What do we know about how Amy Coney Barrett—judge, mother of seven, and nominee for a seat on the Supreme Court—juggles child care and work? Barrett has said she and her husband have alternated periods of time when they step back from work to care for family and that he has taken on more of the load since she became a judge. (But he still has a job, as a trial lawyer, so he probably isn’t doing everything … seven kids under 20 is so many kids!) She has also mentioned care provided by her husband’s aunt. (But still, seven kids! And how do they keep that nice, big, beautiful house clean?)
On Saturday, writer Vanessa Grigoriadis posed some of these questions in an (admittedly flippant) Twitter thread, and a fight ensued: “I guess one of the things I don’t understand about Amy [Coney] Barrett is how a potential Supreme Court justice can also be a loving, present mom to seven kids? Is this like the Kardashians stuffing nannies in the closet and pretending they’ve drawn their own baths for their kids[?]” Grigoriadis got ratio’d, then linked to in multiple op-eds (coming from the right and the center-left) calling these kinds of questions anti-feminist. “No one would question a father of seven being selected,” ran a typical tweet sent in reply to her.
The framing of this conversation is deeply frustrating. Like Grigoriadis, and like any parent who’s being at all honest with themselves, I don’t understand how a mother of seven could possibly have enough hours in the day to excel at a demanding job and maintain such a big family. But I have also read, in stories about Barrett’s life in South Bend, Indiana, that she goes to a CrossFit-type gym and is known for being very good at pullups. I can’t do a pullup to save my life—couldn’t, even during the pre-pandemic time when I did CrossFit every weekday morning—and I don’t understand how she does that, either. It’s clear that Amy Coney Barrett is able to do pullups, her job, and the work of raising seven kids all at the same time. (It also seems quite likely that she and her husband pay at least one person to help out with their kids and their big, beautiful house—but I digress.) But I refuse to take Barrett’s ability to do all these things as signifying anything for American women and their lives.
It would be fine if we wanted to admire her for these accomplishments, full stop. But looking at the way conservative women, interviewed by Ruth Graham for a piece in the New York Times, describe their feelings about Barrett, it’s clear many people see her as an example—somebody whose life proves something bigger about the capacities of American women writ large. “She shows that it’s possible for a woman to rise to the top of her profession while having many children,” one such fan said. “She’s someone who is challenging a mainstream consensus that there’s a certain way that women need to live their lives in order to succeed,” said another, who, at 30, just finished a Ph.D. and has two young kids.
And in Politico, anti-abortion legal scholar Erika Bachiochi—also, by the way, the mother of seven children—hailed Barrett’s nomination as a turning point in feminist discourse over abortion. To Bachiochi, Barrett’s success story shows that a redoubled fatherly commitment to family life, rather than access to reproductive health care, is the answer to women’s problems. This sounds beautiful, but the mechanism by which men who—unlike Barrett’s husband—prove reluctant to step up might be forced to “meet women at a high standard of mutual responsibility, reciprocity and care” remains unclear.
All this talk, presented as feminist, isn’t simple “inspiration.” It’s a trap. Barrett’s success, as Graham reports, is already getting used as “proof” that women don’t need access to abortion—that women can dig deep when they need to, and succeed even with kids in tow. One woman Graham interviewed used an idiom: “Women are strong enough to walk and chew gum at the same time.” This is a saying I also saw deployed in critical replies to Grigoriadis’ tweet. (“Just because YOU couldn’t do it doesn’t mean others can’t either,” wrote former baseball player Curt Schilling; thank you so much, Curt Schilling.) But we are not talking about two trivial activities here when we talk about working and raising kids. And we obviously do not have the full picture when it comes to Barrett’s child care situation, or her marital dynamic, or the other forces in her life aside from sheer grit that have helped make this balancing act possible. So it’s ridiculous to pretend that Barrett’s work-life equilibrium can be applied in some one-size-fits-all way as an aspirational model for womankind.
Rather than trading anecdotes of “strong women” back and forth, we should look for concrete ways to support those who cannot, metaphorically speaking, do the pullups. In 2020, many mothers have been asked to take on burdens that are absolutely unsustainable and are losing economic ground while doing it. Even in Normal Times, mothers’ situations vary widely. There are mothers who chose the wrong spouse and have no support from them, who didn’t have much money to begin with and have had less since they had kids, who are managing chronic illness and can only do the minimum, who cannot afford child care, who have no family nearby, or family they trust, to help.
Even when you “dig deep” inside yourself, as is every American’s solemn patriotic duty to do, sometimes too much is simply too much. Contrary to all our cultural belief in individuals’ abilities to make good choices and work their way out of problems, any random stretch of bad luck (an illness, a lost job) could make a “strong” mother into a “weak” one. That’s why mothers need the kinds of social support—including access to abortion care that helps them keep their family at a size that they think they can handle—that Amy Coney Barrett would take away.