Jordan Peterson. Photo: Adam Jacobs via Wikimedia
Backstage at a recent political event, a young professional woman leaned in and asked me if I had heard that Jordan Peterson was coming to town. “I already bought my ticket,” she whispered excitedly. Just days before, another young mom friend, a stay-at-home mom, told me she couldn’t figure out which of Peterson’s books to buy first. Yet another young mom friend shares on Facebook seemingly every story that bears Peterson’s name.
While Canadian professor and YouTube sensation Jordan Peterson is often framed as a media “messiah” to young men, if my own experience is any indication, he’s also got quite a cult following among young, professional moms.
Why are 30-something moms so into a man who admonishes college men to clean up their dorm rooms? Perhaps it’s because Peterson actually has quite a bit to say about modern womanhood—and motherhood in particular.
It was with great intrigue that I clicked the play button on Peterson’s video “Women at 30” when it came across my computer screen while I was cleaning the kitchen during my children's naptime. I’m in my thirties, and it doesn’t take a Ph.D. to know that talking about 30-something women is a minefield of singular rhetorical danger. And Peterson is not known for treading lightly, which is why the opening of the video was unexpected.
“How do we revive the good mother archetype?” Peterson asks his listeners, going on to make a point I frequently make when speaking to young women. “Young women in our society,” he complains, are not “told the truth about what their lives are likely to be like.” I’ve long argued that college does absolutely nothing to prepare young women to think about anything beyond their career interests, including how to gel those interests with what for most women will become an interest in marriage and children that is likely to come quicker than they anticipate.
Likewise, Peterson argues that modern women are told by society “implicitly and explicitly that their primary interest will be the pursuit of a dynamic career.” In reality, he says, most people don’t have a dynamic career. Instead, they are likely to have a “job,” and one that is “job-like,” in that it is mundane and hardly exciting in the day-to-day. Women, especially, experience a crisis in their early thirties, he argues, as their interest in marriage and motherhood begins to compete with their career interests, even if they are lucky enough to have a dynamic professional life.
He goes to talk about countless female clients, who, despite having achieved pinnacles in their careers, opt to pull back and focus on their families:
My experience has been, overhelmingly, that high caliber women decide in their thirties that relationship and family [are] the most important things in their life. And I think the fact that major law firms, for example, have a really difficult time holding on to their high-performing women, even though they bend over backward to do that, is actually an indication of exactly that.
His point is a fascinating one. Law firms attract and hire top female talent, but a major factor that contributes to what makes a woman a high-quality hire is also often what drives her to eventually leave: her conscientious focus on all things, especially relationships. Peterson essentially expands what it means to be a “high caliber” worker beyond sheer industriousness. When it comes to nurturing relationships, both in the workplace and in the family, would anyone argue that women outperform men?
This is a beautiful concept if we can rethink what work means in the first place. Leon Kass once put it well in a speech to the American Enterprise Institute: “We human beings are at work not only when we are occupationally working,” Kass said. “We are also deeply at work in the activities of love and friendship, and especially when we are actively engaged in family life, the domain of private life in which Americans find the most meaning.
But our modern society appreciates work with a monetary value above all else at a great cost to the value of the work of parenthood. This even manifests in the silly way some economists have tried to place a salary figure on the priceless work of a mother. “Why Stay-at-Home Moms Should Earn a $115,000 Salary,” says a headline in Forbes. Our ability to understand the contribution of mothers these days seems only to come when broken down into hourly parts.
The problem is, as eventually-fired Harvard president Larry Summers once infamously pointed out, our economy is oriented such that those who can or are willing to log the most hours in the workforce are the ones who will always get ahead. Everyone else is measured against them. Jordan Peterson, in a different lecture, calls this reality the “dominant power structure.” Summers calls it the “high-powered job hypothesis.” And the simple reality, as Pew has shown year in and year out, is that men are typically more willing to do the work that it takes to get to the top of the heap of our current “power structure.” As Summers put it:
there are many professions and many activities, and the most prestigious activities in our society expect of people who are going to rise to leadership positions in their forties near total commitments to their work. They expect a large number of hours in the office, they expect a flexibility of schedules to respond to contingency, they expect a continuity of effort through the life cycle, and they expect—and this is harder to measure—but they expect that the mind is always working on the problems that are in the job, even when the job is not taking place. And it is a fact about our society that [this] is a level of commitment that a much higher fraction of married men have been historically prepared to make than of married women.
Summers goes on to argue that the challenge is how to re-think our economy such that being on the top does not involve basically giving up your personal life. And Peterson makes the same argument, pointing out that even men who slog the hours to get to the “top” make almost complete personal life sacrifices. They are the men who are never home, who have unhappy marriages, and who are deeply unsatisfied in other parts of their life, he argues.
As Peterson told his students in a videotaped lecture, everyone asks: “‘Why aren’t there more women in positions of power?’ Wrongquestion.”
The right question, he argues is: “Why are there any men at all that want those positions?”
Like his YouTube video about women at 30, Peterson begins this lecture by putting up an image of the maternal archetype on the projector: an image of the Virgin Mary. He goes on to admonish his students that society’s emphasis on professional work and power as ideals create for women, and even for most men, an inhuman dilemma.
Reclaiming respect for maternity is an essential project for modern society, Peterson says:
This image has to be held up as transcendent, and by that, I mean, it’s an image that’s got to be at the basis of a value structure insofar as there’s going to be human beings because there aren’t going to be any human beings without the infant and the mother. And so, if that’s not held up as an image of human value, then it all falls apart. It’s something our culture does extraordinarily badly.
Of our rampant devaluation of motherhood, which stems from our devaluation of the human work of the “private domain” as Leon Kass put it, Peterson says, “You can hardly diagnose a culture that is more pathological than that. It’s appalling.”
And so, while it feels a bit odd to have a middle-aged male YouTube sensation championing the cause of reviving our reverence for motherhood, we 30-something moms are happy to enjoy it.
Ashley E. McGuire is a Contributing Editor at the Institute for Family Studies. Her new book is Sex Scandal: The Drive to Abolish Male and Female (Regnery, 2017). This article is republished with permission from the Family Studies blog.