Constant Calibration and Working Moms

It’s been nearly a decade since Anne Marie Slaughter captivated readers with her 13,000 word The Atlantic cover story, “Why Women Still Can’t Have it All.” Through her own story, she articulated the woes of many working mothers declaring the idea that women can have it all is nothing more than a feminist fairy tale. In 2020, we continue to face the same challenges, but have added a global pandemic to the mix.

Motherhood has changed drastically over the last 50 years; but not necessarily for the better. Instead, moms have more responsibility, new stressors, and less time. For instance, in 2020, statistics show:

  • 75% of mothers are working outside of the home compared to 25% in 1975;
  • many women are having children later in life, between the ages of 40-44;
  • single mother households are on the rise with 1 in 4 moms doing it all on their own;
  • mothers are the sole or primary “breadwinners” in 25% of families overall;
  • the U.S. is one of only four countries globally that does not mandate paid parental leave alongside Papua New Guinea, Lesotho, and Swaziland.

Thus, after giving birth, women are often returning to work with few childcare options, a lack of resources, and even less time to adjust to motherhood and bond with their newborns. Whereas Slaughter is in a privileged position, many moms are juggling work, kids, laundry, and trying to pay the bills with little to no support.

Having balance in our lives is part of the fairy tale. If you’re like me, I know you’ve missed “green shirt day” at your child’s school, overlooked a deadline on a report, or forgot to shower one morning (or many!). More realistically, we are calibrating – putting our energy where it is needed in the moment while trying to keep the other sides of our lives afloat.

With COVID-19 devastating our world, working mothers are faced with the responsibility of continuing the juggle, but in many cases with no childcare and the new weight of homeschooling. In addition, mothers are losing their jobs during the pandemic at a higher rate than any other group. Many of us are wondering what else could possibly be coming our way and how are we supposed to manage it?

In her TEDx Talk, “Moms on the Job,” Anne Murphy Brown explains that while we’ve always been told we can have it all, no one has ever told us how to have it all. Here’s the thing, as Brown points out, we are asking the wrong question.  It’s not about having it all, but instead, how we can manage it all. Working moms are calibrating; our attention falls where it is needed most in the moment. We need to give ourselves permission to know this and be okay with it.

We’ve made the so-called feminist fairy tale the measure of our value and success. But this is an impossible standard to live by and notably, not one we demand of fathers. In the midst of a global pandemic, growing responsibilities, fewer resources (and for many, no paycheck), working moms are doing more than ever before.

It’s time to shift the narrative and let go of an impossible standard. Rather than having it all, let’s embrace what we have, find gratitude for moments of joy, and accept that calibration is necessary and how we get things done.


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