A Long-Overdue Update

Thanks for signing up for updates on my project on women and work! I've been shamefully negligent in keeping up with this email list, but I have been working away, in spite of the upheaval of this strange year.

In this email, I'll give you the cliff notes version of my Novak research, share links to some recent publications, and give you a sneak peak of what I have in the works.

A New Kind of Working Mom

I'm excited to share an excerpt from the first installment of my project, which was published as a longform essay at Verily today.

Many of you filled out my survey or graciously took part in the series of in-depth interviews I conducted last fall. I spoke with stay-at-home moms, full-time working moms, and women who fell on a wide spectrum in between. I was especially intrigued by those "in-between" moms. As I write at Verily,

There has been a quiet rise of mothers who are continuing to do meaningful professional work—whether part or full-time—but who are also acting as their children’s primary caregivers. Because there is no easy name for this group of moms, they often go undetected. They’re not leaning in, but they’re not opting out either. These moms may work full or part-time, from home or at a traditional workplace, but they are united by the fact that they prioritize flexibility in their career choices, choosing arrangements that allow them to put family first while also pursuing a professional vocation and contributing to their family’s financial wellbeing.

My generation is making the old dichotomy of “working mom” vs. “stay-at-home mom” obsolete—and that’s a good thing.

I've done a lot of listening in the past year, trying to understand the complex factors that shape different women's choices about whether and how much to work, and when and how many children to have. I am especially interested in the psychological frameworks that influence women's understanding of themselves. In a yet-to-be published section of my project, I delve more deeply into one in particular: work-family enrichment theory. As the name suggests, this theory explains some of the ways in which role shifting, skill transfer, and enhanced resources for meaning-making allow work and family life to enrich one another, in spite of the inevitable conflicts that occur. In the section published today, I focus on the power of metaphor and the impact of the stories we tell ourselves.

I was also fascinated by the ways that the experience of motherhood changes women, and how those changes manifest themselves in the workplace. We often talk about "mom brain" or the "mommy track," but we hear less about the positive changes that motherhood brings. That's a problem. The reality is that

Motherhood often enhances women’s interpersonal skills, such as compassion and awareness of others’ unspoken emotions. Mothers also, by necessity, hone their multitasking, organization, and time-management skills. Numerous mothers told me that they became more efficient after having children. When work time is precious (and requires being separated from one’s children), there’s a clear motivation to avoid distractions.

For decades, women have been trying to be like men in the workplace. But what if we didn’t? What if, instead, women consciously applied our distinctly feminine and maternal habits of being in the workplace? Mothers have the potential to undermine inhumane workplace norms in a powerful way. If mothers have the support and courage they need to leave positions that do not support healthy family life—or to negotiate for concrete policy changes such as paid maternity leave and flexible working arrangements—they could exercise formidable cultural power in combating the dominance of the ideal worker model.

Okay, I'll stop quoting myself now. Click through here to read the whole thing. I'd love to hear your thoughts... especially if you have ideas for what to call this "in-between" group of women. "Flex moms" (ie, those who prioritize flexibility in their careers) is the best term I've come up with, and it is... not great.

Pro-Family Policy and the Impact of COVID-19

My daughter Lucy, marching off into the sunset.

After spending the first few months of lockdown working from home, taking lots of hikes, and swapping childcare as part of a "pandemic pod" with another family, I turned to the public policy installment of my project with fresh eyes.

My research focused not only on the differences between Republican and Democratic proposals for programs like paid maternity leave, subsidized childcare, or a child allowance, but also on the ways that COVID has affected moms in particular. Lower-income women took the hardest hit in the shutdown, when many lost service industry jobs. Even among white collar workers, moms bore the brunt of additional childcare duties and reported much higher rates of psychological distress than dads.

Still, there's a bright side here. In many ways, the pandemic has accelerated trends that were already in place--and not just the obvious ones, like remote work, but also more subtle ones, like the movement of millennials away from the largest metropolitan centers toward regional hubs, midsize cities, and small towns. Why pay sky-high rent when you could buy a nice house in the country and work remotely from there? With the risk of COVID exposure making center-based care less appealing to many, moving closer to grandparents who can help provide care starts to sound more attractive.

I've written a lengthy installment for my project that discusses all of this, along with a closer look at the interplay between civil society and family policy. I hope to publish it in the coming months, and will let you know when I do!

Recent Publications

I'd like to highlight two other pieces I published recently: an op-ed at Newsweek and an interview at Public Discourse.

After the Amy Coney Barrett nomination, Ross Douthat kicked off a lively discussion about "conservative feminism." Leah Libresco noted on twitter that this was not a great name, which got me brainstorming for an alternative. This op-ed was the result. Here's a taste.

Interdependence feminism accepts the reality of the human body. We come into being as radically dependent embryos, unable to survive without the active receptivity of our mothers' bodies. For mothers, the vulnerability of our unborn children bestows a responsibility on us to protect and care for the new life that has taken root within us. Pregnancy highlights the incredible power of the female body, which can grow an entirely new person inside of itself. Yet it also makes us aware of how fragile, weak and dependent we are, too.

Read the rest here.

I was honored to get to interview legal scholar Erika Bachiochi for Public Discourse. We talked about the nature of feminism, the metaphysics of sexual difference, the reasons behind falling fertility rates, why we should have more babies in the workplace, the case for federally funded family leave policy, and the beauty of trusting God’s plan for your life. As Erika puts it,

what makes one a feminist is the view that this basic inequality at the heart of reproduction is one that deserves, in justice, an affirmative cultural response. We wish not only for maternity to be celebrated for the true privilege it is, which I take to be the traditionalist view. We also wish to see women encouraged and supported in other contributions they make. This requires that the burdens of childbearing ought to be shared not only within the family, but also across the wider society too.

Here's the whole thing.

Coming Up Next...

I'm currently working on a feature article for America magazine, which focuses on the various subcultures within American Catholicism and the ways in which parents, schools, and churches shape young women's aspirations and understanding of work, family, and womanhood--for good and for ill. I've been interviewing some incredibly thoughtful women who've had very different experiences. I'm excited to share their stories with you and to take a look at the insights they reveal about the nature of vocation, in particular.

In the Meantime

While you're waiting with baited breath for me to publish something new, I recommend distracting yourself with the fascinating Hulu miniseries Mrs. America. It stars Cate Blanchett as Phyllis Schlafly, who battled the likes of Gloria Steinem and Betty Friedan to stop the Equal Rights Amendment from being ratified in the 1970s. The clash is especially thought-provoking for those of us who oppose abortion (as Schlafly did) but also consider ourselves feminists.

Along the same lines, Sue Ellen Browder's Sex and the Catholic Feminist offers a first-hand account of how the fight for women's rights got so intertwined with the fight for legal abortion and with the sexual revolution more generally.

For thought-provoking analysis of our current political landscape, check out Time reporter Charlotte Alter's new book on Millennials and politics, The Ones We've Been Waiting For. If you were born between 1980 and 1996, you'll probably identify with the defining moments and experiences Alter describes, from September 11th to the Harry Potter series. Her insights on what the transfer of power from Baby Boomers and Gen Xers to Millennials means for politics and culture are worth reading.

I also highly recommend sociologist Robert Putnam's new tome, The Upswing, which I am listening to on Audible. Putnam, who popularized the concept of "social capital" in influential books like Bowling Alone, turns his attention to the first half of the twentieth century. According to Putnam, the United States faced very similar problems in the gilded era of the early 1900s as we do today. He analyzes how we moved from the individualism of that time to the strong social cohesion that characterized the middle of the twentieth century, and discusses how we might regain that sense of shared purpose and a healthy collective identity.

Last but not least, if you want to be part of the ongoing conversation about a feminism that embraces interdependence and rejects the myth of radical autonomy, you should sign up for Leah Libresco's new listserv, Other Feminisms.

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