Hello and welcome back for Part II of the Modern Mother.
Thanks for all the comments and feedback on Facebook about Part I. It’s heartening to know that I’m not at all alone in the struggles and challenges that modern motherhood throws at us! I mean, motherhood across cultures and time has no doubt always had its challenges and some places and time in history have had many more challenges than others. But in the modern western world changes to society and culture are so rapid at the moment such is the situation that, while there is of course significant overlap, many challenges we face today were simply non-existent for our our grandmothers or even to some extent our mothers. They had their own set of cultural roadblocks. We have ours.
In Part I of this series I explained how partly by choice, partly by circumstance I’ve spent the past almost 11 years mostly as a stay at home mum. And, it sounds funny to say it, but this actually comes as a bit of a shock to me! Being a stay at home mum for 11 years straight wasn’t what I was planning at all! Before becoming a mother I knew that I wanted to predominantly be at home with my children as they grew up. I knew that for sure. And I haven’t changed my mind about that at all. It’s just that I also knew, with equal certainty, that I wanted to continue to work in some part time capacity. I’ll go into more detail about this later but suffice to say, given just how much I wanted to continue to work, I am truly shocked and surprised that nearly 11 years have passed and one of those desires has been fulfilled, but the other one hasn’t. I’m both curious and quite frankly a bit worried to know why this is the case.
In Part I, I asked myself, as happy as I am in my decisions to be with my children as they grow, why did I at the same time neglected my career so badly? Couldn’t I have done both?
I succeeded in one of my significant personal goals, namely to be at home with my children as they grew up but largely failed in the other, that is to continue to work. How and why did that happen?
As to how this happened, well, there’s lots of reasons I guess. Some personal and some more cultural. Personally, as I look back, one reason for the success of one desire and the failure of the other becomes immediately obvious and that is quite simply: planning. We, my husband and I, carefully planned for me to staying at home with our children. We did not carefully plan for me to return to work. We deliberately made sure that our mortgage was one that we could repay on one income and we committed to a budget/spending plan accordingly. This was invaluable and helped us achieve this goal. We did not however, carefully plan for the practical challenges of me also wishing to return to work.
There was loads of good will and good intentions for me to return to work but there was no practical setup, no carefully planned real life supports. I think we both naively thought “she’ll be right”, we’ll just cross that bridge when we come it! Having said that, I think we also did intuitively have a very real sense of just how hard it was going to be to try and achieve both of my/our goals at the same time and rather than do the hard yards and engage with the challenges and prepare and plan we simply backed away and unconsciously put it all into the “too hard” basket and continued on with our wishful thinking that everything would just naturally work out with very little effort on our own part! And so, largely due to practical constraints that we did not prepare for, it just didn’t happen. I didn’t achieve my goal of continuity of work after having children. Which is now a genuine source of grief and frustration to me.
Now , at this point, there are two important things to explain. It’s important to understand why I wanted to work back then and why I want to return to work now. But, that is a too long an answer and is better dealt with a little later. Suffice to say, I did not and do not want to work primarily for financial gain, or identity, or status, or “me time”, or social interaction, or intellectual stimulation or just to simply get out of the house and have a break from parenting. All those things are nice and very important and valid but I’ve come to realise that none of those reasons are primarily why I am drawn to work outside of the work associated with being a parent. My reasons are more intangible and more foundational than that, which I will explain later.
The second important thing that it is helpful to identify at this point are some of the unique practical roadblocks that my husband and I did not consider/plan for when our first child was born. Everyone has unique practical roadblocks to consider. Indeed, it cant be repeated often enough but everyone has unique goals and aspirations for life after children. Not everyone can or wants to have two parents working, single parents often don’t have a choice (although I do know single mums who do not work). Anyways, the point is, if both parents are going to be working there are obvious challenges to that.
Society/social media/media seem to largely downplay the real life challenges we face. We all understand the “You can have it all” “You can have it all just not at the same time” mantra but, honestly, the media in all its forms still seems to say “It’s easy” “Just get organised and do it”. At ground zero, here on the ground, midst children with colds, toilet training two year olds , soccor training, school holidays and Mothers Day breakfasts in the school hall, it really doesn’t feel that easy or simple. And yet, so many people seem to be able to pull off parenting and work with a smile and a stylish haircut and nice house and a good marriage and well behaved children who play two instruments and a team sport.
On the ground, at ground zero, when our first child was born we were frankly very ill prepared for the challenges we were about to face as we tried to combine parenting with both of us working in one of the most expensive cities to live in in cities in the world. No doubt you have faced your own practical challenges in this sphere; we faced ours. Here are a few of them.
Our first challenge after our daughter was born was this: my place of work was a 1hour plus commute from our home. The second challenge: that my workplace only offered part-time work of three days a week minimum and included mandatory travel. I wanted to return to work after 12 mths leave for two days a week with no travel. My dear boss negotiated a great deal whereby I could return to work as a “casual” for a specified period of time thereby avoiding the problem but that after that time period had elapsed I would have to return to three days a week plus regular travel. I knew this arrangement was not going to work out in the long run for our family.
The third challenge: we had not fully considered childcare options. Both grandmothers had lovingly and generously offered to help look after our daughter. One lived over an hour away at the time but, as this was her first grandchild, was willing and able to travel to us to look after our daughter. The other grandmother lived much closer, only 20 minutes away but understandably preferred to look after grandchildren at her home and already had another grandchild that she was caring for on a consistent but irregular basis (his mother is a nurse who works shift work). Taking our daughter to this grandmothers house was a wonderful option which I think we used a few times but it did add an extra 20 minutes to an already long commute!
The fourth challenge: our careful financial planning did not include the cost of non-relative childcare, mainly because this was not our preferred option. And finally, we had floated the idea of my husband working four days a week as a possibility however we had not at all considered how difficult this might be for him as an employee in a large-ish business. We gave no where near enough consideration to this practical factor.
And so, as you can see, we were quite ill-prepared to face the practical and personal realities of supporting continuity of work for myself after children.
So we weren’t well prepared. So what? Well, it was in fact deeply important to me to continue working in some capacity. Therefore, a question that haunts me a little now is – “why did I let my career slip away? It can be partially answered like this: “Because you let it” , that is, “If was important to you, why didn’t fight harder for it?”
Good question. Why didn’t I fight harder for it? Probably lots of reasons. But one other reason looms large for me and that reason is culture. No woman is an island. We all live our lives embedded in a particular culture and culture itself determines so many things. For myself, I can identify two main cultural influences in this space: an evangelical and largely conservative Christian culture and a wider secular capitalist Australia.
These are two very strong cultural influences that come into play as I consider if, or how much, or when, or what type of paid work I might do while my husband and I raise our children. These two distinct, yet overlapping worldviews implicitly seep into and influence and guide my thinking. There are of course also in addition to these macro-cultures and worlviews, the micro-worldviews and culture of our individual families of origin and both our friendship circles.
Why didn’t I fight harder for my career? Partly because I didn’t plan properly. Partly because my cultures were subtly and not so subtly pushing and pulling me in different directions, approving some choices, frowning on others and, most importantly, not understanding the enormous significance of these issues for some women and failing to provide sensible practical support.
The conservative evangelical Christian culture, and significantly, the influence from the US, largely says, “Stay at home, be a mother and a wife. Work if you must but your predominant sphere is the home”. This culture, in certain places especially, tends to adore and glorify the stay at home mother, and particularly the mother who homeschools her children. However, this culture does very, very little to support women who have a hard time practically achieving this ideal. This culture holds up an ideal and implicitly condemns anything that falls short of but simply does not know what to do with women who find this ideal hard due to any number of reasons such as: lack of practical supports, challenges to wellbeing such as post natal depression, financial difficulties, physical illness.
The secular capitalist media-driven culture in Australia largely says “Feminism has fought hard for you to have a place in the productive workforce so -go for it! You can have it all, maybe not exactly all at the same time but you kind of can. So just do it!” But this culture, in this country actually offers little practical support for women to achieve professional goals. Hence a book such as The Wife Drought by Annabel Crabb needed to be written.
As I said earlier, I’ve been asking myself, as happy as I am in my decisions to be with my children as they grow, why did I at the same time neglected my career so badly? I think the answer for me lies in poor planning and competing, and therefore confusing cultural messages. For me, the loudest cultural message won – I achieved the ideal of the stay at home mother. But there has been a cost to that and I’m not exactly happy about that (NB In this blog post I am referring to what I will term Cultural Christianity which I do not consider to be the same as Christianity itself which I think has a different view on women, mothers, and work. I’ll explain more later as I go on).
Next week I’m going to tackle questions I have that are more relevant to current and future decisions like: what do I do next? Do I even want to work at all? Why do I want to work? Do I have to work outside the home in order to live a “good” life? Am I missing out if I chose to remain at home longer than is fashionable these days? Are there things personal to me that are preventing me from taking the awkward leap back into the workforce? Am I settling for something less than what could have been?
I”ll be thinking about work for women from an historical point of view, the impacts of individualism in the west and the increasingly popular notion of equal partnership. See you then!
(Apologies for any grammatical or spelling errors or odd sentence structures in this post. I took so long to write it that my husband didn’t have time to do his usual and very helpful final proof read for me!)
The sweet spot
I’m certain that it would have been in my husbands and my children and my communities best interests if we, as a couple, had wrestled more strongly with how to find, as a friend’s mother helpfully put it, that “sweet spot” where everybody in the family is happy most of the time. So, what is that “sweet spot” for us?