What I Learned At the Mothers Conference


I was at Rutgers University on October 19th for the “What Mothers Want” conference and it was a mamapalooza of the first order.  It’d be hard to say who was the more interesting – the experts and advocates at the mic or the totally engaged and informed audience.  Everybody knew motherwork was hard, vital, and made unnecessarily more difficult by the way work and family life are currently structured. Research presented let us listen to the opinions of thousands of mothers as they considered what mattered most, what helped and what hindered them in their lives.  The room was full of passion, pride, frustration and humor. Here is some of what I learned:

From Kathleen Gerson – We live in a time when attachment to the workforce over one’s lifetime will be fluid. People who grew up as women entered the workforce aspire to committed relationships where both work and childcare are shared.  They believe families where all adults are engaged in earning and caring are better positioned to deal with the inevitable ups and downs of family life. If the functions of supporting the household and caring for the family are divided along gender lines, transitions are harder to navigate.  Good mothering includes financially providing for the family.

From Melissa Milkie – About half of married parents experience difficulty in reconciling work and family demands. Those whose children appear to succeed socially and academically are more likely to believe they have balance, while those whose children struggle in school, or exhibit behavioral problems, are less likely to claim a balanced life.  This is true without regard to the amount of time the parents actually spend with their children.

From Pamela Stone – Professional women were three times more likely than their male counterparts to interrupt their employment for “family responsibilities.”  When they return, they frequently turn away from their former fields and enter lower paid, lower prestige sectors of the economy motivated by the desire to “give back” or pursue caring professions or social service.  Becoming a mother has a profound impact on a woman’s values, priorities, and sense of identity.  After a career hiatus, a mother often changes both her behavior and career aspirations.  Motherhood exerts a powerful transformational effect.

Clearly the foregoing merely skims the surface. What we have here is a subject poised for extensive, profound study.  The conference gathered social scientists and advocates ready to illuminate it with the high beams of their expertise. We hope to continue our discussion next year.  Maybe you can join us!

‘Til next time,

Your (Wo)Man in Washington


  • Joanne


    Would have LOVED to be at the Rutgers Conference. Sounds as amazing as I thought it might be. Look forward to hearing even more about it.

  • Nanette

    I second that, Joanne. I want to be at the conference next year, too! Thanks for the blog.

  • Parent From The Heart

    Sounds like a terrific day! As a mother who resigned from teaching to raise my children, I have been adapting my skills and following my passion for educating, empowering and encouraging parents and caregivers to seek support and guidance in this journey we all share when caring for children in any capacity. This is a career, like any other, one that requires
    skills and continuous training in communication, child development and positive relationships. Joy, unconditional love and balance for all!

  • Andrea Hazard

    I left at four AM and drove four hours to attend the conference, and as soon as it was over drove back so I could record the minutes for a PTA meeting. It was a stressful day, but worth it.

    I have a Ph.D. in biochemistry, and hit the maternal wall five months after the birth of my first child: my advisor took away my research project, then asked me to make samples for the student who had taken it over. I quit, and a year and a half later got another research position, working thirty hours a week. Despite my limited hours I was able to solve a problem that had stalled progress for two years. Nevertheless, my coworkers treated me as if I was invisible, so when the job ended I decided to stay home with my kids, who at least liked me and looked up to me (both literally and figuratively). Since then I’ve worked as a freelance writer, which I enjoy. But what I really want is to be a respected scientist and a good mother.

    It was inspiring to hear so many talented individuals talk about making career more compatible with motherhood. In future years I would like to see the conference expanded to include advice to help mothers achieve their work/family goals.

  • Joannie

    Hi Andrea, How can it be – the world needs talent but why should it be so hard. Take heart and press on while knowing that the tide is turning. But I wanted to reflect on your comment about being a good mother – there is a growing body of literature on this topic. I have recently completed a PhD in Australia on a topic related to maternal subjectivity and even though i wasn't concerned with the 'good mother' per se my thesis is relevant to this wider critique. Something that I would say is that the maternal role is a social construct (with little room for movement) while the mother-child relationhip is one that is based on two subjects (woman-as-mother and child) – a point that is captured in the phrase:

    its not a role but a relationship

    my two are now teenagers and this way of looking at what was happening between us over the last years has held me in good stead. After all we are only left with our relationships and its really important that they get to know and understand you. I can't say that I have wonderful communication between my teenagers and me (on all those intimate and/or personal things that are happening in their lives) but I can pretty confidently say that we have a good relationship and they've got a pretty good idea about who I am. They are always saying oh mum – you won't like this – or you'll like that etc. –

    would love to know your thoughts on this.

    take care, Joannie