Hein Koh reminds working mothers that they can do it — but at what cost?
A photo went viral this year of artist Hein Koh, working while tandem breastfeeding her five-week-old twins. In it, she makes the point that kids don’t have to slow professional moms down.
I think Koh is a badass, and I’ve been in her shoes. But with all due respect, this argument isn’t helping anything.
“Despite the sleep deprivation and frequent (every 2-3 hours, 24-7, 45 min at a time) breastfeeding, I was still getting shit done,” she writes. Her photo and words are a response to the artist Marina Abramović, who once said that becoming a mother would have been a “disaster for her work.” She said in an interview, “In my opinion that’s the reason why women aren’t as successful as men in the art world. There’s plenty of talented women. Why do men take over the important positions? It’s simple. Love, family, children – a woman doesn’t want to sacrifice all of that.”
Abramović’s point is not very nuanced — it’s simplistic and insensitive — but is it wrong? In its essence, not really. But it’s not that women “don’t want to sacrifice” love, family and children to succeed. It’s that we have to. If we don’t sacrifice something, we spread ourselves so thin we’re ready to dissolve. Women go back to work in pain, because they haven’t had time to fully heal. The spend all of their income putting infants they’re not ready to be separated from in childcare. There is sacrifice, whether we acknowledge it or not. The earth is round, we don’t have to sign off on that fact for it to be true.
“Becoming a mom (of twins no less) has personally helped me become a better artist – I learned to be extremely efficient with my time, prioritize what’s important and let go of the rest, and multitask like a champ,” Koh writes. “I learned to function (even if barely) on very little sleep, and out of the chaos, insanity and even torture at times, a flood of new emotions entered into my work, becoming more interesting & layered as a result.”
“I learned to function (even if barely) on very little sleep…”
Koh makes a great point. Moms that can still function, with newborns, and kick ass at work are superhuman. But do we want to be superhuman? Fuck no. It’s necessary, because there is no support. If we want to continue in our careers, we can’t afford to stop, lest we be seen as less proficient or able. In order to keep the professional respect, we have to be Koh, juggling the most challenging job in the world (adjusting to raising infants) with juggling our careers.
“…out of the chaos, insanity and even torture at times, a flood of new emotions entered into my work.”
I get it. I was pitching stories from my hospital bed the day after I gave birth via c-section to my second child. I remember my editor at the time telling me how “amazing” I was. I didn’t want to be “amazing.” But as a freelance writer, I didn’t have a choice in the matter. If I didn’t work, I didn’t get paid. And I needed the money to survive.
The U.S. is the only industrialized nation without paid maternity leave. The only one. Mothers do not get the necessary support, so we’re left arguing with each other about whether it can be done — whether we can “have it all” — rather than turning our attention to the fact that this is bullshit.
“It’s ridiculous and myopic to take one’s personal experience and make a generalization out of it,” Koh tells Babble. “It’s unfortunate when women make these kinds of statements that only perpetuate existing stereotypes that hinder our progress.” Unfortunately, these aren’t stereotypes. All mothers need help, not just the ones who can afford part time nannies or have husbands to help shoulder the load. There has to be a sacrifice, it’s simple math. The idea that if you work hard enough, endure, and torture yourself, you too can become a successful working mom — yeah, that’s not helping anyone. We need real change.
The UK guarantees 39 weeks of paid leave for mothers, two of which are mandatory. Australia offers 18 weeks. Canada offers a year. In Sweden, parents are entitled to 480 days of paid parental leave. According to a Pew study, France, Germany, Hungary and Finland, offered a median of 13 months of protective leave for new mothers.
Koh says about working during new motherhood, “if you embrace it and figure out creative solutions, you can emerge a better person.” Or you can emerge exhausted, depressed, and wondering what the hell you’ve done to your life.
And those feelings are normal because what the fuck? Why can’t we get any help here? Billionaires get ridiculous tax breaks and the rest of us are drowning. The Family Medical Leave Act is hardly progress — it just ensures that there will be 12 weeks that your employer cannot fire you. It’s unpaid. Parenthood shouldn’t be something that only the rich can undertake, but we’re effectively endorsing that idea in our society with accepting no family leave or affordable childcare. That’s just embarrassing.
“I’m just trying to live my life, and I know I have limitations but I’m doing the best I can. People should just leave moms alone, and mind their own business,” Koh tells Babble.
I couldn’t agree less.
We should not mind our own business. Just because I’ve done it, or Koh’s done it — doesn’t mean it’s ideal, or even doable. My present job is a unicorn — I work from home with full benefits. I visit an office occasionally to meet with a group of professionals who respect my ideas and treat me like an equal. I also clawed my way through depression, years of frantic freelance work, and utter panic to get here. I feel like I’m failing my children every day because just the act of having them put us in such a precarious financial situation that we are always stressed about money.
But hey, I’m a successful working mom. Yay! I’m doing it!
We need reform. We need it now. The situation is dire, and just because some of us can handle it — that doesn’t really mean anything. We’re failing women and families and it’s unacceptable. An inspirational photo and a few hashtags isn’t going to change that — no matter how badass mom is.
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