Sunday, December 27, 2015

Working and Motherhood: Salvos in the unwinnable war

The Guardian is re-running links to some of its more popular pieces from 2015 as the year wends to an end. They've just relinked this one, which I remember well as it was published on my very last day of salaried employment - the very day, some would argue, that I ceased to be a role model of working motherhood to my three girls.

As luck would have it, I have been able to build up a good freelance clientele since then and am close to fully employed (I average 4 days a week) in my own business. I didn't know that this would happen when I left my job, though, and I took the leap in full readiness to go through a period, possibly a lengthy one, of being a stay at home parent without paid employment.

It's also true that, as a freelancer, I work mostly from home, rendering my job far less visible, or intrusive, to my kids than my salaried work was. Except in rare cases, I can do all the school runs, help out with school activities, take them to all their extracurriculars, and so forth. To all intents and purposes, I, in fact, *present* as a stay at home parent, despite my income-earning activities.

I feel, really, that I have a foot in both - or indeed, all - camps. I've been a stay at home parent, on unpaid long leave from an employer. I've worked part time, both in an office and from home, for a salaried employer. I've freelanced, both from home an on client sites - and am now doing so again. I've worked fulltime in an office. All of these permutations I have tried, in my 12.5 years of being a parent. (An aside, but, having sipped from each cup, I would rank "stay at home no income, especially with preschool kids" as Hardest; "fulltime in office" as Middle; and all of the part-time or freelance options as Easiest / Best, in terms of energy, satisfaction, life balance and self-esteem. Being at home all the time with kids is really demanding - not bad, often very rewarding, but not a walk in the park by a long stretch).

Back to the article: the gist of the findings of this study is that having a mother who works outside the home benefits children, particularly girls, in terms of role modelling career potential and more equitable distribution of household labour.

As always, the study is one study among many and can't account for variation from the curve. Just as other studies that purport to show that having both parents in paid work outside the home is detrimental to children, particularly very young children, it doesn't take into account individual characteristics or circumstances. It merely observes - perhaps - a correlation between certain maternal work patterns and certain career outcomes in daughters.

It also doesn't make much of the fact that, for many women, to work or not to work outside the home is simply not a choice at all. For single-parent households or for households where the other breadwinner's wage is too low to support all the family needs, combining work outside the home and parenthood is just something that has to happen at some point. In that circumstance, there is no doubt the working mother is modelling valuable traits to her children - responsibility, care, prudence - but whether it's some grand career decision is more questionable.

I would also say that women who don't work outside the home model valuable behaviours to their children with a similar frequency to working mothers, even if the particular traits on display may differ.

It's also not lost on me that these kinds of studies - whichever way they blow - never, but NEVER, ask about paternal work patterns and their effect on children. (Yes, I know there are a number of studies about absent second-parents, but not ones who are there but working fulltime outside the home). There is a moral freighting attached to whatever a mother-role person does that just does not attach to men, and it shits me but good.

All that aside, there's one thing the article gets absolutely dead right in my view. It's in this final quote from a working mother by the name of Rebecca Allen.

Allen said that schools also need to adjust their demands on parents. “We’ve got to stop primary schools from having a day every week where parents are expected to dress up their children in some complicated outfit, or make something, or bring something in, or turn up to help with something or have an assembly,” she said.
With  this slight non sequitur, it would not be possible for me to agree more. Even in my current situation, where I *can* pop up to the school for special events as needed, it's a time drain and often a stressor that I just don't need, especially when I'm busy with client work. It was a lot worse - really quite terrible, in fact - when I worked fulltime in the office. And it isn't only working parents who find this stuff demanding - just ask the worn-out prep and grade one parents with toddlers and babies in tow how much they enjoy these weekly letters of demand for extra effort.

I suppose if there is one overarching thought that I would close with, it's this: the whole thing is a bit of a trap, in my view. The idea that paid work is a universal good or universal ill. The idea that people who give birth are judged more harshly for the disposition of their time post-children than people who contribute genetic material. The idea that parents should somehow be able to be both perfect wage-bots and assiduous contributors to their children's every moment, including during working hours. If it all sounds impossibly difficult and dreary, well, that's only because it is. I don't have a good, generically applicable answer, and here's a tip: neither does anybody else. We all just do the best we can with what we've got, and hope like hell it's enough.

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