Breaking the
Maternal Wall

The Invariable Conflict between Motherhood and a successful career

by Madhulika Iyer

Breaking the Maternal Wall

It’s needless to say, beyond the innumerable sleepless nights and a newly added mountain of responsibility, every mother swears that motherhood is an indescribable experience — For some, as one of the greatest joys in their lives. The 21st century as we all know, and in my opinion, is one largely dominated by feminism, women empowerment, and the overall drive to achieve a successful career and remain financially independent. Despite the fight to get where we are today, after trying to break the decades’ old glass ceiling, women are being faced with yet another wall to break down — The Maternal Wall.
I stumbled upon an article a few weeks ago, which highlighted the existing conflict between motherhood and women attorneys who were at a peak in their career. Pondering upon the same, a few questions came to mind — why is it that even in the 21st century, women are facing this conflict? Is our society really evolving or is it just a façade? What makes the majority of career-driven women give up their aspirations? Is it the overriding idea or inner voice powered by society, that prioritizing a career over motherhood makes you a bad wife or mom? Are women attorneys who dominate the courtroom, being dominated by society even today?

In lieu of finding an answer to the questions on my mind, I researched this matter in greater detail. Our generation is pervaded with healthy competition and the inbuilt desire to reach the top. I realised; that this determination is the one that ignites and fuels our careers, invariably leading to a delayed desire to have children, for those who wish to. As we ascend further in our career, finally reaching a place where it is at its peak, most women find themselves being blindsided by a wall that arises at exactly the same time, the maternity wall. Joan C. Williams, Professor of Law and Author, who conceived this phrase cautioned that “Women who have been very successful may suddenly find their proficiency questioned once they become pregnant, take maternity leave, or adopt flexible work schedules. Their performance evaluations may plummet, and their political support evaporates.”

Being an aspiring lawyer, I looked into a few experiences of women attorneys, primarily in India. Just out of law school, at an average age of 27, most women spend the next ten years producing heavy billable hours, while trying to learn as quickly as possible in order to produce a foundation of competency in their chosen area of practice. However, for those who decide to have children, the biological window of motherhood directly conflicts with the career window demanding the biggest investment of time and energy. While out of the office, on maternity leave, their male counterparts continue to advance, proving their commitment to the firm. On coming back to work, women are then caught in the cycle to “catch up” at work, while also adapting to the additional role of being a mother. To top it all, they are also met with judgement and never-ending criticism from many stay-at-home moms and relatives, who believe choosing a career automatically translates to being a “bad” mother. Employers too are to blame, for despite the most munificent of reasons, such as in a landmark federal case, Back v. Hastings-on-Hudson Union Free School District, it was held that an employer who assumed that a mother was less committed to her job because of home responsibilities was engaging in potentially illegal gender stereotyping.

Most law firms demand long weeks and beyond heavy billable hours, which invariably play a huge role while the firm is granting promotions as well. For most working mothers who are trying to balance their professional and personal demands and opportunities, this poses to be one of the biggest disadvantages. On the other hand, private practices have the incentive of flexibility and working on your terms. However, in order to reach a stage where this career option is profitable, the same amount (if not more) of “blood, sweat and tears” is involved.

This scenario is predominantly similar in all professions today.
Though advancements have been made in our country via the Maternity Benefit Act, 2017, true progress is still lacking. As compared to decades ago, some fathers today are working on their “parental neglect” by taking those extra hours off work to come home early. Workspaces too are now mandated to have childcare facilities. There was also the movie, Ki and Ka, produced in our country, which attempted to normalise males staying at home, while women were the primary earners in the family. Despite the paid maternity leave and numerous legislations present protecting working women who encounter motherhood — I believe, this conflict still needs to be addressed in greater detail. Once we finally break the maternal wall, only then can we can overcome the glass ceiling.

A lot of you must be wondering, what else can we do? Haven’t we already exhausted all the options physically possible? I don’t think so.
While looking into the progress and experiences of working women decades ago as compared to now, I believe, one of biggest advancements we have today, is ourselves, Generation Z.

Let me explain. Compared to Generation X, we, the millennials, are always ready to question and take action, no matter what. When we reach the parenting age, while many women decades ago succumbed to the pressure of catching up and society’s expectations, I believe, our generation will place the blame where it belongs — on a culture, which regards only women as the family caregiver, thereby making it almost impossible to have a successful career at the time. In a society, filled with judgement and the age-old belief, that only men are the breadwinners, thereby giving them the right to neglect the shared burden of parenting. Lastly, on a political system, designed by men, for men, to showcase only their talents and advancements.

I strongly feel, this ability of our generation to question the system and the drive to never settle for less than we deserve — something the women decades ago couldn’t dare to do, is one of the biggest attributes that will help us break this maternal wall.

I also believe change begins at home. For now, let’s start with taking action at a micro level — our homes. To all the readers who somewhat relate to what I’m trying to address, try being a hyperlocal activist. Forget the US Elections or the latest Indian Matchmaking discussions for the time being. Instead, talk about this issue which has gone almost unaddressed. Discuss the implementation of social safety nets, for starters, as the more society shares this burden of caring for the young and the elderly, the burden on women invariably becomes less. Talk about how men today have had it all because women have not.

In my opinion, education too plays a huge role in shaping who we are today. Many activists argue that men don’t play an active role in parenting, simply because they don’t want to. A lot of writers elaborate on the point that, with earning money, comes power and dominance — An aspect many men do not want to let go of or even compromise on once they become fathers. In some ways, I agree with this school of thought and strongly believe the only way to rectify it is through education. I recommend including this factor in school or college curriculums, whereby young boys and girls too are taught about equality and to respect all genders. These values can then be incorporated by them in the future, not only when they have partners but when they become parents as well.

Let’s take the time to also identify and celebrate those women who prioritised and promoted policies to help working mothers today. If you’re celebrating Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Justice of the Supreme Court in the United States, remember she had a 14-month-old daughter while attending law school, or that she was fired from her job when she became pregnant. Notice how she takes the time to point out her husband's role in parenting — a man who took the effort to become an active parent, thereby allowing her to focus on her career. As women, let’s work on ourselves, by getting rid of the judgement on those women who couldn’t win the battle against society’s pressure. Let’s also take the time to celebrate those of us who are fighting for our empowerment and lack of equality.

These are factors that I believe are lacking today, due to which the conflict of a maternal wall and a successful career is still present. No legislation, policy or convention can break these factors — only we can. To end on a positive note, I strongly feel we are the change we wish to see in the world. To all my readers, let’s act together and empower one another, in an attempt to break this maternal wall, and hopefully bring this gender inequality to an eternal end.

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