Behind every successful woman with kids is another woman

By: Meridith Owensby, Lydia’s House co-director

In last year’s Hulu series Mrs. America told the compelling story of the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) and its opposition. At the heart of this story was Phyllis Schlafly, a conservative mother of six, who organized her newsletter mailing list into a formidable advocacy outfit. Her efforts eventually served to block the passage of the ERA.

One of the less praised successes of the series, however, was the acknowledgement of the existence of help, both in the form of paid staff and family support. For Phyllis to do the necessary writing, meeting, and speaking, she needed to have someone to pick up, watch, and care for her children. She did employ a housekeeper for domestic affairs, but even an abundance of household staff wouldn’t have met all of the necessary childcare demands. Enter her unmarried sister-in-law Eleanor, who did considerable unpaid labor to support the charismatic matriarch in her efforts.

These questions aren’t just historical footnotes, however. Contemporary parents are still asking them. Take, for example, the effect of the nomination of Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court in 2020. Mothers in my social circle asked questions about the logistics of her life, all of them centering around the biggest: “How can she and her husband have thriving legal careers while simultaneously parenting seven children?”

It wasn’t until weeks after the nomination that a mention came in the press of how they did it: Coney Barrett had, in an older interview, credited her husband’s aunt for providing sixteen years of “consistent childcare in the home.” Having another adult in the mix does not negate that Coney Barrett has worked hard and has incredible self-discipline. It does affirm, however, that women who reach great public heights often do so with the support of other women, women who are not the parents of their children.

In my work with mothers in poverty, there are many things that money can help with: Better cars, better housing, more reliable food and clothing, better day care centers. What is inevitably missing, however, is the support of other women. Within impoverished communities are few aunts who have enough leisure to step out of professional life. Grandmothers, often in their 40s, are still working to support themselves. Sisters are also looking to work their way out of poverty and caring for their nieces and nephews is not high on the list of ways to get ahead financially.

So, what happens when a child becomes ill? The Covid 19 pandemic highlights the need for care beyond formal child care centers, so much so that outlets like the New York Times regularly pen exposes on the economic and emotional losses of mother’s due to the childcare crisis of the last two years and The Columbia School of public health declared the inability to get childcare a “threat to our nation.” Just search “child care crisis” and pages of recently written articles will appear on your screen! What’s new here is that women across the class and marriage status spectrum are deeply impacted. They learned what poor single mothers have always known: work doesn’t work without a robust series of backup plans. Daycares and schools understandably won’t take children who have a fever or other persistent symptoms, so it’s the mom who likely ends up missing work. It’s also the mom who will lose her job once this happens often enough (and the average child contracts ten childhood illnesses in his/her first year of daycare, so good luck with those odds, even in times that aren’t a pandemic).

For single moms with no family support, I fully expect them to lose as many jobs as they obtain. I’ve seen it as one of the most predictable trends in the nine years I’ve run a shelter for single mothers. As unemployment regulations relaxed and stimulus payments flowed over the last year, we told many women, “don’t try to work, it’s just not worth trying.” For those with no spouse or support, this is true until their kids are old enough to stay home independently while sick, regardless of what’s happening with global public health. Perhaps a woman will get lucky and her mom/sister/neighbor can watch her child once or twice, but this volunteer also cannot step away from work until the illness has run its course, to say nothing of the next illness in the lineup, quarantines, testing, and the like.

Notable in this discussion is the fact that no men are mentioned. I’m sure there are men in the larger society who would voluntarily watch children they did not father or grandfather regularly, but I don’t know any of them. If there were more uncles and brothers and male neighbors and friends in the mix doing childcare for free, I’d rejoice.

But until that day, women who come from families in poverty, lack a reliable partner or robust social network and are parenting will not thrive professionally. They will be considered unreliable employees, and they will be. Their biggest job is caring for their children, the job they must do 24/7 in some capacity. If their child is ill there is no easy way to obtain emergency childcare, whatever the amount of money they can pay.

Eight years ago Sheryl Sandberg famously pinned “Lean In” encouraging women to be fully present to work. Backlash ensued. I think it’s fair to say the language has changed from “Lean In” to “Just try to show up” as 1.6 million women left the labor force between March and September of 2020. Op-eds across the media spectrum are demanding cheaper and more available childcare centers, and President Biden is attempting to send money that way. What I want to communicate, however, is that money alone won’t fix this. We have to support each other, in informal networks of friends and family, if we want to see the bright, young mothers among us succeed. Women are more than capable with the right support. If you want to see women flourish professionally, or single moms work at all, tell your favorite mother that you will babysit in times of crisis or childcare failure; no strings attached, and do a great job at it. You’ll be amazed at what heights she’s able to achieve when she’s got your unfailing support at her back.