Mums and work: tell Rebecca it gets easier but only a bit

Rebecca Asher is – depending on your point of view – either a whinger who doesn’t understand how life works, or a modern woman who has discovered she’s been sold a pup.
As a journalist, she seems to have got published a feminist book that many of us have effectively written in blogs, talked about in playgroups or NCT get togethers but have not got the time or energy to write down on paper.  She’s called it “Shattered: Modern Motherhood and the Illusion of Equality“.
Very clever.  I’d say shattered is just how most new mums feel.
The essential question is:
I’ve been educated as well as any man, secured a high flying job as well as any man, earned my own money, built a social life, but – now I’ve married a man and had a baby and my life revolves around their needs- was this all a lie?  Are we really any further on than the 1950s?

And the honest answer is: it’s a bit more complicated than that.

I know exactly where she’s coming from.  There’s no easy answer.  Misogynists on the comments forums at the Guardian say that “you want to have your cake and eat it“, or “you should’ve thought of that before having a baby”.
Comments also call her spoiled, that it’s all a sense of entitlement that’s been frustrated and not a legitimate complaint.  Often there’s a comment from someone saying something like I hold down two jobs, I’ve got four children and you don’t catch me being all self-pitying.
Or, I did all this twenty years ago and it’s tough but you do it…  To be honest, I dislike those replies more than the misogynistic ones.  After all, they seem stuck in the view that things have to be the way they are, defeatist rather than simply offensive…

There is no real feminist answer to this problem.
Feminism focuses on work, treatment of women and sexual politics (including the avoidance of children) but this element of the majority of women’s lives is controversial for feminists.
Instead we have conflicting values at play here.  Let me show you why.

I want to work.
Work helps me feel a sense of self-worth, justifies the education that previous generations of female campaigners fought for me to be able to have, enables me to use my mind and skills putting something useful into the world, and have income to spend to make the money go around.

I want to raise my son.
I went through a lot to have him here safely, he is the most precious thing in our lives, I don’t think anyone else can raise him as well as his father and I can, he’s lovely, funny, interesting, cuddly, and I want to be with him.  I enjoy the camaraderie of early years motherhood (both online and in person) and, unlike Rebecca, I positively like the singing at toddler group (I’d better as I lead it!)

We have allowed the debate to become polarised, to become a choice.
Are we “real mums” who stay at home?  The household lives off their partner’s single income while they raise the children, balance the budget, avoid disposable nappies, chocolate and sweets, do baby signing, eat organic vegetables from their own plot, make the easter bonnets for the school competition and act as taxi service, PA, life coach, chef etc. etc.?
Or are we “real women” who go out to work?  We juggle career with home life responsibilities, earn our own money, build our careers and become the women we hope we can be, living as full, active members of the workforce.  And so our children go to daycare, and other people help with collecting them when the work deadlines have to take precedence, and we come home to collect overtired children that have been learning bad behaviour from the others they’ve been left there with…
Neither satisfies.

Society constantly undervalues the roles involved in childrearing.  Intelligent conversation, answering questions through exploration, reading together, learning tool use and acceptable behaviours… we have treated these as menial labour, partly because of an erroneous assumption that childcare involves a lot of gloriously free time (I learned otherwise – not all babies sleep in the day time), partly because looking after children ends up resulting in lots of genuinely menial work (more washing than you could ever imagine, feeding, napisaning the “real” nappies and tidying after toddlers).

In business, we are always told that the most important and valuable asset that a company has is its people.  Then look at the pay of childcare professionals, up to and including qualified teachers, and tell me that the pay really matches the long term investment that we as a society are making in the next generation of workers…

Then look at attitudes towards mothers in the workplace.
Leave aside the idea that it is middle class women that have benefited from feminism at the expense of working class men.
Despite the skills learned through parenting: multi-tasking, time management, compassionate communication (as one Guardian commenter described it), persuasion (getting my son dressed and out the house is sometimes the most difficult negotiation I have in a day)… none of these things matter one jot because they were away from the office and were not meetings-based skills (if you chair the PTA, that counts).

We are not the society we were in the time of the baby boomers.  Unlike our parents who are retired (and therefore able to help with the childcare?  But having done it once, why would they want to again?) we expect to work into our late sixties, to have minimal pensions, live into our eighties.
But we know that the penalty of taking time out of our labour market for childrearing impacts for the long-term.  So why allow 50% of the population to have their careers permanently scarred because of their gender and not their talents?
And just as our careers have to last longer, the need to be carers for partners or parents kicks in too.  The vast majority doing this at present are women – but that is generational.  What are today’s mums of young children going to say if it is them that this burden falls to again – because they’ve already lost out on career development through childrearing?
One woman commenting in the Guardian comments said she resented mothers expecting to pick up their career where they left off because they should accept the penalty for having had a baby and “working at 75% for 10 years” but a father was better than a bachelor because he has to work to support the family.  I’m horrified that another woman would say that.
I’m all for a right to request flexible working for all, including part-time working, but this commenter’s attitude shows there needs to be social pressure not only on companies but also with co-workers to ensure that working parents are not being made to feel guilty that they need to use leave, and work their conditioned hours so that they can spend time with their children rather than always the pressure to stay longer, and quantity of work appearing to be valued over quality.

And don’t think this is just a middle class issue – how many mothers working per hour in jobs that just about fit in with available childcare or school hours can’t get promotion because of not being able to take on the more awkward hours?
And if you drop out of the labour market, how will you get back in?

We need proper, high quality childcare available term time and holiday, recognising both the needs of the child in terms of care and learning, and of the parent in terms of a happy place to let their children develop which also allows them to work.

In the workplace, the first issue is one of recognising employees as humans not just resources.  Everyone has a life outside work – it ought to be a prerequisite!  But while being a champion skydiver is something to be respected and time allowed, accept that parents ought to put children first, or carers their care-ee first. Be clear that this is understood and they’ll be grateful for the flexibility and more dedicated and loyal as a result. Normalising shared parenting  - say, meaning that each parent has four days in their office each rather than five and three, now that would really help.

Finally, no one tells prospective parents what hell awaits them: birth, post partem life, colic, sleep deprivation, sore nipples, breasts as public property, being constantly covered in someone else’s bodily fluids…
This new job, at least in the first few months, one that is not limited in terms of office hours. So the men complaining that they’ve gone to work all day and why should they be handed a screaming bundle on returning home miss the point – the parent out to work may have worked nine hours but so has the parent looking after the child, and that evening caring time should be shared.

But it gets easier.  And after a year or so, they’re a delight.  When they go to nursery, you realise you’re sharing your house not just with an extension of you but an individual with thoughts, feelings, options, preferences, ideas and a whole life ahead of them which is theirs, not yours.  And with wrap around childcare you can even work!  Now, what to do about school journeys and school holidays…

But let’s challenge the perception that life isn’t fair and women should just accept it.  We do the next generation a disservice if we can’t persuade fathers that their role is with their children in person, not just as the wallet in the workplace, and employers that letting employees be themselves will help their wellbeing and their productivity.