Ketanji Brown Jackson not only becomes the first Black woman on the Supreme Court, a historic and momentous event, but her role as a mother was also on full display. The Supreme Court will again have two working mothers on the Supreme Court. Judge Jackson spoke of being a parent during her opening statement and Senator Booker later followed up with a question. Judge Jackson spoke to the reality and humanity of her experience as a mother, and her comments recognized a great truth for all working mothers.
Ketanji Brown Jackson admitted that she “didn’t always get the balance right” and had to miss recitals and birthdays for unavoidable hearings and emergencies. She acknowledged what working mothers in America already know to be true — it is nearly impossible to juggle motherhood and a career.
The reality acknowledged by Judge Jackson resonates with observations from months in the homes of successful working parents. The working parents in my book with Melissa Mazmanian were all committed to their jobs and their children. But the logistics of their lives were relentless. Most of them were exhausted and overwhelmed. They struggled to get work done, and it often required early mornings and late nights.
Ketanji Brown Jackson’s comments encourages us to push back on two mythologies: an Ideal Worker, completely dedicated to one’s work, and a Perfect Parent, completely dedicated to one’s children. These are powerful beliefs to which many of us aspire, but they are impossible to achieve. Judge Jackson said she hopes her kids will learn that you don’t have to be perfect to accomplish what you want in life — as parents or as workers. We hope all Americans hear her response. No one really does it all, all the time — there are choices, sacrifices, and regrets. It is not possible and not necessary.
Another truth is that no one achieves their dreams alone, especially not working moms. We need a lot of help.
The confirmation hearings of both Judge Jackson hid the scaffolding — the structures of support that have enabled Ketanji Brown Jackson to succeed at work and at home. Justice Amy Coney Barrett’s confirmation hearings were similarly silent on the help that working mothers need. Of course, we have fathers on the Supreme Court as well, but often mothers are providing that scaffolding for them. Sadly, the reverse is rarely true. Men continue to do less caregiving and household work than women. Even with all that parents do, it is rarely enough. Both men and women rely on an array of scaffolding: spouses, extended family, babysitters, housekeepers, neighbors, other parents, day-care centers, and schools. This is what it takes to work, raise children, and run a home.
We all watched scaffolding evaporate during the pandemic. Schools and day-cares closed (or went virtual). Caregivers and grandparents stayed home. Women shouldered primary caregiving and household responsibilities, and this loss of scaffolding was a big reason why women left the workforce and reduced their hours during the pandemic. The numbers were staggering. We need to recognize that these are often not “choices” that women make, but realities they are forced in to — when parenting, work, and managing the home front become unsustainable.
It is time to recognize the necessity of scaffolding. All the families in our book rely on support from outside the home. They are not unique. Senator Elizabeth Warren talks about her Aunt Bee who came to live with her when she was struggling to raise two young kids early in her career. President and First Lady Obama had Michelle’s mother, Marian Robinson, move into the White House to help with their children. Judge Barrett and her husband rely on “friends and fearless babysitters” and her husband’s aunt to help with childcare. Judge Jackson undoubtedly has developed her own structure of scaffolding. But most Americans don’t have the resources of these accomplished women to help scaffold their complex daily lives.
Judge Jackson acknowledged a bit of the struggle, the angst, the problems, of working mothers everywhere. This recognition is both validating but also substantively important. If we don’t recognize the fact that juggling parenthood and a career is hard, that it takes help, we are saying to working moms across the country: why can’t you manage your time better? Instead, we ought to say to managers, this is why we need flexible schedules, family leave, and childcare support. We ought to say to legislators, this is why we need Universal Pre-K, Paid Parental Leave, or Universal Childcare. There is no mystery about why the pandemic eviscerated the careers of so many women… our employment policies, practices and laws put all working mothers behind the eight ball, even our most celebrated and honored jurists.
Let’s not hold up an individual mother as a paragon or a superhero. Like Judge Jackson, we don’t have to be perfect. And glossing over what it really takes to be a working parent means that working parents, and moms in particular, think they are at fault and that they should be able to do the impossible. The truth is that no one can work and raise children without help. We should do a lot more as a country — in our organizations and in our public policies — to recognize, value and build scaffolding for all working parents. That these policies have not yet been passed, despite the clarity of our reliance on them revealed by the pandemic, is a travesty. This help would go a long way to tackling the real challenges of working parents today. It shouldn’t feel like an impossible dream.