family was not unique to America at this time, but its prevalence certainly was. One of the more unusual aspects of white American motherhood is the cultural tendency to place more importance on the individual and, in the case of motherhood, on each individual family than on the collective good. In his musings on America in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, French philosopher Alexis de Tocqueville noted this repeatedly, calling Americans by turns lonely, isolated, and self-sufficient. What that translated to for mothers was a shift away from the “it takes a village” philosophy that had governed motherhood in nearly every other culture and toward every mother as an island, solely responsible for the children she was raising.

This, of course, did not hold true among slave families, which were being upended so constantly and capriciously that what sociologist Patricia Hill Collins calls “othermothering” and anthropologist Sarah Hrdy calls “alloparents”—the practice of various adults in a community, not just biological parents, sharing responsibility for its children—were critical to survival in this “new world.” Slavery, wherein mothers were expected to return to work almost immediately after birth, and any morning might turn out to be the day your children are sold away from you—strengthened the notion of what anthropologists call “fictive kin,” and the formation of communities where everyone felt a lot more sense of responsibility for children, irrespective of whose biological offspring they were. Older women, too weak to work the fields, often looked after the children of multiple families. Now, Collins and many other feminist writers have pointed to the models of othermothering and community mothering (the role many Black women take on to nurture not just individuals within a community, but the community as a whole) as practices that could and should be emulated writ large, as they seem to best support the working mothers and single mothers who represent the vast majority of American mothers today.

Most Native American tribes, particularly the Iroquois, Navajo, and Kootenai/Salish, also placed an emphasis on community mothering, a tradition that was upended by colonialists and the drive to separate American Indian children from their mothers and their communities, and strip them of their language and culture. Native American communities across the country are still reeling from this ugly, painful period and working to reinstate a culturally appropriate approach to motherhood.

The scientific understanding of women’s reproductive systems also had an important impact on forming our notions of motherhood. In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, men started to invade the traditionally female domain of childbirth. Prior to this period of history, late pregnancy and childbirth were entirely female realms. Men were excluded, sometimes for several weeks, and it was a time of female solidarity over which the presiding expert was a female midwife. In the nineteenth century, midwives were shunted aside and childbirth was taken over by male doctors who said midwives had been doing it all wrong, despite hundreds of years of success. Along with uniquely tortuous ideas about how childbirth should be done, these male doctors introduced American society to the idea of eugenics, an insidiously racist notion about which types of women should or shouldn’t breed and which sorts of children have value.


  • "A forceful call to arms...Westervelt writes with insight and posits inclusive solutions."—Publishers Weekly (starred review)
  • "Westervelt takes a deep dive into motherhood in American society...[with] a crucial nod to intersectional feminism."—Booklist
  • "With an intellectual history of American motherhood from the arrival of the English settlers, Westervelt sets out to uncover 'how it was that a culture that superficially holds motherhood in such high esteem could in fact have so little regard for women who have children.' She's pragmatic in her response, suggesting a policy fix and a cultural fix at the end of each chapter that she thinks could be implemented without 'massive cultural and economic change.' Her prose, direct and colloquial, is punctuated by deeply satisfying moments of ire at the demands placed on working mothers."—Pacific Standard
  • "A thorough and insightful read full of historical context and tangible suggestions for how we can overhaul American motherhood."—SheKnows
  • "Highly recommended"—Library Journal

On Sale
Nov 13, 2018
Page Count
320 pages
Seal Press

Amy Westervelt

About the Author

Amy Westervelt is an award-winning journalist with eighteen years’ experience writing about health, psychology, technology, business, and environmental issues. Her work has recently appeared in Popular Science, Elle, Smithsonian, and Aeon.

As a cofounder of Climate Confidential — an award-winning collaboration between six female journalists who syndicated environmental reporting to various national outlets — she helped get longform investigative environmental journalism into a host of national publications, including the Atlantic, Quartz, Smithsonian, Modern Farmer, and many more. In 2014 she was awarded a Rachel Carson Award for environmental journalism.

Learn more about this author