Has motherhood been let down by feminism? I was sent this article today and it brings up some really interesting points. The person who sent me the link told me she misses her career, but knows she’d miss her kids more if she was working full-time, so she’s staying at home for now. She feels there’s no value placed on being a stay-at-home mum, and finds herself constantly making excuses for why she’s at home.
I think it’s true to say that staying at home has been devalued – time and again, parents who are at home talk about relatives telling them they’re wasting their educations, or conversations trailing off when they’re asked what they do. Perhaps the devaluing is an undesirable but inevitable side-effect of the current reality – more women than ever work after they have kids. If two generations ago most women stayed at home, and it was the norm, then presumably people didn’t have to explain their choices – it wasn’t seen as a choice. But today, with about 50% of mothers still in the workforce, it’s reinforced as an either/ or option. Every mother who works knows some who don’t, and vice versa. And we can’t help looking and wondering (occasionally or frequently) if we’re getting it wrong.
If you say to someone “What do you do?” and they say “Marketing in a telecommunications firm” and you say, “Oh, that sounds interesting – have you always worked in marketing?” that’s a pretty easy conversation.
But if you say “What do you do?” and they say, “I’m at home with my kids”, then saying “Oh that’s interesting – is that what you’ve always wanted to do?” could sound patronising. As could “That must be lovely” or “I couldn’t do it in a million years” or “I wish I could be home with my kids too.”
Having a job is a badge – it says, “I have skills and someone deemed them of value – in fact they’re willing to pay me actual cash every week or every month to carry out my job.”
Being at home with kids doesn’t say quite the same thing. Whether we admit it or not, despite being arguably the hardest job in the world, it’s not always seen to have value. It’s not a job you have to apply for. There’s no interview process, there’s no screening, there’s no aptitude test. There are no other candidates to beat to get the role. Basically, there’s good fortune at the beginning – having children – and then the rest is up to you.
There are amazing parents and terrible parents and then the rest of us – the vast majority I guess – who muddle through, trying most of the time and failing some of the time but still trying. There’s not much in terms of training courses (there are some but most of us don’t do them) – it’s all on the job learning and mostly without a mentor. There’s no performance review, no feedback, no promotion. And of course, no salary. So where saying “I’m head of accounting” inherently means “I am valued by my employer”, saying “I am home with my kids” doesn’t say the same thing at all. Even if some days it’s a lot harder than being head of anything.
And as someone who works from home and is always at the school gate, I get it. People mostly assume I’m a stay-at-home mum, and I have a tendency to mention every now and then that I work. This is partly practical – I can’t do coffees and I can’t (easily) volunteer for every school event, and I don’t want people to think I’m just not bothered. But of course there’s more to it. If I’m honest, I still like the badge – discreet though it may be now that I’m no longer dressed in office heels.
But back to the article – while stay at home mothers have been devalued, I don’t know if it’s the case that mothers have been let down by feminism. I think feminism is about choice – having the option to work and to be paid just as well as men are paid, having equal opportunities to progress, and having the option to stay at home.
And in a perfect world, all parents – mothers and fathers – would have the choice to stay at home or work or a mix of both. Of course, life’s not like that.
There are women who are working and feeling constantly guilty – in my experience, this seems to be more prevalent for people who fall somewhere between “I like my job but I don’t love it” and “I absolutely hate my job and would give up tomorrow if I could.” The guilt seems less for those who really love their jobs – which makes sense. If you’re away from your kids, all the better if it’s doing something you love. It’s just not possible for everyone to have a job like that.
There are women at home who wish they could work but don’t have the confidence to go back. There are women at home who enjoy being there, but feel they have to make excuses for not going to work. And depending on where the cost of childcare sits relative to family income, there’s the economic irony too – women at work who can’t afford to give up and women at home who can’t afford to go back.
And while I’d agree that staying at home has been devalued, and that as the article says, “We need to be telling our young people that raising children is an incredibly important part of the fabric of our society”, I don’t know that we should be changing the message we give to girls. I still think we should tell them they can do anything they want to do and I still believe it’s true. Not all of them will want children when they grow up, and of those who do, presumably some will continue to have careers and some will choose not to. And just like today, some will have to make decisions they’d rather not make, often due to financial restrictions – be that working or staying at home.
In the meantime, I need to get back to my nine-year-old (she wants to be a writer with nine kids), my seven-year-old (she wants to be a footballer with twins and singleton), and my five-year-old (he wants to own a restaurant and have ten kids) because they’ve just covered the floor in scraps of paper and now they want food, and they don’t care about badges of any kind at all.