Home > news, rant, women in math > It’s all mom’s fault

It’s all mom’s fault

February 24, 2012

Maybe it’s because I grew up with an unapologetic working mother, but I am confused and enraged by all the cultural norms concerning mothers and how everything is their fault.

When I grew up in the 1970’s I had all sorts of role models of mothering. I was lucky to live next door to Sally, I met MA (Mary Ann) in puberty, and of course there was my own mom. All of these women were fiercely devoted to their choices: Sally and MA stayed home with their young kids but as their kids grew up, devoted more and more time to other things. My mom was a computer science professor my entire life. It goes without saying (but just for the record I’ll say it here) that I support people doing what they want to and need to for their own private reasons, no questions asked.

Sure, there were differences in interactions between my mom and these other surrogate moms. My mom didn’t have a lot of extra time to shop or cook, for example. But on the other hand she was a great role model for me in showing me how to be happy with what you do and have kids at the same time. And some things she didn’t have time for I was lucky enough to get from other things and people.

Here it is, thirty years later, and lots things have changed for working mothers. Some things have gotten easier: there’s online shopping, so I can provide my three sons with clothes and food without leaving home, which was a major struggle for my mom. Some things have gotten harder: school and daycare has gotten more expensive (more on that below). Other things haven’t changed so much, which itself is strange.

Here’s an article that got me pissed off enough to write this post. It’s a New York Times piece about an Olympic swimmer who, after taking time off and having two children, has returned to swimming and is actually competitive at the age of 40. I am so completely impressed by her, but for some reason the Times sees it as appropriate to deliver the following lines:

Evans said she had been criticized on social networking sites for training when she should be home with her children. But she has set up her schedule so her main swimming workout takes place in the morning, from 5:30 to 7:30, so she can make it home in time for breakfast. Her crazy hours are not lost on her daughter, who recently asked, “Why do you swim in the dark, Mommy?”

Willson’s job in technology sales allows him to work from home. He can chip in with the children when needed and behold the force of nature that is his wife.

First of all, how is it appropriate to mention idiots on Facebook? It is so entirely defensive and out of place. If I’m training for the Olympics, probably for the very last time in my life, my kids will be psyched for me to do my best, even if it means missing breakfast sometimes. And why is there always a mention of the martyred husband? Just imagine this was a male swimmer coming back to the Olympics after not swimming for 15 years, do we hear about his wife? No we don’t. Ridiculous, and the New York Times should do better. If they mention idiots on Facebook, they should also mention how they are idiots.

Here’s another story that got me incredibly pissed (if you were looking for a happy post this morning, I apologize). It’s about a public ad campaign in Georgia with billboard pictures of fat kids looking unhappy. This is insane and insulting on so many levels I don’t really know where to start, but let me start with the intended target: the mom. Yes, it’s mom’s fault that there are fat kids, and these billboards are telling mom not to let their kids get fat.

As an aside, it’s also now officially okay to blame mom for making her kids fat, as it’s also officially okay to blame the kids themselves. It’s government-sponsored bullying. Never mind the fact that they’ve shown nutrition education and exercise doesn’t actually cause people to lose weight (i.e. understanding where calories are hidden in food doesn’t magically make them leave cheeseburgers). Never mind that nobody has come up with a viable plan for how to address this issue. Let’s blame moms anyway, because then we are taking this issue seriously.

It makes you wonder why women want to become moms at all considering all the things we are signing up for. Oh and wait, actually lots of women aren’t having kids, but interestingly a recent paper came out showing women who are highly educated are having more kids. Here’s the abstract for that paper:

Conventional wisdom suggests that in developed countries income and fertility are negatively correlated. We present new evidence that between 2001 and 2009 the cross-sectional relationship between fertility and women’s education in the U.S. is U-shaped. At the same time, average hours worked increase monotonically with women’s education. This pattern is true for all women and mothers to newborns regardless of marital status. In this paper, we advance the marketization hypothesis for explaining the positive correlation between fertility and female labor supply along the educational gradient. In our model, raising children and home-making require parents’ time, which could be substituted by services bought in the market such as baby-sitting and housekeeping. Highly educated women substitute a significant part of their own time for market services to raise children and run their households, which enables them to have more children and work longer hours. Finally, we use our model to shed light on differences between the U.S. and Western Europe in fertility and women’s time allocated to labor supply and home production. We argue that higher inequality in the U.S. lowers the cost of baby-sitting and housekeeping services and enables U.S. women to have more children, spend less time on home production and work more than their European counterparts.

Also interesting is this interview, where they describe the results of another paper which tracked women vs. men in various fields of science, including math. It looks like evidence for my post about meritocracy and horizon bias, i.e. the idea that women self-select out of certain fields because they are just not very appealing. From the interview:

The women who come in to academic science careers tend to be so highly motivated that they stay. They limit the number of children they have. Other studies have shown that female academics have fewer children than other professional women, such as lawyers. Female graduates see women scientists working very hard in what they feel are less fair conditions, and it puts them off. Societal factors also make it harder for women to have such demanding careers–women tend to manage family problems, for example.

By the way, I am not insufferably sad about mothers and their fates. I make fun of mothers too, and this article about passive parents is one I could have written. From the article:

But seriously, what is the deal with asking our children to behave? “Maybe you should get down?” What the hell is wrong with you lady? She’s four. There’s no room for negotiating here. I’m all for giving my kids choices to make them feel like they’re in control of something, blah, blah, blah, but this is not the time. “Maybe” should be reserved for times like: “Do you want to wear a dress today or MAYBE a skirt?”

I could go on and on about the passivity of modern yuppie parents, and I’d be right (hey I live in the Upper West Side so you know I’d be right). But if you think about it for a minute, this is just another manifestation of the same thing: it’s all mom’s fault. These women are performing a mother role instead mothering from the stomach, and it’s because they are made insecure by all the incredible bullshit out there about how to be a good mom and what other people are going to think if they scream at their kid in public or if their kid starts to scream. We have taught our mothers to be insecure, and to feel at fault, and oh yes, to be the target of bullying ad campaigns as well.

People, let’s get it together and solve problems instead of pointing fingers. I’m looking at you, Santorum.

Categories: news, rant, women in math
  1. Aaron
    February 24, 2012 at 7:58 am

    I live in Georgia, and I see those ads regularly. They are horrible.


  2. JSE
    February 24, 2012 at 8:40 am

    Sociologist Annette Lareau’s book Unequal Childhoods apparently has much to say about the parenting style you describe, in which discipline is characterized by extensive negotiation:


    As you say, it’s characteristic of middle-class parents, who are training the children in the skills they’ll need to successfully negotiate with authority figures as adults.

    People are different. If I laid down the hardline with my kids all the time, I wouldn’t be parenting “from the stomach,” as you say — I’d be playing a role I’d been bullied into by a thousand peevish editorials like the ones you linked to, about how kids today are spoiled and soft and need more hard hands and sharp words. MY kids aren’t spoiled and soft; they are, in fact, awesome, like yours.


    • February 24, 2012 at 9:47 am

      I’m not a hardass on my kids either, as you know. There are some things that are negotiable and some that aren’t. I just want to promote doing what makes sense to *you* rather than feeling weird about what other people think. Example: on planes, people are so vindictive when they see hyper kids with moms, but they are really compassionate when they see hyper kids with dads. That’s one reason why I let my husband sit with kids at the beginning of the trip, then take the second shift. It’s amazing how much of a difference this makes.


    • February 25, 2012 at 9:25 am

      That is interesting. In particular, it sounds like middle class kids are not generally trained in how to *be* authority figures, which, I suppose, keeps them firmly in the middle class.


  3. Dan L
    February 24, 2012 at 12:48 pm

    I also read that Janet Evens article and was shocked that some idiots were criticizing her. But you are so right that that what should have shocked me was the NYT’s decision to even mention these idiots.

    However, I’m not 100% with you on the fat kids. In *most* instances, there is no real reason why young children have to be fat, and I do think that *parents* (rather than just “moms”) have to shoulder *some* of the blame. (But I do agree that the Georgia ad campaign is a bit much.)


  4. February 24, 2012 at 1:08 pm

    Let’s blame dads instead. In fact, “dad” might be too lofty a word for what passes as fatherhood for many of us. Given the absence of fathers in somewhere between 25% to 50% of American homes (depending on which stats you believe), “DNA Vector” might be a better label than “Dad.” How could mothers possibly pick up the slack from all that paternal absenteeism?

    Here are a couple of articles on the topic: http://www.fatherhood.org/media/consequences-of-father-absence-statistics and http://www.manhattan-institute.org/html/_chicsuntimes-fathers_day_without_fathers.htm


  5. February 24, 2012 at 3:59 pm

    Let he who is without sin … I wonder whether those who wish to interfere with everyone else’s family relationships are those who had great family relationships themselves. My (purely anecdotal) experience is that successful families gain an inner security from the love that flows up and down the generations. The participants might offer practical help to other families that want or need it but they don’t spend their energy worrying about what outsiders think and they don’t waste their time on name-calling and kibbitzing.


  6. madalife
    February 24, 2012 at 6:02 pm

    What’s the similarity between moms and teachers?
    They are both scapegoats. It’s all teachers’ fault whenever students don’t do well in school.


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