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Sotomayor and motherhood

My earlier post on Sotomayor sparked some interesting conversation among my friends on Facebook that I thought worth bringing back to the blog. Most of it -- unsurprisingly, considering my demographic (thirtysomething mothers of young kids) -- was about motherhood.

First came discussion of Sotomayor's mother, and how the part of the nomination that sparked the most emotion was the vision of Sotomayor's mom weeping in the front row. (It's powerful: my eyes fill with tears again as I type these words.) I, too, feel that the story of Sotomayor's success is, in large part, a story of what good mothers can accomplish, raising children who are somehow able to believe in their own potential and transcend difficult circumstances. Too often, mothers (especially, historically, Jewish mothers) get slammed for this, deemed too pushy and too invested in their children's success.

For me, the role of Sotomayor's mother stood out in contrast to Obama's too-rosy claim that "anything is possible in America." If anyone is responsible for making the impossible possible, I'd vote for mothers over some vague, idealized notion of "America."

And then, my friend Chavi posed an excellent, sobering question: would Sotomayor's success have been possible if she herself was a mother?

I've written before about the issue of motherhood, ambition, and career, and I have to say that in my own Ivy-League-graduate sample pool, most of the meteoric success stories are either men with wives who don't work outside of the home or single women. Putting on my JWA thinking cap, I recall that Ruth Bader Ginsburg has kids, though she hid her pregnancy for fear of losing her job. Bella Abzug had kids, too, but also the world's most supportive husband, as well as a lot of hired help. If Sotomayor did have kids, I'll wager her mom would still play a central role in making her successful life possible, similar to the role Michelle Obama's mother has played in the First Family's story.

So what do you think? Am I over-valuing the role of Sotomayor's mother? And am I over-stating the obstacle of motherhood in women's career trajectories?

More on: Mothers,
6 Comments

It is wonderful when we can rely on extended kin (or friend) networks to support us through the challenging childbearing years, but it is a major failure of modern American society that this is one of the only support networks available to families. It is astounding to me -- and frustrating, infuriating, etc -- that every family I know is scrambling to figure out their own individual solution to the very same work/family struggles. It's like each of us has to reinvent the wheel, and so it feels like we're all riding along in very wobbly carts (not sure that this analogy works, but hopefully you get my drift).

<ul><li><sub><sup>I was touched by your comments. I am a child-free-by-choice woman, Ms. Sotomayer's age. I see you have chosen to celebrate Ms. Sotomayer's possibly strong mother than denigrate (as I have read on other, supposedly "pro-women/pro-mom" sites) Ms. Sotomayor's non-motherhood. Your readers bring out several concerns that I have seen my coworkers, associates, friends and neighbors deal with over the years and that is: Lack of a strong extended FAMILY (and I must stress the word FAMILY here) has been very hard for my generation (boomers) to deal with when raising a family. When there has been a strong extended family network, the moms and kids do much better than when one is moved around the country without any family support and must rely on a community that may not be able to handle or support an influx of working parents with no onsite daycare available, all the parents working all sorts of different hours, no safe places for the kids to go after school, etc. etc. And this occurs most frequently in working class families, divorced/single parent families. Personally, I am thrilled that for whatever reason, Ms. Sotomayor has no children. Maybe those of us in the boomer generation who have been ridiculed as being cold, heartless, selfish bitches can now hold our heads as high as our children-by-choice sisters, whom we've supported all along and will continue to support their children in whatever personal choices they</sup></sub> make. What goes around... </li> </ul>

It was a well-written article about motherhood. This reminded me of ProMom Couture is a clothing line that sells clothing dedicated to making motherhood fashionable. However, some people are going to get a payday loan, yes, for the T-shirts they sell Ì¢‰â‰ÛÏ and that's it. The cheapest T-shirt they sell is $25, the rest all go for $42 and up Ì¢‰â‰ÛÏ for T-shirts, repeat, up to $50 for one (1) single plain shirt with a little screen-printing. The swag has been hawked on Oprah and elsewhere, and a lot of people are getting cash advances to buy some ProMom Couture.

You're totally right, Chavi, that the grandmother solution is a band-aid solution, not a social change solution. It's also one, I believe, that will become decreasingly viable as more women have meaningful careers and are not available to take on childcare for their children's children. As much as my mother was desperate to be a grandmother (and believe me, she made that desperation abundantly clear on a near-daily basis until I had kids), she was equally clear that she was not about to retire from her very successful career as a college professor so that she could become my nanny. And why should she?

It is wonderful when we can rely on extended kin (or friend) networks to support us through the challenging childbearing years, but it is a major failure of modern American society that this is one of the only support networks available to families. It is astounding to me -- and frustrating, infuriating, etc -- that every family I know is scrambling to figure out their own individual solution to the very same work/family struggles. It's like each of us has to reinvent the wheel, and so it feels like we're all riding along in very wobbly carts (not sure that this analogy works, but hopefully you get my drift).

Organizations like MomsRising are doing the work to make change on a policy level. There's a social change movement to make the changes in our own families, too -- it's called feminism -- but I'll be the first to admit that putting those egalitarian ideals into practice is much harder than I thought it would be before I had kids.

My issue with the mother-in-law solution is that is perpetuates the child-rearing matriarchy. Children remain in the province of women.

And this may not in and of itself a bad thing, but it also ends up being another way that the men in our lives can be let off the hook. So I think it's a false choice, in a way: another red herring with which we distract ourselves. Add it to the list of stay-at-home-mom vs working-mom, breastfeeding vs bottlefeeding, or many of the other ways we distract ourselves from the true issue: women continue to do the large part of the work in the home, whatever else they are also doing.

Until (if?) that becomes a more egalitarian division, it will be very difficult for women to achieve as much outside the home as their partners. Until (if?) both partners defer advancement, or demand employment leave, or in other ways support each other during the demanding years of childbearing, women will continue to feel forced to defer accomplishments on one front or the other.

Thus, children or the Supreme Court? What a tough choice, and not really a fair one. Don't most of us want some part of both? Isn't that where most of our modern woman angst comes from?

And we know it's possible - many men get to keep a foot in both their career and domestic worlds. What would happen if we demanded a fair return?

All of this comes with the usual caveat that this particular discussion, as always, only pertains to the upper socioeconomic class of women, generally, and is thus less powerfully relevant. And of course, with all due respect to the life choices Judge Sotomayor may or may not have made. She is an amazing role model.

You're not overvaluing Sotomajor's mother at all, in the encouragement she gave her daughter and the ambition she instilled ... or in the role she potentially would have played if Sotomajor had had children. The support system behind a working mother makes all the difference in career success. Bella Abzug and plenty of other women pursuing careers may have "the world's most suppportive husbands," but I like to think that the best support (because it's the most attuned to all the needs of the situation) is the "mother behind the mother." Here's to Marian Robinson and all those mothers and mothers-in-law out there who are content being the childcare and the emergency backups so that their daughters can continue doing what they're doing in the world.

How to cite this page

Rosenbaum, Judith. "Sotomayor and motherhood." 28 May 2009. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on February 22, 2017) <https://jwa.org/blog/sotomayor_motherhood>.

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