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Working mums shouldn’t have to be superhuman – employers need to be better

It’s not a matter of whether a woman is at work or in the home; it’s a matter of identifying this huge, never-ending array of tasks which somehow, magically, get done, usually at a huge cost to women.

A woman pushing a pram walks through a park. Photo: Getty
You can lean in until you’ve almost toppled over, but having children will take its toll on your career. Photo: Getty

Ever since I had children, I’ve looked back at all those years during which I was child-free and wondered what I did with all that extra time.  I could have climbed mountains, written manifestos, led revolutions, then slept and slept and slept. There was no one demanding that I feed them, clothe them, read them a story, wipe their bottoms, run their bath, take them to the park… Just what did I do? I honestly can’t remember; dripped about watching telly, I suppose.

Since having children I’ve become more efficient. It’s not just because I’ve had to; there’s something about being thrown into the chaos of childcare that makes you think “bloody hell, must get everything else sorted as well!” Without children, I took seven years to write and rewrite my PhD thesis; with one child already and another on the way, I worked full-time and finished off a book in the evenings while my son was in bed. I’d lost all the sappy existential angst that used to prevent me from finishing anything; I just didn’t have headspace for it (although it’s been creeping back in recent years, now that I’ve even found a way to pencil “panic and be generally useless” sessions into my busy schedule).

I’m not the only mother who feels this way. Writing in response to two new surveys on workplace attitudes – one by the law firm Slater and Gordon, another by the Fawcett society – both of which reveal discrimination against mothers and women of childbearing age, Lola Okolosie argues that we mothers should be seen as assets not in spite but because of our motherhood:

Work is something many of us are grateful for and committed to. We approach it with renewed motivation, thankful that it offers us a separate identity from being mama.[…] Efficiency and decisiveness are our codes of conduct. Within work hours we are focused and doggedly eager to prove our worth. […] Our organisational skills are something to behold. […] We are adept at smiling in the face of difficulty and realising that it’s not all about us. We’re all about pragmatism and no nonsense, with no short supply of perspective. […] Troubleshooting is our forte.

Go Lola (teacher, writer, member of Go Feminists and Black Feminists and, yes, mother)! In a similar vein, Frances O’Grady, General Secretary of the TUC, claims that “dinosaur employers need to wake up and value working mums”:

Women returning to work from maternity leave often come back with something extra. Parenthood is hard work, but it develops skills that can be applied at work, such as organisation and leadership.

I think this is undoubtedly true; caring for children is hard work, you do learn from it and as Okolosie shows, mothers can achieve a hell of a lot. All the same, there’s something that prevents me from joining in with the mother-as-worker promotion drive. It’s not that I don’t think mothers can be amazing; I just don’t believe we should need to be.

While motherhood can make you more efficient overall, it does not grant you the ability to bend time and space. It does not make it possible to be in two places at once. It does not diminish your need for sleep and relaxation, even if you are surviving on little of either. The truth is, you can want to be working your arse off, but if you can’t afford childcare, you can’t afford childcare. If your child is ill, your child is ill. If you’ve been up all night with a screaming baby, you can’t simply will the exhaustion away. You can lean in until you’ve almost toppled over but the truth is, having children takes its toll and even if it’s not on your employer, it will be on you.

I know I am not meant to say this and I feel a traitor for doing so. Nonetheless, I am tired of the embarrassment and double-speak that surrounds our approach to “working mothers”. We talk about “letting women choose”, meaning nothing more than “we won’t think you’re stupid if you stay at home on no money at all” or “we won’t think you’re evil if you struggle with low pay and childcare costs while barely seeing your offspring”. We talk about how the gender pay gap isn’t really a gender pay gap – it’s a “maternity gap” (you mean it’s not because I’m a woman but because I have a potentially fertile female body? Oh, then that’s just fine).  We talk about encouraging men to “help out” and “do their share”, presumably seeking to draw them in with a jovial “hey, sorry you’ve been missing out! Six hours of reading the same Thomas the Tank Engine story is fun!” We look for helpful advice on how to ask for flexible working (cap in hand, shamefully, fully aware that we’ve now lost our edge). We feel really, really guilty that this problem exists at all. Feminism was meant to be bright, shiny and revolutionary and perhaps, if it wasn’t for us mummies and our pesky childbearing, womankind wouldn’t still be struggling today. And so we’re left over-emphasising the positives. After all, we’ve already caused enough trouble by having those bloody children in the first place. It wouldn’t do to then complain.

Growing up in the Eighties and Nineties, the relationship between motherhood and feminism was not something upon which I wished to dwell. Indeed, I hoped that if we all kept quiet about it, no one would notice that women were still having and looking after children at all. It didn’t fit with the individualistic narrative of liberation upon which I’d placed all my hopes. A woman is capable of doing pretty much anything a man can do, right? If people are willing to accept that, then to say “hang on a minute, who’s going to look after the baby?” would surely be self-defeating. You’d be reminding everyone of the other version of woman, the old one – mummy, who stays at home and doesn’t do anything. Like many young women, I saw feminism as a route towards not having to be that person. If biology isn’t destiny, why talk babies at all? Sure, I knew one day that I might want to have children, but I somehow felt if we didn’t mention woman-as-mother – if we pretended she no longer existed – all of the problems associated with unpaid care work, fertility and women’s liberation would vanish. I don’t know why I thought such a ridiculous thing, but I’m pretty sure I’m not alone in having done this.

It’s only now, having looked a little further back into the history of second-wave feminism, that I realise it wasn’t always like this. While Susan Brownmiller’s memoir In Our Time shows that feminist groups were every bit as harmonious as they are today (ie not very), it also gives an insight into just how kick-ass and demanding these women were regarding motherhood and childcare. They didn’t want paltry childcare vouchers, they wanted on-site crèches in every workplace. In the UK, second-wave activists were calling for 24-hour nurseries and wages for housework. It’s easy to look at these things now and think “how naive” or “times have changed”. Nonetheless, that these women felt they had the right to ask for such things shows that they recognised something important: the work mothers do has a value. This is not a question of individual choice but of social responsibility. It’s everyone’s problem. It’s not a matter of whether a woman is at work or in the home; it’s a matter of identifying this huge, never-ending array of tasks that somehow magically get done, usually at a huge cost to women in terms of status, financial worth and personal wellbeing and at a relatively low cost to men (yes, #notallmen, but the statistics speak for themselves).

When earlier feminists stood up to left-wing men and said “hang on, how come I’m still the one doing all the mummy work?” they were not saying “therefore carry on viewing me as just some mummy”. They were describing what is, not what should be. To pretend things are otherwise only benefits those who wish to keep things as they are. This is why I am reluctant just to focus on how well mothers can perform in the workplace. While it might be in tune with our individualistic times, it is unambitious. I want us to push the envelope further. We’re always being told female employees don’t ask for enough.

Fine.

I want the right not just to say “I’m bloody good at my job” but “I’m bloody good at my job but I’m not okay with the cultural conditions that surround it”. I want to say “I’m bloody good at my job but I’m sick of living in a world in which I’m not only discriminated against due to the assumption that I may have to do more work, but in which I then actually have to do it”. I want to say “I’m bloody good at my job but I’m furious that women are considered less economically valuable precisely because they tend to do more than men”. I want to start this conversation, broken off thirty years ago, because it matters. I want to do so because it’s simply not fair. I want to do so because I’m a mother; believe me, I might be busy but I’ll make the time to talk.

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