When her mentors advised Charity Hoffman to go to graduate school, the alluring idea also raised some questions: Should she enroll in a Ph.D. program or get an M.S.W.? And where? Then there was the question faced by many young women: Would pursuing a PhD leave room for having a family?

A graduate student in the joint Ph.D. program in Social Work and Sociology, Hoffman studies how women manage the transition to first-time motherhood. Although not a mother herself, she had seen lots of models of motherhood growing up, and watched women strive to navigate pressures from both work and family. Working as a nanny, she saw women return to work after having children and struggle to find and retain work while also caring for their families. Later, she worked with homeless teen moms trying to make ends meet. In all of these scenarios, Hoffman watched women wrestle with what it means to be a “good mom.”

The stay-at-home/working mother debate gets a lot of airtime regarding what it means to be a good mother, but it's hardly the only basis for evaluation. Other measures include whether good moms breastfeed, or co-sleep (have their babies sleep with them in the same bed), or let their babies watch TV. “There are all of these different messages about how to do motherhood ‘right’,” Hoffman says. “As if there’s a single way. I’ve tried to understand how women make sense of them.”

To find out, Hoffman interviewed 45 new mothers from different racial, economic, and cultural backgrounds. One thing she observed in these conversations was the overlooked and unacknowledged advantages associated with class privilege. Many Americans celebrate the self-made man or woman who got where they are by dint of hard work, Hoffman says, but these stories don’t always account for the advantages built into a person’s social status. “There’s a lot you know when you are part of a system that you just take for granted,” Hoffman says. New, middle-class mothers tended to credit their advantages to luck.

I Got Lucky

During Hoffman’s interviews, women described themselves as “lucky.” Women were lucky if they had parental leave or could get time off work. They were lucky if they had family members who could provide free, high-quality childcare. They were lucky if they had understanding bosses who let them come in late, or work from home. In hearing their good fortune, Hoffman also heard coded references to middle-class privilege. “Motherhood is difficult and demanding for all new mothers,” Hoffman says. “On the one hand, recognizing things that worked out for you as “luck” acknowledges that not everyone has it as good as you do. On the other hand, calling it “luck” makes it seem like anyone could have had the same outcome, when in fact, class-stratification ensures that some women are systematically provided a cushion that others are not.” The new mothers who were not so lucky were disproportionately low-income women.

Hoffman says low-income women face structural barriers beyond their individual control. They frequently work two or three part-time jobs that have a high turnover rate, even when they are pregnant. Employers often don’t see them as deserving of benefits, Hoffman says, and many times the women don’t see themselves as entitled to ask for them. “I asked one woman, ‘Did your employer have any kind of benefits available to you when you had a kid? Was there any parental leave?’” Hoffman recalls. “She looked at me blank faced, like, why would anyone pay me not to work?” In place of the nesting period enjoyed by professional women as they prepare to welcome a child, low-income mothers often leave their jobs late in their pregnancies and enter a period of heightened economic and social instability at exactly the moment when their responsibilities increase.

The Mother of Invention

We expect low-income mothers to conform to middle-class motherhood ideals, but are not always sensitive to the barriers that keep them from being able to. “Take breastfeeding,” Hoffman says. “All the experts seem to agree that ‘breast is best.’ So why won’t women just do it?

“A middle-class mom talks about running out for work in the morning with her pump and her ice pack and her cooler and her briefcase and change of clothes. Or about pumping while driving to work on the expressway,” Hoffman continues. “That is hard enough to do when you have a car. If you’re trying to catch a bus to work, it’s just not feasible.”

Breastfeeding is a challenge for all working mothers, but the structural barriers that make low-income mothers unlucky also make it hard for them to meet such middle-class standards of good parenting. However, the barriers don’t stop people from judging them if they simply can’t. “We still say that if you’re a good parent you would breastfeed,” Hoffman says. “If you’re a good parent, you would not put the TV on for your kid. If we understand some of the barriers these women face, we might have more grace or understanding for parents who can’t meet those expectations.”

Hoffman says these judgments are also commonly coupled with the ideals of self-reliance that neglect the built-in privileges of class. “People say, ‘You chose to have a kid, so it’s up to you if you can’t afford it,’” she says, “or, ‘If you can’t emotionally handle it, then you shouldn’t have become a parent.’” Inevitably, we put the blame on women, rather than the social structures that create these challenges.

Hoffman wonders if the prevalence of post-partum depression (PPD), to which all new mothers are vulnerable, isn’t indicative of a structural barrier that affects all American mothers. “Is it just that American women today are more prone to depression, or might it be that there are systemic factors that leave women feeling isolated and stressed out? Do they have to return to work too soon? I don’t know that there is a single cause or definition, but PPD’s preponderance suggests the causes might be beyond the individual.”

These are the kinds of questions that drive Hoffman’s research. Her joint degree allows her to study and think about these issues through multiple lenses. “I was interested in research as a way to understand the social world better, but I wasn’t interested in building a career in the ivory tower,” Hoffman says. “I want my research to have a tangible effect on the community it comes from.”

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Illustrations by Julia Lubas