Academic journal article Canadian Review of Sociology

The Discourse of Balance: Balance as Metaphor and Ideology

Academic journal article Canadian Review of Sociology

The Discourse of Balance: Balance as Metaphor and Ideology

Article excerpt

OVER THE LAST 50 years feminists have successfully challenged the notion that "women's nature" suits them to motherhood and is incompatible with ambitions outside of family life. It is now expected that mothers engage in paid work and may have aspirations of success in the public sphere; however, a challenge to the punitive way that motherhood is organized in our society has had far less success. Working mothers find that there is a significant cost to combining work and motherhood; yet, surprisingly, we still hear voices claiming that the achievement of women's right to pursue a career has established a postfeminist era. The popular understanding is that motherhood constrains women's lives to the extent that women wish it to. Motherhood is seen as a personal choice: women choose to have children and be active in their role as mothers, much as they choose to make an investment in any other interest, hobby, or passion. Some are finding this postfeminist fable increasingly difficult to believe; there is an awareness of the terrible dance that women must do between work and motherhood, and a keen sense that this is a dance that men do not have to do.

Working mothers experience the tension between work and motherhood because work and motherhood are arranged as opposing structures. Feminist political economy explicates the relationships between these structures; they are not merely, as they were once described, "greedy institutions;" they are arranged in contradiction to each other (Fox 1998; Luxton 1990, 1997). Participation in one precludes full participation in the other because work assumes the support of home and family to maintain workers, and family structures delegate the responsibility of care to a wife and mother who is presumed to be fully available to do this. Working women, and working mothers especially, are faced with the task of managing their lives astride the division between these structures. In the neoliberal climate that frames caring for children as a mother's personal choice rather than a social responsibility, there are few social supports to help mediate this tension. Women experience dissatisfaction and frustration with the difficulty of combining work and motherhood; but there is little progress forward to resolve this tension. It is up to the working mothers themselves to find a way to negotiate between these two, and it has become common parlance to use the term balance to refer to this negotiation.

In this paper I make the argument that the term "balance" both assists women to manage the tension and at the same time reinforces the structures that cause it. The paper is motivated by the findings of a broader study, and the interview data that is the focus of my analysis came from that study. The narrative that emerges from these interviews reveals a complex view of motherhood (the mothers adopt a deep personal commitment to motherhood at the same time that they devalue it as a social role), and I explore the social influences on mothers' perceptions with a brief discussion of the discourse about motherhood in popular media. My analysis is guided by a socialist feminist perspective, which directs my focus onto the way that motherhood and work are currently structured. Feminist political economy provides a powerful explanatory framework because it explicates the structural interdependence of work and family, which makes any dance that tries to partner them difficult. Both the interview data and the analysis of structure are critical because the question the paper examines touches that difficult space where agent and structure interact.

One of the first ideas that undergraduates in sociology have to come to terms with is the notion that society is socially constructed, actively created by agents, and at the same time it is a structure that constrains how individuals experience the world and respond to it. Generally, sociologists focus on one part of this interaction or the other; however, the interaction is particularly fluid in the lives of contemporary working mothers and this throws the interaction itself into high relief. …

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