Today is Equal Pay Day. This event was celebrated yesterday by former Liberal PM John Howard’s observation that women won’t ever achieve equal representation in parliament because women stay at home with children. Thanks Johnny!
The fact is, modern mothers (as opposed to Howard’s 1950’s view of the world) are stuck between the proverbial rock and a hard place when it comes to navigating the daily compromise between motherhood and paid employment. The problem is, there is no right answer in our society, because society doesn’t know what on earth they want us to do.
There is so much pressure on women to uphold the ideals of feminism, where our education, our careers, our professional achievements are equally important to us (and the family income!) as our male counterparts. But, when motherhood comes along, as it did for me a year ago, there is just as much pressure, if not more from some quarters, for mothers to put our own needs and wants aside and to focus solely on caregiving to children.
The problem is, this predicament ignores the fundamental realities of the constant tug-of-war between what a mother wants for herself and what society expects of her. An obvious one is that each mother wants different things. Take, for instance, that I would prefer to work than stay home with my child. Even writing that sentence, I can feel the hot eyes of judgement from the keyboard warriors yelling at me ‘YOU SHOULDN’T HAVE HAD CHILDREN IF YOU DON’T WANT TO STAY HOME TO LOOK AFTER THEM!!!’ My daughter loves childcare and I couldn’t be happier with the level of care she receives. Thanks for asking.
For many people, wants are beside the point. Sometimes, financially, there is no decision because mother has to work to pay the mortgage, the rent, to put food on the table and to give the family the standard of living she chooses. So we’re stuck between judgements from society about what makes a ‘good mother’ and what makes a ‘good worker’ or ‘good provider’. It is no wonder this situation puts so much pressure on mothers, right at a time in our lives when we’re vulnerable, tired and frankly just don’t need any more crap.
The four big picture decisions in the motherhood and career game, which each family must make work for their circumstances are: 1) mother* leaves or stays out of paid employment while raising children, 2) mother works in paid employment even though she would prefer to stay home because her family needs her income, 3) mother works in paid employment even though she can afford to stay home; she chooses to work because she enjoys it 4) mother works in paid employment because she has to and because she wants to (the category, by the way, I fall into). *The vast majority of parents who stay home to care for children are mothers.
Let’s just get one thing straight and confirm that all four categories of woman are full time mothers and all four are working. Mothers who stay home work incredibly hard. On the flipside, just because a woman is in paid employment, doesn’t mean she isn’t a mother when her child is being cared for by someone else; whether at childcare, kindergarten, or in that messy 90 minute period between the end of the school day and the end of an eight hour work day.
A friend of a friend toured their local primary school and asked about after-school care facilities. The tour-guiding-principal responded ‘we offer after-school care, but we don’t recommend it for the little kids in reception and year one – they’re a bit young to be at school for so long’. Well-meaning or not, this comment is eye-roll-inducing judgemental. What the women on the tour in categories 2, 3 and 4 heard, who low-and-behold probably don’t have the flexibility to leave work in the middle of the afternoon, who already leave work earlier than they would like to, who race to pick up their children so they can get home in a reasonable time for dinner, is that they are bad mothers for expecting their children to be stuck in after-school-care while they selfishly work until 5pm.
So here we have a perfect example of how women can’t win and how the guilt-police get us either way. We are expected to live up to society’s expectation that we work just as hard as men at earning a living, contributing to the economy, being productive members of society in both a paid and unpaid capacity, and living up to our own measures of career success, while also being available as mothers. There is an expectation, a judgement made, that good mothers pick their children up directly after school, help with reading in the classroom and volunteer at the tuck-shop. In the case of working mothers like me with younger children, we are told by psychologists like Steve Biddulph that child care is bad for children or scientists tell us childcare causes respiratory illness, obesity, aggression and hyperactivity. Thanks for the helpful advice! Then there’s the everyday garden variety of unhelpful labels such as ‘full time mother’ to describe stay at home mothers, as if mothers in paid employment are only part-time parents. And of course stay at home mothers get judged for not ‘working’, when every mother knows how hard work it is looking after children at home.
So back to my idea about there being no single best-fit for every family. All the mothers of small children want and need something slightly different in their tailored career and motherhood mix. We all build a patchwork of support and compromise to make our choices happen. That often means putting careers on hold for a period, or paying a huge amount for childcare or a nanny, or calling on the help of grandparents, finding a more flexible or part time job and sometimes fathers making career sacrifices too. But society seems hell-bent on making us guilty for whatever choice we make. So we should ignore judgey mc-judgey society. The phrase ‘happy wife, happy life’ might seem trite, but instead we can extend it to ‘happy mother, happy family’. It’s hard enough being stuck between the rock of motherhood and the hard place of a career, but it’s even harder when you’re being judged for it. Whatever choice you make, bringing up small children is hard work; there is constant compromise, exhaustion and stress on both parents, along with a lot of joy which thankfully makes it all worthwhile. So we should be proud of our choices, and then get on with our lives, without looking back over our shoulder to check what everyone else judges as ok.
I won’t leave it there. Because it’s also up to all of us to stop judging other people’s parenting choices. We all know the judgers are just reaffirming their own decisions. It’s unnecessary. Be secure in your own choice, and accept that everything else is none of your business.
And one last comment to society as a whole; please work out what you want mothers to do and then make it a little easier to do that. If you want mothers to work, deliver childcare which is accessible, affordable and high quality. And schools have to stop expecting us to down-tools to pick up children at 3:30pm. Surely a highly productive, smart, innovative and agile society can sort this stuff out for everyone’s benefit.