The Supreme Mom Guilt Is Real: Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson and Motherhood

The struggles of employed motherhood in a society not built to support mothers has been documented time and again. But, in many ways, what Ketanji Brown Jackson expressed during her hearings is unique to Black women.

Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson on March 22—day two of the Senate Judiciary Committee confirmation hearings on her nomination to become an associate justice of the U.S. Supreme Court. (Jim Watson / AFP via Getty Images)

On day one of her historic confirmation hearings, Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson saved a “special moment” to address her two daughters directly: “Girls, I know it has not been easy as I have tried to navigate the challenges of juggling my career and motherhood. And I fully admit that I did not always get the balance right.” What many may have seen as a charming moment between her and her daughters, for every employed mother in the world, it was maybe more bitter than sweet.

Imagine being at the pinnacle of your career, writing a speech that would be heard by millions—but, at the same time, apologizing to your daughters, for whom you wished you’d done more. Like many other employed moms, I could imagine just that.

The struggles of employed motherhood in a society that is not built to support mothers (formal wage-earners or stay-at-home moms) has been documented time and again. But, in many ways, what Jackson was expressing is unique to Black women. Black women have historically been more likely to be a part of the workforce than their white counterparts. Black women and other women are color are also more likely to do work that supports white women’s ability to work outside the home, such as caregiving and housecleaning. And, for many Black women, they are the “only” of both their gender and race at work, putting even more pressure on them in already complicated work settings where they regularly face microaggressions, harassment or blatant misogynoir—the toxic, combined discrimination against Black females.

Yet Jackson bravely put her motherhood front and center. She spoke directly to her two daughters, apologizing for whatever mistakes she certainly has made. (Who hasn’t made mistakes?) But for Black mothers who are too often judged by a different standard, this is a true act of heroism. Without a doubt, Jackson has faced racism in her life and career, and she’s no doubt faced the vitriol reserved exclusively for Black mothers in this country that have led to laws and policies designed to regulate them.

As a former public defender who has likely represented hundreds of Black mothers and had even more come before her as a judge, Jackson is likely sensitive to the plight of her less fortunate sisters.   

The child welfare system that many refer to as the “family regulation system” has been described as the New Jane Crow because their parenting choices have led to legal action by the state. Black mothers, particularly if they are low-income, are most likely to encounter child welfare system involvement because of stereotypes and judgment. Similar choices such as recreational marijuana use are treated very differently by state actors.

In addition, systemic problems like access to childcare and affordable housing are treated as individual failings for which parents should be punished. Of course, most of this is directed at low-income, single mothers and there is no indication that Jackson has personally been system-involved. But as a former public defender who has likely represented hundreds of Black mothers and had even more come before her as a judge, she is likely sensitive to the plight of her less fortunate sisters.  

All mothers feel pressure to be perfect and the judgment that they face is real, but Black mothers face a microscope unlike no other, particularly when compared to the upper-middle class white version of Pinterest and Etsy-fueled parenting. In the midst of an exercise designed to scrutinize her and her life, despite her perfect resume, she highlighted her perceived imperfection as a parent. But perhaps there is no better evidence to the contrary than from her own children. 

When she was 11, Jackson’s daughter Leila famously wrote to President Obama asking him to consider her mother as a replacement for Justice Scalia after he passed because she “would make a great Supreme Court Justice, even if the workload will be larger….”

I concur, Leila.

Editor’s note: This article was edited on Friday, Mar. 25, 2022, at 9:20 a.m. PT. A previous version of this article used the incorrect term “working moms,” rather than “employed” or “wage-earning.”

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Shanta Trivedi is an assistant professor of law and faculty director of the Sayra and Neil Meyerhoff Center for Families, Children and the Courts (CFCC) at the University of Baltimore School of Law. She previously represented parents in Brooklyn who are embroiled in the child welfare system and as a result of that experience writes about state-sanctioned family separation focusing on issues related to race, poverty and gender.