Jen, mother of two and a subject in photographer Alice Proujansky's "Working Mothers" series, pumps breast milk between meetings at her job in communications for a non-profit.
After President Obama's State of the Union address last month, mothers—especially working mothers—got some much needed attention. The POTUS talked about paid paternity leave, declared childcare a must-have and basically said it takes more than a village to raise a child—it takes sound government policy.
Until that happens (has it really not yet happened?), women in America have to do whatever it takes to keep career and family healthy and on track.
But what does that look like? Brooklyn-based photographer Alice Proujansky wants to know, too. In an on-going project about working mothers, Proujansky has documented since 2006 how women integrate their identities as workers and mothers. A mother of two now herself, she is especially interested in what about working motherhood is universal and what is dependent on family structure, income and the kind of work itself.
Mom.me talked to Proujansky about her Working Mothers project, some of which is featured throughout this piece. In the photos, Proujansky follows Jen, a working mom of two, through her second pregnancy, life with a newborn and the return to work.
When and why did you get started on the working mothers series?
I had done a birth project, and then I had a baby myself. As I was getting ready to go back to work, I became interested in that huge shift in identity that can come with motherhood. I had identified myself so strongly as photographer. Then I had a kid. There was this whole other side of my life. I started to wonder how these two identities conflicted and how they fed each other. So I looked around me and asked how other people are doing this. I wanted to photograph working mothers, ones who really care about their work. Most of them couldn't stay home even if they wanted to. But they also didn't want to.
Proujansky captures the moment after Jen gave birth to her son, Wiley. Proujansky followed Jen and her family through her pregnancy and birth, and her return to work.
What is it that you want to say or what questions are you asking?
I went into this project thinking it was one thing and then realized it's another. ... Clearly, our culture doesn't support working families. We have this weird relationship to care-taking—fantasies and ideals about what motherhood means. Everything about motherhood is bathed in a warm light. But this country doesn't offer any support. And we often talk in snide ways about stay-at-home moms, demanding to know, "Why are you complaining about this choice you made?" As if being a mother is a luxury rather than a human biological imperative. So I'm looking at the way the culture approaches this situation—whether it's giving birth or how we are feeding our families.
When you're working on this project, how are you thinking about the men and partners?
Men and partners do shape so much of the way this works. A lot of times I go into this situation where I think I'm going to photograph the men but end up focusing on the women. Women end up being the most interesting thing for me. The men really do obviously make or break these situations, in terms of whether they're working, too.
What's been surprising for you, doing this, speaking to these women?
One thing about the going-back-to-work quandary, whether it makes sense, is that so many of us women only look at our income, not our husband's or partner's. It should be that way. We both need to pay for childcare so that both of us can work. We should also be looking at what not working would cost the mom in future earnings. And whether she is going to be fulfilled staying home. We have to ask whether it's better off for our kids that we are working. And we often don't ever question the other partner.
The most surprising part is how universally difficult this conversation is. People say it's more expensive than state college—that's a huge worry. You'd think we'd have this figured out by now. It seems like such a no-brainer that it would be economically beneficial to everyone if we had some sort of support for more of us. I mean, who's taking care of the nanny's kids?
One other surprise is how childcare is such a huge worry for women across the economic spectrum. Successful women are struggling with the working mother identity question. Men are not. It seems like mothers are struggling more with this core identity question.
Women experience parenthood in ways that men don't, Proujansky says, asking themselves whether and how to integrate their separate identities as worker and mother.
Talk to me about motherhood and creativity. You and (reporter and collaborator) Alissa Quart both mention that you're mothers, that you see where you are in this childcare chain. The fact that you're mothers seems to be tightly connected to your work.
Allisa and I met because I got an assignment for a piece that she'd written. We ended up collaborating a lot. (Including on The End of the Middle, a multimedia project on American middle class income inequality.)
When I was younger, before I had kids, I felt guilty not going off to photograph conflict halfway across the world. After kids, I realized that I have these interests that I really care about, and that this is a really valid thing to make. Yes, these are women's issues. But that shouldn't denigrate it—that doesn't make it less valuable than other photojournalists' work that I really admire.
Also, this thing that I'm passionate about has connected me with other people. I had been worried about telling people I was pregnant, but what I found was that pregnancy opened them up to me.
Having kids made it way better, too. When my son is in daycare, I know I need to be working. The clock is ticking, and I need to get stuff done.
Mothering is a very creative experience. My son is 2.5, and I'm guiding him through having this newborn sister. That alone pushes my creativity. I'm constantly having to improvise, I have to see things through someone else's eyes. And I'm realizing how connected these parts of my life are: if I have a bad day at work, maybe I can't visually get there on a shoot, I can't carry that into a night. Each side—work, parenting—takes a little pressure off the other one.
Proujansky writes of Jen in her series "Working Mothers," "She was glad to be back working on a cause she cares deeply about, but felt the pressure to get a long list of tasks done in the two days her baby is at daycare each week, and wondering if she could ever feel she was doing enough for her children and job." Familiar words for many women who have to—or choose to— work outside the home.
I think there's this impression that motherhood quashes creativity and drive. But it's obvious from your series, from the work itself, it does not. Talk about that. Why do we think motherhood takes and never gives?
Motherhood is interesting to me, and it's fulfilling and it feels really good to do it. To look at something from the point of view of a mother, to feel full and content and bring my fullest when I'm working and making work I care about, I feel much more content and fulfilled. It's good for my family; it's good to be making work.
That said, we have such a long way to go. I hope my work can be part of that conversation that gets us there.