Sunday, May 15, 2011

Mothers should work. Part II

Warning: this is very long. So long it might make Blogger crash again. I wanted to keep my last post, about expecting mothers to work, short. That didn't work. So I've expanded on it here. I make no promises to keep this one short. In fact I can't promise it will still be 2011 by the time you get to the end of today's musings. 

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I am not a mother, no, but believe I have the right to share a piece written by a mother (Leslie Cannold's 'Staying mum's a cop out' it's here: if you want the link again). And the right to stand by two basic ideas presented in that piece:

* That if we (feminists) want to share work at home, we should share in paid work.

* That work provides benefits for the worker.
Not work that doesn't fit around family needs - that's a recipe for disaster. Nor soul-destroying work - I do speak from experience when I say having a job you hate and which sucks the life from you provides very little benefit beyond the financial one. And its negative impact can outweigh even that. I looked to run away too - but didn't use motherhood as an escape path. I was far, far from ready to be a mother, yet felt I knew enough about it to know hating my job wasn't a good enough reason to bring a child into the world.

Now, to clarify some of my points and the implications that seem to have been taken from them:

* I did not say stay-at-home mum equals lazy woman. The portrayal of mums who sit around watching the soaps and going on countless coffee dates shits me because it's rubbish. Of course I don't know this first-hand, but everything I've seen during time spent with family members and friends who are mothers, and what I've read by mothers, indicates this stereotype is a load of hooey.

* I was not attacking anyone (except media outlets that persist with the above-mentioned stereotype). I was reiterating the point that working is good for people. As Cannold points out: "Without paid employment, women lack social identity, social status and social freedom. From the woman who feels ignored at the cocktail party once she reveals her long-term maternal role, to the victim of domestic violence lacking the means to take her kids and flee, paid work gives women things long-term motherhood never can or will."
Oh, and while I'm talking about the benefits of work, I imagine it would be nice, when woken by a crying child, to say to your partner from time to time "Oh darling, you go to her this time - I have to work tomorrow too". (It may not surprise you to know my husband and I have already had this argument - as a hypothetical because, as is abundantly clear, we don't currently have a child to get up to. It wasn't really resolved. I think he just let me win because it wasn't a real argument.)

* I'm not claiming motherhood is easy. Nor am I suggesting combining it with work or study would be a breeze. Again, I'm going to speak as a non-mother, but I believe mothers do a great job. They themselves, and many others across the world, are often too hard on them. Mums, give yourselves a pat on the back! And eat some chocolate. You deserve it.

* I don't claim to know the emotional impact of motherhood. Though presumably Leslie Cannold did and still felt it could be combined with work.

* I do expect capable people to pull their weight. Which is not to say that having children doesn't count as a major contribution. The 'dole bludger' style of person is irritating and I do judge them. But I don't find them interesting and wasn't really addressing them here.
Those I'm more interested in are mothers who continue to use motherhood as a public shield against work when this shield is long past its use-by date. I don't know why these mothers don't want to work. Maybe some are actually lazy. Maybe some lack the confidence to do so. Maybe others have selfish husbands who put up such a song and dance at the prospect of her working she caves and decides it's just not worth it. So while they frustrate and disappoint me, and I think they should do something to overcome those barriers, I don't necessarily hold them entirely responsible.
As a feminist, I'd argue that avoiding work when you actually are capable of it demonstrates a rude and ungrateful attitude towards the women who fought to have our right to work recognised (along with all the other benefits arising from feminism).
On a side note, if you're loath, or even hesitant, to call yourself a feminist and don't in fact believe you have a right to a job, or expect your partner to help with housework, you're of course free to do so. But I'd suggest considering that stand next time you, say, go to the pub, vote, or use a bank account that includes your name.

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My aim in writing the post was precisely to help counter at least some of this "judging" - how can society tell you you're a bad mother for going to work if it's actually telling you to go to work? Mothers who have to work financially are in a particularly bad place for this (again, this is something Cannold also points out).

I regard the expectations placed on mothers, and everything 'mothering' is apparently supposed to achieve, as too severe. They're terrifying! If, as Cannold suggests, mothering was viewed as part of the female experience and not used to assess a woman's entire worth (for example I'm judged for being a non-mother and therefore deficient more often than my husband is as a non-father), some of the stress and weight heaped on mothers could be alleviated.
My (perhaps unrealistic) logic is that if work was something everyone was expected to participate in, we might have more success in bringing about changes that would make everyone's working life easier. In relation to this particular issue, that would mean family-friendly workplaces and jobs, and better access to child care.
As long as work is seen as a "choice" for parents/mothers, the powers that be at too many workplaces can 'choose' to refuse to make them friendlier to families. If workplaces were more respectful of parents, I'd hope parents wouldn't feel the desire to "escape" and they could more easily combine work and parenting.
And while it remains a choice, women will be criticised for their choices. If you're expected to work, and do so, you can't be labelled as irresponsible, selfish, cruel and all the other ridiculous ways working mothers are described (and I note how rarely working dads are similarly labelled).
Or as it is here, Mums!
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As a feminist I believe in the sisterhood (corny as it may sound. May I assure you however no bras of mine have been so much as singed during the raising of my conscious). So I am disappointed an unintended result of my post was creating a woman vs woman scenario.
On that note, I'd be surprised - but delighted! - if men did enter the discussion. Because typically this is an issue discussed almost solely by women. Which is exasperating; I think men - as fathers, employers and colleagues - should have opinions on the mixing of work and family, and the rights and roles of the mothers in their lives. And should voice them, provided this is done in good faith.

I admit to judging. I look at situations, find out as much as I can, and make a personal judgement (not always the same as being judgemental). If someone is not needed at home for several hours each day and is capable of some kind of work yet does not pursue it I will not be impressed.

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So, in summary, what I do advocate:
* Dads sharing in child care and housework and mums sharing in paid work.
* Quality child care
* Family-friendly workplaces that offer flexible and part-time work and which don't penalise anyone - parents or not - for having valid commitments outside work.
* If you've read this far without succumbing to sleep or getting up and moving around, to do so. I don't want anyone risking deep-vein thrombosis.
* The notion that having a job provides benefits beyond financial reward

What I don't advocate:
* Any set period of time between having a child and returning to work (other than saying 'before the youngest child leaves home or you hit retirement'. It's kind of moot after that).
* That there is a right or wrong amount of hours a parent should work.
* Parents beating themselves up. Privately or publicly. I repeat: Parents, you're doing a good job.
* Leaving a screaming baby in a cot or not doing so. I don't advocate any specific parenting methods.
* Staying in a job if it's destroying you. Quit and look for another one; do some study and training in the meantime if you have the desire and means to.
* Women being defined solely as mothers or non-mothers.
* Verbally or physically assaulting your computer because you don't like what I've written. Its hardly the computer's fault. Instead, punch out (gently) a comment below or email me.
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PS If anyone is interested in posts related to feminism, I have one coming up on Slutwalk - what aspects of it resonate with me and what don't.

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