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Must working moms wear capes?

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Must working moms wear capes?
Photo courtesy of https://pixabay.com/illustrations/mom-vector-figure-super-mom-png-2010524/

The night is full of loud music: the trill of a guitar, piano, cello, and violin, pound against the theatre walls. It would be suffocating if it weren’t so exhilarating. It’s a moment of music people travel hundreds of miles to hear, a moment of music countless people dream of getting the chance to be a part of: Broadway. The cast of Hadestown dances up and down the stage, lights swing around them, with stagehands pulling the strings to share the newest retelling of the Greek myth of Orpheus and Eurydice.

Amber Gray puts her whole body into her performance as she creates the character of Persephone—a Persephone which would undoubtedly leave Greek historians’ jaws agape. Soon, the loudness of the stage turns to a muffle as the music fades out and the stage turns to black. The actors scurry off the sides into their dressing rooms, while patrons and avid theatre-lovers pay exorbitant amounts for a pack of M&Ms and red flower pins. Gray enters her dressing room for intermission, and quickly attaches two small breast pumps to her chest. She begins her daily intermission routine of pumping breast milk while reapplying her makeup.  With only a quick fifteen-minute intermission, these moments to pump are essential and private—but today, professional photographer Emilio Madrid is here to capture the details of the Hadestown performances. Gray stands looking at herself in the mirror, her hand full of makeup brushes, a mic pack on her hips, and a breast pump hanging from each of her breasts. The camera clicks.


The conference hall is filled with a music of its own making: a bustling of science educators, communicators, and researchers making their way to different presentations, sharing conversation in the halls. It’s a moment of community; there’s new research to be shared, new technologies to be presented, new people to be met, and new inspiration to be found. This is a moment for established and budding science professionals to grow their careers, advance their knowledge, and share their work. But there’s one science professional who, in her quest for a quiet and relaxed space away from the noise, can be found in the ladies bathroom.

Rebecca Calisi sits in the public bathroom, balancing her laptop on her knees as she sits on the toilet.  The flush of toilets and the swish of water in the sinks is hardly a welcome or relaxing space, but it is certainly more private than hall outside. Calisi sits making last-minute edits to her presentation while she pumps milk through her breast pump. Her session is meant to start in ten minutes, and she wills herself to pump more milk, so it comes out here rather than on stage at her talk. Her c-section incision still marks her stomach, and it causes her a moment of pain, leaving her to wonder if it’s infected. She cleans up the uncomfortable home she’s made in the bathroom stall and struggles to wash her breast pump under the small sink. With her laptop case, conference bag, and cooler of breast milk, she races to her presentation.


Women across America wake up every day and do vastly different jobs. The fields of STEM and the performing arts may be as diametrically opposed as two professions can get: those in STEM go to work in labs, in offices, and in the field, whereas performing artists go to work on stages, in theatres, and in studios. Yet, mothers exist within each of these careers and all jobs in between. So why do those with vastly different careers face such similar issues when it comes to being working moms?

The American government itself provides little support for new and working mothers. With strict requirements about how long one’s been working, where they work, who they work for, and so on, the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA)—the only federal government protection for pregnant women—provides few and limited options for maternity leave.  Mothers who intend to continue their careers are often forced to decide: should they put their children into daycare at barely a few months old, or should they quit their jobs and hope they’ll be able to pick up where they left off a few years down the road? For many women who are looking to continue moving up in their careers, the latter is not an option; and for women who do not qualify for FMLA leave, the choice to return to work could hardly be called a choice.

Melissa Dowd was working as an adjunct professor at Northampton Community College and searching for a job during her first pregnancy.  Since she had not worked anywhere long enough to qualify for FMLA leave, she had to pay another professor to cover her classes in order to take any time off after giving birth. With a child to support, the cost of this ‘leave’ was too much for Dowd and her husband to sustain. “So, I had my c-section on Thursday, and I went back to teaching on Wednesday,” said Dowd who now teaches biology at Muhlenberg College.  “It was really, really hard.” 

As a woman in science, being pregnant at work and returning to work so soon after giving birth came with its own unique set of challenges for Dowd. Suddenly, tasks that had been routine became challenging, such as spending three hours standing up during a lab or doing a dissection, which triggered morning sickness.  While both Dowd and Calisi were able to continue working in the STEM field—albeit with difficulty—after having their children, many women are instead forced out of the discipline itself. A study published in 2019 showed that 43% of women stop working in full-time STEM jobs after their first child.  “There’s a lot of initiatives nowadays to bring women into STEM fields, but there are not a lot of initiatives to keep women into STEM fields,” said Lauren O’Connell, Assistant Professor of Biology at Stanford University, in a video blog.  O’Connell is one of the forty-six mothers who signed a statement founded by Calisi calling on the STEM field and community to provide the resources, coined “CARE,” that mothers in the sciences need.

Unfortunately, these difficulties do not end for women in STEM fields once they give birth. Many working mothers face discrimination simply due to the fact that they have a child. Because of this, many women in the sciences attempt to hide the fact that they are mothers to avoid being seen as not dedicated enough or being passed up for a promotion. “You have to pretend that your kids don’t exist. There’s a sense that I can’t ever…fall behind or fail because I don’t want somebody thinking it’s because I’m a mom,” said Dowd.  Many women in STEM don’t have a space to discuss motherhood and feel the need to work as if “mother” is not a core aspect of their identity. “Women who deign to pursue a career and have a family are often sentenced to the expectations that we must work as if family did not exist,” said Calisi in an op-ed she wrote for Scientific American.  Not only do these women not have the support they need to care for their children and participate in the workforce without stretching themselves too thin, but they face the added burden of suppressing a part of who they are for fear of it harming their career or perception of their dedication to their work.

Still, this lack of support for mothers is not a problem specific to just STEM—it reaches as far as the spectrum of careers go. Women in the performing arts face different, yet no less difficult, troubles with motherhood in their careers as well. An alarmingly similar experience for many mothers in America is the lack of maternity leave. “I literally took a week [after giving birth], and then went to work,” said Pattie Bostick-Winn, an adjunct professor of dance in ballet and jazz at Muhlenberg.  Just like Dowd, she was an adjunct who did not qualify for FMLA leave, meaning she had to pay another teacher her salary for every day of work she missed. Because of this, along with her passion for staying fit, Bostick-Winn taught dance through her entire pregnancy. “I taught until 9 p.m. the night before [my son] was induced,” Bostick-Winn recounted. “In the arts in general, we don’t get a maternity leave.”

For women in the performing arts, there’s a large amount of ambiguity about the support they may receive when pregnant. The performing arts field is one of the only professions where it is allowable to hire based on body type due to the need for performers who look a certain way.  Some creative teams are willing to provide the support necessary for mothers, such as the all-female creative team of Hadestown—only the second Broadway show to ever have a fully-female team.  “That support is very, very rare,” said Gray in an interview about her experience with Hadestown.  “I’ve had a lot of girlfriends get fired for way less because there’s legal language, ‘must always be able to fit the costume,’ right in the contract.” Because of this, many performing artists fear losing their jobs or missing out on a casting opportunity because of their pregnancy.  “The long-standing advice to actresses about pregnancy has been secrecy and silence,” said performing artist Adriana Gaviria in her essay advocating for the work of The Parent Artists Advocacy League for the Performing Arts (PAAL).  PAAL has recognized the difficulty of being a caregiver in the performing arts and works to provide support for caregivers where it is currently lacking in the arts.

Although performing mothers are often working throughout or hiding their pregnancies, the constraints of the job impact women post-pregnancy as well. “So much of the arts, it’s entertainment, so it’s not when everyone’s working,” said Bostick-Winn.  As the owner of her own dance studio, Bostick-Winn was very familiar with the night-time struggles of working in the performing arts. “I would pick my kids up from school or they would take the bus home, and as soon as they were settled here, I was off to go teach.”  Where other mothers are dropping their children off for a one-hour dance class as an after-school activity, those teachers are left spending hours away from their own children. Eventually, Bostick-Winn decided to sell her dance studio in favor of spending time with her family.

Working mothers in the performing arts like Gray and Bostick-Winn, and those in STEM like Calisi and Dowd, may seem to live largely different lives, where motherhood impacts their careers in very discipline-specific ways—but this could not be less true. Although each of these women faced their own specific struggles with pregnancy and motherhood, their experiences are more similar than one may expect. What drives this similarity? How could people in such different fields of work have such widely familiar experiences?

Working mothers are often championed as “superheroes”—the word “supermom” has even made it into the dictionary. But rarely are these mothers given the resources they need to take on all that being a “supermom” entails. In a country where men are more likely than ever to support the idea of women working, but still take on significantly less of the unpaid house work, it’s no surprise that working mothers in heterosexual marriages are left with larger loads.  But even despite all work mothers do, one study found that men are rewarded at work for having children, where women are penalized.  “I have been told that I’m not doing as good of a job because I am a mom,” said Dowd. “I think there’s just this different expectation for what fathers and mothers are meant to take on.”  This is certainly true when considering the COVID-19 pandemic, where studies have found that in heterosexual marriages, women have taken on more of the domestic and childcare work, despite the fact that both parents are home.

It’s clear that women can technically “do it all”—but should they have to struggle so much, physically, mentally, and emotionally, to sustain a career and a family? With initiatives and organizations like CARE and PAAL working to break down these barriers for working mothers, it’s true that many are fighting for more supportive environments for working moms. But how long will it take for them to be listened to?

“I want it to be better,” said Dowd. “It should not be this hard.” 

Photo courtesy of marsir86 from Pixabay

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