Motherhood at the Heart of the New Feminism: A Vocation of Love and Service

By Agee, Mary Cunningham | The Human Life Review, Winter 2002 | Go to article overview

Motherhood at the Heart of the New Feminism: A Vocation of Love and Service


Agee, Mary Cunningham, The Human Life Review


When Americans are invited to speak at international gatherings such as this, we are typically relied upon to supply down-to-earth, practical advice. Our entry into a program tends to signal an audience to settle back and ease up from the more rigorous philosophical considerations of the day and prepare to glean a few clever, problem-solving tips.

Americans, after all, are supposed to be a nation of pragmatists, the inventors of the latest labor-saving gadgets, the efficiency experts, the "how to" gurus of this over-worked, time-constrained world. Corporate America prides itself on being the birthplace of the "pert chart" and the infamous "bottom line."

And so, when it comes to grappling with today's provocative topic, the contemporary woman's challenge to find personal fulfillment in achieving a balance between family and career, it might seem like second nature for us to try to reduce this presentation to a practical little list of handy "do's and don'ts."

Despite my years at Harvard Business School and as a Strategic Planning Vice President for two Fortune 100 companies, I am hoping to use our time together today in a very different way. I do not believe that our topic lends itself very well to simplistic checklists or tidy "how to" reminders. I've seen too many of my female friends worn out and disillusioned by trying to conform to a false image of "superwoman" in pursuit of an equally unrealistic ideal of "having it all" simultaneously.

A New Perspective

Now that I am 50 years old and immersed in the challenging process of guiding my vibrant 16-year-old daughter through the labyrinth of her own life-altering choices, I am moved to speak to you today from a slightly different and, hopefully, more candid perspective. It is the perspective of one whose words are born of life's rich experiences, of one who hopes to give to you what no one seemed able or prepared to give to me when I was facing these issues a few years ago. I am hoping to speak to you today as more than just another professional woman who has managed to achieve a reasonable balance between a fulfilling career and a very meaningful home life. Rather, I plan to speak to you today from the more heartfelt perspective of an empathic friend. You might say that I will be speaking to you as a mother.

So let's spend no more than a few moments addressing a few facts and figures that dramatically convey the intense challenge of contemporary woman's situation. Recently, the Washington Post reported the reassuring results of a study of the sleeping habits of 1.1 million Americans. Surprisingly, the analysis showed that people sleeping only six to seven hours nightly actually tended to live longer than those who slept eight or more hours nightly. [Washington Post, 2-14-02] 1 suspect that most of the women in this audience are hoping that this research turns out to be true, because as we all know so well, crowding everything in that needs to be done in a day doesn't leave much room for eight or more hours of downtime daily.

In case you are wondering if you are just imagining your chronic state of fatigue, a 1999 study in the Journal of Health and Social Behavior [March 1999, by Chloe E. Bird] documented that American married women in fact work 14 more hours weekly than single women, while married men only work an additional 1 1/2 hours. And a recent Canadian study by GPI Atlantic [March 1998, updated in 2000] went so far as to estimate that the total yearly market value of Canadian women's unpaid cooking, cleaning, and childrearing amounted to about 275 billion Canadian dollars! By most calculations, women working both inside and outside the home are conservatively estimated at putting in an average work week of 73 hours. Similar studies estimate that single employed mothers work at least 75 hours a week, with literally only one hour a day free for so-called "quality time" with their own children!

Statistics such as these suggest what many frantically busy modern women have already intuited-that the schedules we have imposed upon ourselves daily are, if not impossible, at least improbable. …

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