You can lean in until you’ve almost toppled over, but having children will take its toll on your career. Photo: Getty
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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.

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.

Glosswitch is a feminist mother of three who works in publishing.

DE AGOSTINI PICTURE LIBRARY / BRIDGEMAN IMAGES
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Eighty pages in to Age of Anger, I still had no idea what it was about

When Pankaj Mishra describes a “postmodern collage rather than a coherent doctrine”, he inadvertently summarises his own book.

Most books arrive on the market dragging a comet tail of context: the press release, the blurb on the back, the comparison with another book that sold well (sometimes this is baked into the title, as with a spate of novels in which grown women were recast as “girls”, variously gone, or on the train, or with dragon tattoos or pearl earrings). Before you even start reading, you know pretty much what you will get.

So I was particularly disconcerted to reach page 80 of Pankaj Mishra’s Age of Anger and realise that I didn’t really know what it was about. The prologue starts with a recap of the tyrannical career of the Italian poet Gabriele D’Annunzio, namechecks The Communist Manifesto, describes how Europeans were enthralled by Napoleon’s “quasi-autistic machismo”, links this to the “great euphoria” experienced in 1914, mentions that Eugene Onegin “wears a tony ‘Bolívar’ hat”, then dwells on Rimbaud’s belief that not washing made him a better writer, before returning to D’Annunzio to conclude that his life “crystallised many themes of our own global ferment as well as those of his spiritually agitated epoch”.

Psychologists have demonstrated that the maximum number of things that a human can hold in their brain is about seven. The prologue is titled “Forgotten Conjunctures”. I might know why they have been forgotten.

Two pages later, Mishra is at it again. How’s this for a paragraph?

After all, Maxim Gorky, the Bolshevik, Muhammad Iqbal, the poet-advocate of “pure” Islam, Martin Buber, the exponent of the “New Jew”, and Lu Xun, the campaigner for a “New Life” in China, as well as D’Annunzio, were all devotees of Nietzsche. Asian anti-imperialists and American robber barons borrowed equally eagerly from the 19th-century polymath Herbert Spencer, the first truly global thinker – who, after reading Darwin, coined the term “survival of the fittest”. Hitler revered Atatürk (literally “the father of the Turks”) as his guru; Lenin and Gramsci were keen on Taylorism, or “Americanism”; American New Dealers later borrowed from Mussolini’s “corporatism”.

This continues throughout. The dizzying whirl of names began to remind me of Wendy Cope’s “Waste Land Limericks”: “No water. Dry rocks and dry throats/Then thunder, a shower of quotes/From the Sanskrit and Dante./Da. Damyata. Shantih./I hope you’ll make sense of the notes.”

The trouble comes because Mishra has set himself an enormous subject: explaining why the modern world, from London to Mumbai and Mosul, is like it is. But the risk of writing about everything is that one can end up writing about nothing. (Hang on, I think I might be echoing someone here. Perhaps this prose style is contagious. As Nietzsche probably wrote.) Too often, the sheer mass of Mishra’s reading list obscures the narrative connective tissue that should make sense of his disparate examples.

By the halfway point, wondering if I was just too thick to understand it, I did something I don’t normally do and read some other reviews. One recorded approvingly that Mishra’s “vision is . . . resistant to categorisation”. That feels like Reviewer Code to me.

His central thesis is that the current “age of anger” – demonstrated by the rise of Islamic State and right-wing nationalism across Europe and the US – is best understood by looking at the 18th century. Mishra invokes the concept of “ressentiment”, or projecting resentment on to an external enemy; and the emergence of the “clash of civilisations” narrative, once used to justify imperialism (“We’re bringing order to the natives”) and now used to turn Islamic extremism from a political challenge into an existential threat to the West.

It is on the latter subject that Mishra is most readable. He grew up in “semi-rural India” and now lives between London and Shimla; his prose hums with energy when he feels that he is writing against a dominant paradigm. His skirmish with Niall Ferguson over the latter’s Civilisation: the West and the Rest in the London Review of Books in 2011 was highly enjoyable, and there are echoes of that fire here. For centuries, the West has presumed to impose a narrative on the developing world. Some of its current anxiety and its flirtation with white nationalism springs from the other half of the globe talking back.

On the subject of half of us getting a raw deal, this is unequivocally a history of men. We read about Flaubert and Baudelaire “spinning dreams of virility”, Gorky’s attachment to the idea of a “New Man” and the cultural anxieties of (male) terrorists. Poor Madame de Staël sometimes seems like the only woman who ever wrote a book.

And yet, in a book devoted to unpicking hidden connections, the role of masculinity in rage and violence is merely noted again and again without being explored. “Many intelligent young men . . . were breaking their heads against the prison walls of their societies” in the 19th century, we learn. Might it not be interesting to ask whether their mothers, sisters and daughters were doing the same? And if not, why?

Mishra ends with the present, an atomised, alienated world of social media and Kim Kardashian. Isis, we are told, “offers a postmodern collage rather than a coherent doctrine”. That is also a good description of this book. 

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era