Social Inequality Means Insecurity for All

by Ana Villalobos

“I just don’t feel quite right in the world without at least one child next to me…I should be more confident and not need a child almost as a crutch.” For Gina Haley and dozens of other women I interviewed for my forthcoming book, Motherload: Making it Better in Insecure Times, the world feels scary, and motherhood makes it seem less scary. This makes sense for financially struggling single mothers for whom the mothering role is sometimes the only place to turn for a sense of security and self worth. But Gina is neither poor nor single.

The greater a society’s economic and relational volatility, the further the haves of that society have to fall, and the less we can assume “security” based on current circumstances, such as social class or marital status. We must increasingly include fears in our insecurity calculus. To manage that insecurity, many well-off and married mothers, just like poor single mothers, draw upon their children. They may favor a child’s hug over a partner’s as comfort when receiving bad news on the job market. Or they may keep children close not simply because mothers feel increasingly alone in protecting their children, but also to feel protected themselves.

As various forms of security evaporate in today’s world, our society lays more and more on mothers to make it all better for kids and mothers increasingly need those kids to make it all better for themselves. You can’t get fired from motherhood. Your child can’t divorce you. And that can sometimes make motherhood feel like the one guarantee left in an increasingly contingent, volatile, and economically unforgiving world.

Ana Villalobos is author of Motherload: Making It All Better in Insecure Times and Assistant Professor of Sociology at Brandeis University.