Fertility Strikes: Modern Motherhood And The De-Regulated Patriarchy



Women are free as individuals, but constrained as mothers, writes Petra Bueskens.

Social life has changed significantly over the last four decades. Women across the western world have entered the workforce en masse and, together with their partners, they have delayed (and in some cases eschewed) marriage and childbearing and they are having fewer children overall.

Women are initiating and experiencing more separations and divorces, and many more women are combining paid work with mothering.

Simultaneously, and as part of this process, there is a dissolution of the ‘hard’ social structures of modernity. The deregulation of the family brought about by individualisation means that marriage and child rearing have moved from being the centre and indeed purpose of life, to one (defining) stage, while more people are choosing to remain single and/or childless.

In the modern west, marriages are contracted on the basis of love and affinity and terminated according to these same criteria. Moreover, motherhood, that once seemingly immutable and natural function, is subject to choice, including where, when, how and with whom to have children (although, as some research shows, such choice is compromised by the inability of some women to find suitable partners, producing new categories of the ‘circumstantially childless’ and ‘socially infertile’).

What the social statistics show us is that couples (and single women) increasingly postpone first births and then compress their childbearing to one or two closely spaced children. Having children – or, as is increasingly likely, just one child – is now defined as a smaller part of life, much more of which is defined by being ‘childfree’.

Women’s individualisation is the key driver of these social changes as they have sought – both individually and collectively – to release themselves from the strictures of patriarchal family structures.

But has patriarchy disappeared? It is my contention that it has not. Instead it has become fluid like other contemporary social structures. In the ‘post-structural social’, patriarchy has become what I call ‘deregulated patriarchy’; women are not legally subordinated, as in the first age of modernity, rather women are normatively free and equal citizens; however, this freedom is now ‘extended’ to women in their caregiving capacities, and thus bearing and rearing children becomes women’s individual problem.

In other words, in late modernity, motherhood has become an individualised risk, the consequences of which can be seen in women’s interrupted employment histories and drastically reduced lifetime earnings. Where divorce is normal, such individualised responsibility for children is a source of profound injustice.

Again, this produces a complex picture of women’s collective situation; women are free and they are subordinated, it just depends on which phase of the life-course we are looking at (and which part of the ‘self’ we are examining). Moreover, such freedom – or lack thereof – is determined by the presence or absence of a child, and the presence or absence of a husband; something that is not the case for men.

Just as the obstacles to women’s freedom as ‘individuals’ are being swept away by modernity, so too is the economic security women have traditionally received as men’s dependents and the broader nexus of community and familial support within which women traditionally mothered.

Clearly the key social structures such as marriage, the family and the labour market have ‘de-regulated’; however, the lack of substantive policy initiatives that support mothers in the labour force – through adequate leave provisions, flexible hours, work from home and government contributions to superannuation – means women face economic compromises should they take ‘time out’ for even one child, let alone two or three, and great logistical difficulties ‘combining’ their paid and unpaid work.

Importantly, prioritising care over paid work has all but evaporated as a choice in neo-liberal economies, with their retracting welfare states and imperatives for all adults to be self-sufficient. What Ann Orloff calls a ‘farewell to maternalism’ defines the policy framework of most rich, western nations.

Free but not free

My key contention is that women are, with important intersectional differences, free as individuals and constrained as mothers and that these two apparently polar outcomes are mutually constitutive generating major paradoxes in women’s civil status in contemporary western societies.

Moreover, the deregulation of social structure and increasing individualisation reveals this sexual contract more clearly than ever before. That is, without the safety net of marriage, women’s compromised status as ‘individuals’ is exposed. In particular, when women have to compete in the labour market on the same terms as men (with wives) and/or childfree individuals, the otherwise repressed sexual contract is revealed.

The upshot is a pervasive feminisation of poverty in the advanced capitalist nations running alongside – and indeed related to – the increasing individualisation, or freedom of, women.

Not surprisingly, as the gendered wage gap has narrowed, the gap between mothers and (all) others has increased. Mothers are losing out in the neo-liberal economy, because they cannot earn full-time wages in the context of their (largely unshared) caregiving responsibilities; neither can they easily work within the inflexible ‘industrial time’ structures of most paid work (flexibility tends to correlate with more privileged, professional work).

One of the critical outcomes of the new sexual contract, then, is declining fertility as women increasingly calculate their options in a high divorce society with inhospitable workplace practices and unrenovated models of mothering. In effect, what we see is a ‘fertility strike’ in the West.

Underlying this strike, however, is a deeper point: motherhood constitutes an individualised risk in what I call ‘de-regulated patriarchy’ because the social contract still does not, as Carole Pateman contended 30 years ago, account for the fact that there are two kinds of individuals, male and female, with different corporeal (reproductive) capacities, and thus different relationships to society.

Unless or until the social contract can extend genuine freedom and equality to its maternal citizens, which means transforming motherhood from an individualised liability mandating unequal dependence into a recognised and remunerated social good, then we are stuck with pervasive and indeed increasing inequality.

It is in fact the individualisation of women that has exposed this problem by insisting that women are free and equal and reconstructing marriage as a soluble institution. Although it is clearly beneficial that women (and men) can leave destructive or abusive marriages, in the absence of economic alternatives to marriage for women who are mothers, we are left in a social and economic predicament.

As policy analysts in Australia have noted, women are encouraged to stay at home when they have young children through a combination of tax and family policies that reward male breadwinner families, generating a process of de-skilling and interrupted work histories. This, in turn, leaves many mothers vulnerable to poverty in the event of divorce, which now occurs in a third of all marriages and is predicted to increase to half or more in the coming decades.
It is women and their children who fill up the ranks of the poor in the advanced capitalist nations and this results directly from their caregiving responsibilities.

Although women in the advanced capitalist nations can more or less function as ‘individuals’ in their youth, once they marry and become mothers (still the majority preference), this equality is seriously eroded and a ‘new sexual contract’ emerges.

If we are tracing the contours of the social norm, then, it is clear that patriarchy is busy reproducing itself in the present generation. Variously defined as the ‘traditionalisation process’ or, more innocuously, ‘the gendered division of labour’, the transition from individual to mother is pivotal for understanding the new sexual contract.

The subjection women experience as mothers is not necessary or natural; it is a function of the old sexual contract which never granted a full place to ‘women as women’ in the first place. And it is on this unequal foundation that our modern liberal-democratic and capitalist societies have grown.

Women as individuals, not women

The early exclusions of women from the social contract on the grounds of their sexual, reproductive and caregiving capacities are critical to the dilemmas contemporary women face.

As it stands, women can participate ‘as men’ – or, in the words of social contract doctrine, as ‘individuals’ – but not ‘as women’, to use Pateman’s insightful, yet routinely misconstrued, formulation.

This is why women without children are making the greatest strides in careers and in closing the pay gap. Hakim shows that work-centred women (who are much more likely to be unmarried and/or childless) earn 30 percent more than their peers with children. Although still dealing with gender discrimination, childless women are able to meet ideal worker norms and reduce the conflict routinely experienced by women who are mothers of dependent children.

Taking a longitudinal approach, which considers the significant changes in women’s work and family life across the lifecycle, enables us to track this transition with greater clarity than cross-sectional studies.

It also requires a dialectical method moving between social theory and empirical research, since both have important contributions to make in grasping the complexity of contemporary women’s situation.

Importantly, women are normatively free individuals in contemporary western societies as both ‘grand’ social theorists and lay commentators contend, with historically unprecedented choices in personal and professional life; however, this position becomes increasingly difficult for even privileged women to sustain as they enter their 30s, become mothers and typically withdraw or substantially reduce their labour market participation, generating unequal dependence on marriage, in turn reducing women’s bargaining power in the home and at work.

These are mutually reinforcing problems for the simple reason that the gender system is organised around the ‘complementary’ – although for women who are working mothers conflictual – relationship between family work and market work.

Gendered labour division

Integral to the mechanics of the new sexual contract, then, is the gendered division of labour. Although this division is old, what is new is that it now runs alongside, and in fact underscores, increasing individualisation. Women continue to undertake the vast majority of childcare and domestic work despite the new dis-embedding of structure from agency.

Indeed, the more individualised everybody (else) becomes, the more work is left to women who are wives and mothers; specifically: care of households, husbands, children, grandchildren, ill family members and aging parents.

In sharp contrast to their early adult years, women in their middle and later adult years bear a disproportionately large ‘care load’ that bears a direct relationship to the contraction of extended family and community in the rest of society.

Moreover, with the exception of the Nordic countries, social policies typically reinforce male breadwinner/female nurturer families (through failing to provide adequate paid maternity leave, affordable childcare, workplace flexibility, and imposing heavy taxes on double income families etc.).

Lastly, men’s resistance to sharing child care and domestic labour, combined with their higher earning power, typically obstructs a shared division of family work. As Linda Hirshman, insists, this is the primary reason for the so-called ‘glass ceiling’ at work.

Women’s performance at work and their structural position in the labour market are inextricably tied up with their roles in the home, a phenomenon that cuts across class and occupation categories and thus reconstitutes women as a sex class notwithstanding the apparent ‘demise’ of social structure.

This reality is however very complex; as Catherine Hakim’s research also shows, women’s partial (and sometimes total) withdrawal from the workforce when they become mothers is largely in keeping with their preferences.

If we step back from the consequences of these preferences for one moment and take seriously what women say, then a central message to emerge from Hakim’s research is that male models of work are not working for (most) women. If caring for children in combination with part-time work is what most women want then clearly women are not going to be able to ‘have it all’ given the present structure of paid work.

Hard choices’ still exist for the majority of women between children and careers or, less obviously, between careers and jobs.

As Hirshman found in her study of elite women, many were still working after they became mothers, however not in their chosen field. Nor are women able to independently run households on the kinds of salaries that part-time work, even part-time professional work at the higher levels, pays.

Again, this generates asymmetrical gender dependence inside marriage and inequality in the workforce as well as in society at large.

Marry or pay for it

This leaves us with an unsavoury conclusion: in the current social order, specifically in the ‘post-structural social’ that is said to free the individual from structure, and where women are said to have transcended the constraints of patriarchy, women who exercise their procreative capacities and become mothers – which is still the overwhelming majority of women – have to be married or else face severe economic discrimination.

It is this imperative that forecloses gender equality and the capacity to negotiate fairly with partners. Importantly, one must be free to leave a relationship in order to freely be in it, let alone to ‘renovate’ it.

As the 19th century feminists were at pains to point out in their fight against coverture, these facts stand separately from the question of love and arguably provide love with its proper foundation: freedom rather than necessity.

Many women are married to men they freely chose to be with and whom they love, and these men may be good and kind men who economically provide and, to a lesser extent, share household and childrearing duties, but this does not alter the fundamental structural reality that their wives (or partners) couldn’t live adequately without them.

Such asymmetrical economic dependence is neither anomalous nor random but the normal situation for the vast majority of women (after motherhood), which casts a long shadow on the paradigm of freedom and equality that prevails in the modern west.

Even Hakim, who trumps women’s ‘free choice’ in the ‘new scenario’ puts in the disclaimer that women’s choices are not evident until they have secured for themselves a ‘breadwinner spouse’.

It seems problematic, to say the least, if women’s ‘free choice’ remains contingent upon the now unstable institution of marriage or its common law alternative of civil union. Moreover, this inadvertently reveals the considerable difficulties unmarried, never married and/or divorced women have exercising their preferences.

The discourse of choice has trumped the analysis of social structure much to the chagrin of feminists. However, the critical problem with the new sexual contract lies not in the ‘choices’ women make to work less or ‘opt out’, but rather in the long-term consequences of these choices.

It is the fact that society – including its key institutions of government, the labour market and the family – has failed to provide a satisfactory support structure for women as individuals who (choose to) give birth and rear children; that is, who choose to become mothers in societies that are institutionally organised around this category.

Marriage provided – and continues to provide – an economic safety net for women as members of families, but not as individuals.

To rely exclusively on marriage as a support structure for mothers is inconsistent with the ethic of equality on which liberal democracies are ostensibly based, in turn, generating a structure of subordination based on natural difference.

If all men and women are created equal, then the new social contract will have to renovate the sexual contract such that the reproduction of the species is, if not rewarded, then at the very least no longer punished.

* This is a revised, edited and abridged section of Petra Bueskens’ new book Modern Motherhood and Women’s Dual Selves: Rewriting the Sexual Contract.


Dr Petra Bueskens is an Honorary Fellow in the School of Social and Political Sciences at the University of Melbourne, a psychotherapist in private practice, and a freelance opinion writer. Her books include Modern Motherhood and Women’s Dual Identities: Rewriting the Sexual Contract (Routledge 2018), the edited volume Motherhood and Psychoanalysis: Clinical, Sociological and Feminist Perspectives (Demeter, 2014), and two forthcoming edited volumes Nancy Chodorow: The Reproduction of Mothering: Forty Years On with Tanya Cassidy and Australian Mothering: Historical and Sociological Perspectives with Carla Pascoe Leahy (Palgrave, 2019). Her opinion pieces have appeared in New Matilda, The Conversation, The Huffington Post, Arena Magazine and more.