Christine Lyons, SFU News

March 05, 2021

The Juggling Mother: Sociology and Anthropology’s Amanda Watson examines modern motherhood

Amanda Watson’s new book The Juggling Mother: Coming Undone in the Age of Anxiety explores how the idealized version of motherhood perpetuates established inequities of race, gender, class, and ability.

Watson, an SFU Sociology and Anthropology professor, says the familiar and somewhat comical figure of the juggling mother has serious implications and connections to maintaining the social order in terms of how work is distributed. The figure has appeared regularly in media representation since the 1980s, when women’s participation in Canada’s labour force rose sharply, and is now a fixture in popular culture and traditional media.

“You can easily picture her,” says Watson. “She’s fit and attractive. She’s carrying a briefcase and maybe a sippy cup or a stuffed animal—something representative of infant care; rarely a soccer ball or a symbol of caring for older children or elderly relatives. It’s most often baby stuff and ‘business’ accoutrements and nothing in between.” 

But despite the farcical juxtaposition of business attire with baby things, the figure of the juggling mother was invented out of “economic necessity,” says Watson. 

“Our economy relies on often-unpaid labour that happens in the home,” she notes. “Even as we bring some care needs to market, women continue to do more unpaid care and home management labour than men, especially if children or elder relatives are involved. Even though we now imagine our paid labour force to attract workers across genders in order to maintain our national productivity, care needs and attitudes about who ought to provide for these have been slower to change in the private home. The juggling mother offers a solution to this labour shortage.”

Watson argues that we are so saturated with representations of fictional and real-life juggling mothers that “she's taken on a life of her own in our collective imaginations.” She is a figure who is at once both relatable in her plight but whose struggles are out of reach for most women and families. She is a responsible worker and a responsible mother and she takes care of her own body according to established ideas about what makes a responsible healthy person.

A scripted performance

Watson discusses the success story of Facebook chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg in detail in the book: “[Sandberg] very strategically and compellingly crafts an image of the juggling mother at the extremes of corporate success in the U.S. while ushering in just enough feminine softness at the right moments to make her image palatable to a male-dominated industry. She is a woman who dresses and speaks in a respectably feminine way, and who demonstrates uncompromised business acumen when needed.”

Watson says Sandberg’s 2010 TED Talk (which spurred the success of her book Lean In and leanin.org) is a compelling example of the juggling mother. 

“Sandberg relates a memory of the feeling of her daughter wrapped around her leg begging her not to get on the plane for a business trip and she lets us into this familiar and intimate struggle, for working mothers. I think she does a beautiful job of illustrating how the juggling mother character is clearly a scripted performance, but it is also a legitimate, authentic feeling that mothers who need to work for pay can relate to. This juggling mother is at once very human, but also superhuman—you trust successful leaders like Sandberg are never going to drop the ball at work.” 

Showing the cracks

In the context of the COVID-19, the juggling mother figure has taken on added relevance as the pandemic has shone a spotlight on the existing cracks in the façade of a working mom who is asked, again and again, to “do it all.” 

When schools and daycares closed their doors to all but essential service workers early on in the pandemic, parents found themselves balancing fulltime work and childcare at home in isolation. In Zoom meetings and on conference calls, seeing parents’ juggling work duties and childcare responsibilities became the norm rather than the exception. 

Watson herself has two young children and says she and her partner struggled to work from home while caring for them. 

“Something that was sharpened for me was the feeling that more than ever before, I had to keep my true feelings friendly and ‘together’ and also perform competently while at work,” she says. “We now know that women with young children are reporting higher levels of anxiety and depression than other groups during the pandemic. While showing the cracks has become a little bit more acceptable and the ‘performance’ is allowed to slide sometimes, I do think a lot of women [during the pandemic] are trying to do this performance of ‘having things together’ for their families and employers while also being incredibly overwhelmed.”

Watson sees additional connections between the pandemic, the juggling mother and social hierarchies. Just as the pandemic’s impacts are not democratic, the juggling mother in commercial media is far from representative of the real crises families face as they struggle to survive in this moment. Media versions of the burnt out juggling mom disproportionately depict a white mother who is striving toward a good, decent, respectable middle class life. We see few representations of mothers who struggle for their families survival. 

Despite the rising swell of the second wave of the virus, Watson is optimistic about the future. Ideas like establishing universal affordable childcare and more robust labour regulations around sick leave are now on the table as we move beyond the pandemic. 

“I do end the book optimistically in part because I've witnessed exchanges between women (and between mothers especially) where established divisions and hierarchies seem to momentarily dissolve in a shared understanding of the load of raising children in this anxious time. So there is potential when women form solidarities around how much they're struggling and I think that's happening more and more, in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic. I wonder about how these emotional solidarities might translate to real changes, like more widespread support for accessible and affordable childcare and housing.” 

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This was published by SFU News on March 5, 2021.