Taking Stock of Motherhood in the US and Europe Half a Century After Second Wave Feminism

Review by Vanessa May

Making Motherhood Work: How Women Manage Careers and Caregiving by Caitlyn Collins was published in 2019 by Princeton University Press.

Caitlyn Collins is Assistant Professor of Sociology at Washington University in St. Louis. She conducts cross-national qualitative research on gender inequality in the workplace and family life. Her work is supported by the National Science Foundation, American Association of University Women, and German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD). She is a 2019 Nancy Weiss Malkiel Scholar (Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation) and a 2018 Work and Family Researchers Network Early Career Fellow. Find her on Twitter at @CaitlynMCollins.

Heading Home: Motherhood, Work, and the Failed Promise of Equality by Shani Orgad was published in 2019 by Columbia University Press, New York.

Shani Orgad is Professor of Media and Communications at LSE. She writes and teaches about media, culture, gender and inequality. Orgad is the author of several books including Heading Home: Motherhood, Work, and the Failed Promise of Equality (2019, Columbia University Press), Caring in Crisis? Humanitarianism, the Public and NGOs (with Bruna Seu, 2017, Palgrave), Media Representation and the Global Imagination (2012, Polity) and Storytelling Online: Talking Breast Cancer on the Internet (2005, Peter Lang). She is currently completing a book with Rosalind Gill, entitled The Confidence Culture, which is due for publication by Duke University Press in 2020.


A key component in the debates around gender (in)equality in the Global North is the issue of gendered division of paid and unpaid work, particularly in families with children. While for example the US, Australia and most European countries have witnessed significant increases in women’s employment rates, the division of labour in homes has changed at a more glacial pace. Statistics show time and again that women, irrespective of their labour market activity, do the lion’s share of cooking, cleaning and ensuring their children’s welfare. There is by now a vast scholarly literature on particularly women’s work-family conflict, showing that even in countries such as Sweden and Finland that are considered ‘family friendly’, mothers bear the brunt of the various costs involved with combining family and work.

The two books, Making Motherhood Work, by Caitlyn Collins from Washington University in St. Louis, US and Heading Home, by Shani Organ from the London School of Economics, UK, come at an interesting time. It is now half a century or more since second wave feminism and the introduction of paid maternity leave and publicly subsidised child care in countries such as Sweden and Finland. In most Western countries, the idea of a working mother is accepted, even encouraged. Fifty years is a long enough time to start looking back to evaluate what women and families in the Global North have gained. I will first discuss a few key findings from each book, before offering some synthesising thoughts on what we learn from these studies.

Making Motherhood Work

Collins’s Making Motherhood Work is based on an interview study with 135 middle-class working mothers in four countries: Sweden, Germany, Italy and the USA. The choice of countries is guided by Esping-Andersen’s distinction between different types of welfare state: USA representing the liberal, Sweden the social democratic, Germany the conservative, and Italy the familialist welfare state. The four countries have different rates of maternal employment and different levels of public spending on benefits and services offered to families. The question underpinning this book is how working mothers think about and experience work-family policies, and how these come to shape the everyday lives of families.

Collins’s comparative study shows that welfare state context does matter. Perhaps not surprisingly, Collins found that the mothers in Sweden were ‘the least conflicted and the most content’, while the mothers in the USA were ‘the most stressed and overwhelmed’ (p. 25). I offer one seemingly minor example, that of breastfeeding, that nevertheless speaks volumes about the different conditions under which Swedish and American mothers live. American mothers do not have access to statutory paid maternity leave, and many therefore return to work mere weeks after giving birth. Collins describes the amount of worry and logistical problem-solving that American mothers engage in when it comes to organising breastfeeding once they return to work. In contrast, Swedish mothers, thanks to relatively long periods of paid maternity leave, can opt to stay at home for the duration of breastfeeding. Collins’s findings speak to the significance of offering good policy supports to working parents, though as the research literature also shows, this is not enough as working mothers in the Nordic welfare states also experience significant work-family conflict.

Collins also offers some insight into how the welfare state and the normative context entwine. For example, in line with neoliberal ideals of individual responsibility, the American mothers in Collins’s study blamed themselves for any work-family conflict they experienced and felt that they alone were responsible for finding solutions to their problems. For the American mothers, ‘the government stood outside [their] lifeworlds as a source of possible help’ (Collins, 2019: 207). This was in stark contrast to the European mothers in the study, all of whom expressed at least some expectation that the government ensure a basic level of employee rights and work-family policy entitlements.

A clear strength of the book is the power of thick description (though this also makes the book rather long at 340 pages). By talking to working mothers at length about their everyday lives, and by doing so across different social contexts, Collins is able to look under the hood of social policy as it were. The individual chapters on the four countries under study offer fascinating insights into how Swedish, German, Italian and American working mothers think about motherhood, gender, work and their country’s family policy system. The concluding chapter, a tour de force, points to the value of such in-depth comparative qualitative work, by pointing out how employment rates and data on wage in/equalities alone tell us only part of the story of what the lives of working mothers are like.

Furthermore, Collins is able to demonstrate that each country’s social policies are anchored in and shaped by that country’s prevailing cultural norms concerning motherhood, gender and work. Thus in order to affect policy change, Collins argues, a cultural transformation is also necessary. And this is where Orgad’s Heading Home comes in. Because it is a study of a single national context, Orgad is able to probe more deeply into what is going on in the world of work and within heterosexual couple relationships, and to contextualise these processes in an evolving policy and normative context.

Heading Home

For Heading Home, Orgad interviewed 35 mothers living in London, all highly educated and white. Unlike Collins’s study which focused on working mothers, Orgad’s research participants were women who had left their professional careers in order to look after their children at home. There is a social expectation that educated women in middle-class occupations combine work and motherhood, and those who become stay-at-home-mothers must offer justifications for their ‘choice’ as this is ‘out of the norm’ (p. 77).Yet 20% of stay-at-home-mothers in the UK are highly educated. Orgad sets out to find out why and finds that gender inequality is central to understanding this paradox.

Orgad also analysed media and policy representations in the UK and the US, and found that their influence is visible in how the women spoke about their lives. As a minor criticism, I did in places wonder whether Orgad’s focus lay too much on the US, particularly in the opening chapters. Given that the book is about mothers living in the UK, I would have wanted to see a bit more discussion about how these discourses have travelled across the Atlantic. It is not until Chapter 3 that we start to learn more about the UK context.

Orgad charts the ‘myth of having it all’ and widespread representations of ‘the supermom’ who combines family and career and (p. 33), both perpetuated in the media and self-help literature. In addition, policy discourse frames work-life balance as a women’s issue. The message to women is, that work-life balance is possible. In addition, neoliberal ideals – and here Orgad’s criticism extends to neoliberal feminism – represent women’s lives as the result of choice rather than shaped by structural factors such as socio-economic status or gender ideologies. These cultural norms have a powerful effect, as exemplified by the fact that the women in Orgad’s study, who had ‘failed’ to conform to the ideal of the ‘supermom’, were left struggling to find ways to justify their experience because it fell outside the ‘narratives of choice, ambition and confidence’ (Orgad, 2019: 28).

The women in Orgad’s study were living in a traditional and old-fashioned set up where they did the lion’s share of housework, their husbands worked long hours and did very little around the house or with the children, and where they were financially dependent on their husbands. What had led them to this situation was a combination of a long hours working culture and gender discrimination at work, and an unequal division of labour at home. Despite being able to describe their situation at work and at home as at odds with the ideal of combining work and family, the women in Orgad’s study saw their decision as a personal one. They blamed their own personality and lack of ambition, not their workplaces or gender norms.

Although they did identify the need for societal change, the women in Orgad’s study saw this as something that would happen organically, not as something that they could effect. These women’s accounts reflected the discourse of neoliberal feminism, as well as popular psychology and self-help discourses, all of which emphasise not what women can do to change unequal structures, but instead women’s ‘confidence, empowerment, and agency’ to deal with these structures (p. 172). Dutifully, the women set their sights on changing their behaviour and self-monitoring so as to ‘overcome their inner obstacles’ as a way of dealing with the anger and frustration they were experiencing (p. 176).

Orgad argues that as long as the focus lies on the home and on women’s ability to combine work and family, key underlying issues remain unaddressed. This includes long work-hours cultures and its effect on men in particular, because it makes it impossible for them to shoulder their fair share of family responsibilities.

Plus ça change?

Making Motherhood Work and Heading Home tell a similar story, of privileged mothers who, despite their financial and social advantages, struggle with mothering ideologies, and find it difficult to marry these with the realities of their lives. Both books also paint a vivid picture of the effects of the neoliberal normative context on family life. What Collins and Orgad show, with depressing clarity, is that for many mothers, at least in the UK and the US, combining motherhood and work remains an impossibility, and that gender inequality is an important contributing factor. What becomes clear is that this is not something that can be solved with the help of policy initiatives alone.  Work cultures must also be transformed, for both men and women, and caring work must be ‘de-gendered’ so that it no longer remains women’s domain.

Neoliberal ideals pose an added challenge for gender equality in today’s world. As Collins and Orgad demonstrate, these ideals emphasise individual solutions, thus leaving women to feel as though it is their personal failing if they have not been able to fulfil the ideal of the perfect mother who also has a satisfying career. Yet the old feminist adage ‘the personal is political’ still rings true. As both Collins and Orgad are able to show, the everyday lives of mothers are fundamentally shaped by structural factors such as the availability of paid maternity leave, affordable child care, the right to take time out of work to care for family members, as well as ideologies concerning gender and motherhood, and the way work is configured in the labour market.

What also becomes clear is that that how women’s roles in families and in the workplace are viewed is not preordained and can change. But Making Motherhood Work and Heading Home are also testament to how disappointingly slow this change has been. What has not changed, as both books clearly show, is that women are still considered as primarily responsible for children. Collins and Orgad come to similar conclusions regarding the importance of shifting cultural notions around parenting and work. Orgad points out that ‘challenging current work cultures is fundamental but needs to go hand in hand with a demand for equal investment in childrearing and a “de-sexing” of care work’ (p. 205)

The two books focus on the lives of mothers who are well educated and in relatively high socio-economic position. What of the many mothers who do not have access to the same resources as the women in Collins’s and Orgad’s studies? This is indeed a question that is raised by both authors. They are keen to underline that if highly educated women in professional careers with access to financial resources and cultural capital find motherhood so tough, then it is likely that women in lower income brackets and working in occupations that offer fewer ‘fringe benefits’, for example in terms of flexible working hours, are likely to face even greater challenges.

The two books offer a stark reminder that while there have been important gains for example in employment rights and family policies that support gender equality, to the point that the traditional male breadwinner-female homemaker model is perceived to be as good as dead in many countries in the Global North, we are still far off from reaching a situation where women and men are playing on an even playing field. It is somewhat disheartening to read in the preface of Collins’s Making Motherhood Work the following sentence, which could equally have been included in a publication from the 1980s or 1990s: ‘The stories recounted in this book entreat us to forge a new path that more fairly and adequately supports women’s caring labor, and encourages men to share equally in this labor at home.’ (p. xi). Orgad points out that women are still seen as primarily responsible for the caring and emotional labour in the home, while ‘value and social status still derive largely from professional and economic independence, and care and reproductive work continue to be severely devalued’ (p. 197). It would seem that despite the many victories that have been won for gender equality, mothers are still asking for the same things: don’t punish us at work for having children, and don’t punish us at home for working outside the home.

Vanessa May is Professor of Sociology and Co-Director of the Morgan Centre for Research into Everyday Lives at the University of Manchester, and Co-Editor-in-Chief of Sociology. Her research interests include the self, belonging, temporality, ageing, family relationships and qualitative methods. She tweets @VanessaLKMay.

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