When Dr Shani Orgad, Associate Professor in the Department of Media and Communications at LSE, was dropping off her children at their local school gate one morning, a mother of one of her children’s classmates asked her if she wanted to join her for a coffee. When Dr Orgad thanked her and said she couldn’t because she had to get to work, the mother replied: “you poor thing.”
Dr Orgad says: “I was puzzled by this reaction; I wondered why she felt sorry for me.” She became curious about women like this mother, who had given up years of education, training, and successful careers, seemingly to embrace full-time motherhood.
After conducting a statistical analysis of the UK Labour Force Survey, Dr Orgad found that although this group of women is a minority, 20% of stay-at-home mothers in the UK are highly educated while in the US, a quarter of stay-at-home mothers have college degrees.
What Dr Orgad says she found “particularly perplexing” about the choice these women made – leaving careers and becoming ‘stay-at-home’ mothers – is that it seemed completely incompatible with contemporary cultural messages that encourage women to ‘lean in’ and participate in the workforce rather than leave.
Dr Orgad’s latest book, Heading home: Motherhood, work and the failed promise of equality, investigates the experiences of professional women who left their careers after having children. The book situates their accounts in relation to the cultural, social, political forces that have shaped their lives.
Heading home draws on experiences like the one Dr Orgad encountered at the school gates, and interviews she conducted with 35 highly-educated women who had left paid employment at least three years before. It contrasts the stories of these women and popular narratives that circulate in the media and culture, for example, about work-life balance, women’s self-confidence, and the “mumpreneur”.
Dr Orgad chose to focus on educated middle-class women as an influential social group, while the mass media and the advertising industry often present middle-class mothers as a model for the rest of the population. Also, these parents are likely to have resources that enable them to afford quality childcare, making their choices puzzling.
Rather than a carefully considered decision, the women that Dr Orgad interviewed often described how they ‘found themselves’ outside of the workplace. It was a hugely significant decision which notably, they had barely discussed with their partners.
Dr Orgad says: “The realisation that they had sacrificed their careers for their families was a source of deep pain for many of the women interviewed. While they found pleasure in motherhood and felt they could be there for their children in ways they couldn’t before, they regretted and lamented the decision to leave paid employment.”
“These women were faced with the contradiction between their desire to have a successful, fulfilling career, and the stubborn expectation that women should be the primary carer,” Dr Orgad adds.
In the book, the women describe the decision to leave their careers as a ‘forced choice’. It was a decision forced by toxic workplace structures, deep-seated sexist norms and practices and powerful cultural narratives that still regard mothers as the primary parents.
At the same time, it was a choice that the women felt enabled them to put some kind of order after struggling with hugely stressful, chaotic two-parent working lives that were profoundly incompatible with family life.
Dr Orgad says: “The majority of the women I spoke to did not think they would leave paid employment for so long or for good. Most of them thought it would be a temporary break. These women wanted to realise themselves professionally and did not expect that motherhood and caring for children alone would be satisfying. They wanted more.”
The book examines the women’s accounts alongside media narratives in news reports, advertisements, and popular television shows like The Good Wife and Big Little Lies, asking how they shape women’s understanding of the choices they made about family and work.
Dr Orgad says: “These narratives are so powerful, seductive and oppressive and they are being internalised by women. They often feed into difficult feelings of guilt and self-blame, and perpetuate a sense of individual responsibility and failure if the fantasies they propel are not being realised.”
The mothers Dr Orgad interviewed reflected on the structural conditions that pushed them out of the workforce, for example the rigid patriarchal work cultures and gendered social expectations.
But ultimately, they held themselves responsible for the choices they made and internalised the blame. Dr Orgad says: “Time and time again the women would tell me that they weren’t cut-out for a demanding career or that they weren’t ambitious enough, even though their previous careers show otherwise.”
“Alongside the many things that have changed in the last couple of decades in relation to gender equality, the accounts I heard revealed that a lot hasn’t changed. The notion that a woman’s role and duty to be the “foundation parent” and the “good mother” is stubbornly held by women and men.”
“Despite important changes in public perceptions, caring is still associated largely with women and is hugely devalued. And although there is lot of noise about gender equality in the workplace, many workplaces remain rigid, inflexible, and incompatible with family life.”
Heading Home highlights some key aspects of the unequal structures that condition women’s experience of work and family in advanced capitalist societies.
Dr Orgad says: “While the book looks at a small privileged group of women, one does not necessarily have to be “headed home” in order to be interested in, and identify with the issues raised by the accounts of the women.”