Women In Academia

Women in Academia: The Maternal Imperative

I do not have children. I am not sure if I will have children, but I am leaning more towards yes than no. I have no firsthand experience on what having a child does to someone who identifies as female, but when I read Anne Marie Slaughter’s piece in the Atlantic (y’all know the one – it’s been the big buzz getter), my blood ran cold when she mentioned the maternal imperative.

The way she talks about it is that for women, unlike men, there is no choice between work and family in that family always, always, always come first. This no-brainer pull of the family, whether culturally and socially ingrained or due to some sort of biological pull is one of the reasons she believes that women cannot have it all. I really appreciate her view that maybe creating a society where men are rewarded for sacrificing their family for the greater good where women are hounded for the same choice isn’t the best thing. But, when I read this piece and when I read any other piece that talks about the work-life balance, I get overwhelmed by fear and unease.

I am not what anyone would call a particularly nurturing individual. I am focused on my work and for my whole life, I have made choices that allow me to continue to move forward through school, academia, work, life, etc in a way that is best for me. I don’t think I’m particularly selfish, but I am motivated to do well in all of my professional pursuits and to achieve some standard of success. The thought that all that might change, that my whole sense of personal identity could shift so dramatically upon the introduction of a child into my life is horrifying.

I understand that it’s normal for someone to adjust to large life changes. I am not the same person I was five years ago and in five years I expect to be somewhat different still. But the impression I get from the discussions of the maternal imperative, the way I see it described, feels so antithetical to so much of how I see myself, is that my whole being will be swallowed and subsumed by this new family identity.

I don’t delude myself into thinking that I can have it all. No one can have it all, unless they outsource some of that all onto the backs of their wives or domestic workers. The men who set the standard for having it all were only given that all through the tireless work of their wives. I understand that there are trade-offs with every decision (though I do rue the reality that I can never simultaneously be this version of me and another version of me that is really, really good at skiing) and I accept that if I choose to have a family, there’ll be trade-offs that come with that choice. What scares me is the constant refrain that I am biologically pre-destined to fall into a set, all-consuming maternal mode.

I say the refrain is constant because even though there are many good discussions about the effects of nurture and society on gender roles and expectations, nearly every conversation I have about children and family planning either directly or indirectly emphasizes that the maternal imperative is inescapable. Even Slaughter’s article, which pointed out a lot of valuable truths, nodded to that. For so long, I was told that I could do anything I wanted, that I could achieve anything I wanted, that thanks to feminism and social justice, I could do me. Now, not only is that message proving to be inaccurate, but I am being told that there are immovable limitations within ourselves.

And you know, I can see someone else seeing that and fighting for a society where maternal contributions are acknowledged fully, where the maternal imperative is taken into account and does not create an obstacle to professional fulfillment. I support people who want to fight that fight. But right now, I am just trying to process that snap-shot shift in perspective. In every other instance where I’ve seen limitations, I can point to some glass ceiling, some double standard that I can rail against and fight. Here, though, I see myself limited by myself. And where in the first instance I found fellow fighters, here I stand alone.

7 replies on “Women in Academia: The Maternal Imperative”

No one ever asks men if they feel they can’t have it all. This annoys me. For thousands of years, men didn’t have it all, and it wasn’t an issue. Now suddenly it is.

You can have a career or you can be a devoted, hands-on, full-time parent. I don’t believe you can do both – and this goes for BOTH sexes.

Melissa McEwan also said some things that resonated with me at Shakesville (to which I can’t seem to find the link to) that addressed the idea of not being able to make a real choice to do something you are told you must do.

Basically, despite her decision to be childless, she realized that in a different world, she might want to have kids. However, she rejected it because in a world were women are told they must have children, any decision to have children wouldn’t have felt like a real choice to her. So instead, she decided to reject the idea altogether.

I feel very similarly about it. I am also very focused on my work. There are also a collection of reasons why I wouldn’t want to have children. But since having children, and then having them be my entire world, is a “must” for me as far as society is concerned, I don’t want to have children at all. I want to be judged on my own merits, not by the actions of spawnlings.

I feel that personal relationships of all kinds, not just familial, have fallen by the wayside in our current society. It is hard to merge maintaining any level of intimacy while advancing your professional goals. Impossible, no of course not, but difficult. I am a young, unwed, non-mother, working in a finance office and I see the results of it everyday. I see the men with young children who work 15 hour days and I wonder if they ever see the kids. I see the women who come in on the weekends and give up basically their whole lives for this place. I don’t think it is worth it. (That could be highly influenced by the fact that finance is not my ultimate career goal).

Friendships, family, and community are valued less. We think we are staying connected because social media and wireless technology have given us a false sense of closeness. But ultimately I think many people need to see that their workplace is just that — a place, not a person. I am not trying to invalidate any feelings that work is important, I am highly ambitious and take pride in my productivity, but I think many of us can’t “have it all” because being professionally successful detracts from more aspects of our lives than it enhances.

I recommend reading Jessica Valenti’s response to that Slaughter piece.

Dismissing socialization and gender roles as piddling compared to this amorphous idea of “maternal imperative” is part of the reason progress is stalled for family-friendly policies. I don’t believe we must ignore how much we love our kids and want to be with them in order to effectively fight for better parenting policies—but the assumption that women want to be mothers above all other callings in their life directly impacts the way we talk and work on these issues.


When these conversations only focus on women—when men are mentioned as an aside, rather than a central part of creating change—we not only do a disservice to the American men who want more work/life balance but let those who benefit from unpaid female labor entirely off the hook from doing their fair share.

There is a larger plurality of mothers’ and fathers’ voices out there than are publicised by more mainstream publications.

I’m afraid of having children because I am very driven to advance my career and love working. I’m know, unlike Slaughter, that you can’t have everything and I’m afraid I would put my career before my children.

As a humanist, I always believe that family and children in particular are important, so I feel like I would deal with a lot of guilt – both if I preferenced my children or my job – if I had kids.

I’m with you. I agree with her article that policies and attitudes need to change, but the thought that one person could, basically, distract and deter me from what I’ve always wanted, is, frankly, scary. Very scary to me. I’m also not sure that all women want that. On the other hand, my mom didn’t want kids for a long time, but as you can see, I am here and alive, and between me and my brother, we changed her career path.

I have nothing really insightful to add, except that I also stopped short at the maternal imperative stuff in Prof. Slaughter’s article.  I just don’t think that all women, everywhere, have the driving need to put children first.  And I hate the constant refrain that men just don’t feel the same way about their children or don’t have responsibility for anything at home.  I think framing work/life balance, especially in terms of rearing children, as a women’s issue, rather than as family issue or as an issue that affects all society isn’t helping anyone actually achieve the mythical, perfect balance.

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