But that’s taboo: The modern mother (or complaints of a stay-at-home-mum or fear of missing out or navigating modern motherhood) Part III

Hello again! And thank you for reading along and making it this far in the series! This topic is big, it’s complex and it’s emotive and sometimes to this day it’s still a little bit taboo!

By the way – I actually love being a stay at home parent! I really, genuinely love it. And, as much as I am somewhat having a bit of a grumble, I literally do count my blessings every single day. I am abundantly blessed in innumerable ways and not a day goes by without humble recognition of this fact. Life is short. There are no guarantees. I live each and every day thanking God for what he has provided and asking for the grace to accept whatever comes my way.

That being said, as much as I appreciate and enjoy the gift of raising my kids, I would also really, really like to be working outside the home too. But sometimes that is far easier said than done, right?! So, the question I am focussing on today is: why is it so hard for some of us mothers to combine work and parenthood?

Some personal context before we begin: my goal and vision as a young woman was to gently and lovingly combine parenthood and career, that is maintain what I will call a modest or light career. I envisioned something like 12 months maternity leave followed by part-time work that did more than “keep a finger in the pie” and less than “smash the glass ceilings” of my field, something like career lite is how I thought of it!

Nice vision, reasonably achievable one would think these days. However, I think I hit two road blocks straight off the bat which I explored in last weeks post:

1. Woefully poor planning on our part as parents-to-be and

2. Conflicting cultural messages in my community that helped create and nurture both unrealistic and unhelpful beliefs in my young idealistic head. Namely that “You can have it all, just not at the same time!” and “You can be a stay at home mother for 10, 15 or 20 years and you will like it or you will come to like it in time if you do it properly” (more on that one later!)

Today, as I said, I’m taking a broader look at some of the possible reasons women like myself might find it hard to engage in paid labour if they wish to or need to while raising children. I’m going to take a step back in time to the Industrial Revolution with a really cool article from The Economist about working from home; consider a re-think of the awful label “stay-at-home-mum”; have a listen to a rather beautiful comment on equality embedded in a Chat10Looks3 podcast; hear some awesome and practical tips from two Dads about returning to work after children on DadPod; marvel at the talent of two remarkable women (Mary Shelley of Frankenstein fame and the late Ruth Bader Ginsberg) and their supportive counterparts, before finally having a brief peek into what Jesus might have demonstrated about “equality”.

A glance back in time

Why do we work outside our homes at all? Well, the Industrial Revolution pretty much answers that one. This technological change commenced the significant pull we all have from working at home to engaging in work away from home. The echoes of this monumental revolution reverberate even in our societies today (although the Digital Revolution plus COVID may be beginning to challenge that!).

Historically speaking, working away from home really is a relatively “new” trend. I recently read a great article in The Economist titled “Home-working had its advantages, even in the eighteenth century” (16 December 2020). The article cast an eye back to what actually appears to have been a rather slow evolution from home to factory/office as the primary place of occupation. Apparently, there aren’t many good figures out there, but apparently, in the early 1800’s it was estimated that in the US more than 40% of the workforce laboured from home. And in 1900, at the height of factory-based work, 1/3 of France’s manufacturing workforce still worked from home. It was only by 1914 that the majority of the labour force in the US worked in an office or factory.

What is super interesting is that workers didn’t actually rush to the new jobs available in factories! In fact, people were initially so reluctant to work outside the home that factory owners, had to offer higher wages to entice workers from home! Why was that? Because working at home was easier and better for many employees. A worker could earn more by boosting a primary income with side hustles. At home a worker had more control over one’s time, and had the flexibility to get more sleep and enjoy greater leisure time. And, for mothers especially, working from home meant they could fit paid tasks around the care of children. Apparently, as factories spread, female labour-force participation initially fell.

Essentially, workers in a factory had “less control over their lives and worked in a place where they had much less fun” and therefore were reluctant to move their place of work from home to factory. Indeed, perhaps one reason I am reluctant to commit to substantial work outside the home is that I highly value the control it gives me over my life and the flexibility of being at home does genuinely allow for greater leisure and social time. These are significant benefits!

Women who stay at home? Or women who just get stuff done?

We all know that language is important. I am no expert on the sociology of language but I think there is definitely something unhelpful in the language we use in this space. Basically, I’d like to commission a rethink of “stay-at-home-mum” label. I do not like this definition. I really, really, don’t like it.

For starters, it is rather stupidly incorrect. I, of course, don’t literally stay at home! I leave my home often for all sorts of reasons! Secondly, I feel that as a title, as a term to describe how it is that I spend my time and energy, it is kind of offensive, and inherently inaccurate and inadequate.

The title is a wee bit offensive in that the terms stay-at-home mother and working mother are kind of pitted against each other as though they are two mutually exclusive options i.e. you are either a mother who works or a mother who doesn’t. As though there are only two types of mothers in the world: those who raise children and also have a paid job and those who “just” raise children.

The terms are also annoyingly inaccurate in that stay-at-home mother is defined in opposition to the only other kind of mother who apparently exists: the mother who is referred to as a working mother. These terms oddly only really make sense if one begins with the assumption that modern mothers will work and with with the assumption that it is by choice that women work or don’t work, when this obviously not always the case. Sometimes women work not because they want to but because they have to, sometimes women want to work but can’t, some have ample opportunity to engage in paid labour but simply don’t want to. The dichotomous labels – working mother and stay-at-home-mother- don’t capture these nuances at all.

What if , we were instead to begin with the alternative old-fashioned assumption that mothers spend most of their time raising children, and additionally sometimes mothers work because they have to or want to? Then, using the pattern of stay-at-home mother we could change the term “working mother” to leave-the-home mother?? My hunch is that working mothers would like that label just about as much as I like the term stay-at-home mother!! It’s an awful term and I’m not for a moment suggesting that we should use it. We need some new language people! Any suggestions, please comment or write in!

Seriously, mother is a mother whether she literally stays at home all the time or not. And a woman who works and is paid is an employee (either self-employed or otherwise). Mothers are mothers and workers are workers. Why do we need to conflate the two things into clunky inaccurate and offensive dichotomous titles “working mother/non-working mother”?

There are so much more than just “stay-at-home” and “working” mothers! Here are a few, all friends or acquaintances of mine who defy these labels: single mothers who care for children with disabilities who don’t have time to also work and instead live very, very frugally off carer’s allowances; married mothers who care for husbands and children with physical disabilities and mental health challenges who are not able to work; mothers who love to volunteer in their communities preferring to contribute outside the home in this way rather than seek employment; mothers who together with their husbands have created new businesses that they run from home; mothers who have significant mental health challenges and would like to work but can’t whilst also raising children; mothers who are creative artists who write books and win awards or sew amazing clothes for themselves and others for free or teach themselves how to paint from online tutorials and win awards in regional art competitions; mothers who support family businesses through their physical labour on a farm or feeding hungry shearers during sheering time or keep the books for the family construction business. These are real life women. None of them are technically either stay-at-home mothers or working outside-the-home-employed mothers. They are just mothers who get stuff done, whatever that stuff is, whether they are paid or not. And I think we need better language to reflect that!

Equality. It’s is not just a man/woman thing

If mothers want to work or need to work and they have a spouse or partner, certain kind of conversations need to be had about what is going to work best for them as a family unit as they juggle competing demands of employment and child raising. Therefore, today, we have terms like “equal partnerships” emerging. What does this mean on the ground in individual homes and families?

What does it mean, in practice, to apply a kind of strangely modern notion of equality to the task of raising children? Does this particular element of the modern motherhood issue relate somehow to the cold hard facts of individualism? In a largely individualistic society, raising children is often left to two people – the parents. Therefore, when we are addressing the notion of equality in the task of raising children in the western, developed world we seem to be essentially addressing what might be termed as aiming for an equal partnership. Perhaps something approaching a fifty/fifty split on everything from house work and maintenance, child care an other caring responsibilities to the earning of income to pay a mortgage?

How realistic is this in real life? And is a hard 50/50 split what everyone wants anyway? It may indeed be completely unachievable for some families and in some families it may not even be the best thing for all parties concerned. I think there is probably a whole lot more nuance to the idea of equality in marriages and child rearing than simply working out a fifty/fifty split of everything.

However, if a hard 50/50 split is not what most of us will achieve or even aim for, I feel there is still enormous value in the spirit of the notion of equal partnerships. Take for example, a poignant and straight forward definition of equality in male-female relationships made by Dominique Crenn (crowned World’s Best Female Chef in 2016). She was asked a valid but rather awkwardly worded question from the audience during question time at the #50 Best Talks event held at the Sydney Opera House in 2017 ahead of the 50 Best Restaurants awards (see this article for more details if interested). The question from a male member of the audience was something like: “How did you make that choice between having a family and having a career? Why is it that you’ve made the decision to miss out on one of the most important choices you can make which is to be a mother? ” (If you want to hear a little more have a listen to this episode of Chat10Looks3 around the 28 minute mark).

Apparently, Dominique had not previously publicly made known the fact that she is in fact a mother of twin girls. And earlier in the discussion she had chosen simply to redirect a discussion about why there are so few top female chefs in the world to encourage people to change the way we think about this conundrum for women in any industry.

But, in this instance, she decided to answer very bluntly this direct question posed to her from the audience about the choice between career and family. After explaining to the man in the audience that she in fact is a mother, Dominique, in her distinctive french accent, calmly but firmly replied with something like this :

Everybody makes choices in their lives. Not just men. Not just women. Everybody. And I really hope that you make a good choice in your life. If you have a family, if you have children, if you have a wife, I hope you do everything you can to allow her to pursue her dreams. It’s not just about your dreams. I hope that’s the choice you make, ok? You know, because this is not just a man-woman thing. This is a human thing”.

This is not just a man, woman thing. This is a human thing. As communities, as couples, as families I think we could all do well to reflect how we can better work together so that we all flourish, each of us working hard to make sacrifices for others so that no body misses out. The sweet-spot, where everybody in our communities: single or not, with children or not, young or old, everybody is valued, cared for, and has opportunities to contribute and flourish. I think strongly individualistic societies make achieving that sweet-spot hard. Individualism seems to fairly comprehensively stamp out any innate impulses we might have to sacrifice something for the benefit of the group and instead seems to feed innate impulses for destructive selfishness and self-centredness.

The practical matters of give and take

Sometimes “equal partnership” might be about helping and supporting each other to face practical realities as well as considering each parties desire to “pursue their dreams”. A recent podcast episode on Dadpod by Osher Gunsberg and Charlie Clausen includes a brief but awesome little discussion about returning to work from the perspectives of blokes, one who returned to work full time and one who remained at home to care for the baby. The whole podcast is worth a listen but the 28 min 55 sec mark is the guts of their thoughts about equality after a baby arrives in the family.

It’s a popular idea: “Behind every great man there is an even greater woman”. The reverse seems pretty true as well. Give and take, or “equal partnerships” seem to have been around for a while. I recently re-read Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein which was written not only because of her obvious natural ability but firstly because her father, a prominent philosopher, novelist and journalist, himself provided her with a well rounded education and, secondly, because her young poet-philosopher husband Percy Shelley urged her to develop what began as a short ghost story (created as part of a group challenge to relieve boredom during poor weather on a holiday with Lord Byron!) into a full length novel. Percy Shelley most certainly had his significant failings as a husband however, by all accounts, Mary was devoted to him and certainly without his support and encouragement she would not have completed her remarkable novel at the tender age of just eighteen!

An example from more recent history is the story of how the late Ruth Bader Ginsberg (1933-2020) (who slowly rose to prominence in her field as a lawyer then Supreme Court Judge) and her husband worked so hard together, seemingly supporting each others others gifting and passions unconditionally throughout their marriage. For instance, while studying at Harvard together, Marty became unwell with rare testicular cancer. Ruth gathered up notes from his classes, typed up his and her papers (and finishing the year top of her class I believe), eventually giving up her last year at Harvard when Marty was offered a prestigious job (see Ruth Bader Ginsberg has died, Margaret Carlson, Time, September 2020). And then, later in life, it was Marty lead Ruth’s campaign for nomination to the Supreme Court. They seemed as a couple most content to support and make sacrifices for each other as they strove to achieve their goals.

As a glimpse into the attitude of mutual regard which appears to have characterised their relationship, here is a beautiful reflection from Ruth on her marriage and partnership with Marty:

“I have had the great good fortune to share life with a partner truly extraordinary for his generation, a man who believed at age 18 when we met, and who believes today, that a woman’s work, whether at home or on the job, is as important as a man’s,” (see The only person I have loved, Rachel Greenspan, Time, September 2020).

How nice is that.

The spiritual matters of give and take

Perhaps these notions of equal partnership have echoes in eternity. At the very foundations of Christian thought are these profound statements, found in the opening chapters of the beginning of the Judeo-Christian Bible. These opening paragraphs, whilst similar in some ways to other ancient near eastern creation myths, are fundamentally unique:

“So God created mankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them, male and female he created them.

God blessed them and said to them, “Be fruitful and increase in number, fill the earth and govern it.” Genesis 1:28, NLT (emphasis mine)

Wonderfully, blessedly, in this ancient, unique worldview we have men and women both made in the image of God himself, we have both men and women equally blessed by their creator, and we have both men and women given the same tasks for their time on earth. Simple, straightforward, enjoyable and equal. Made to enjoy each other and help each other with the same task.

Flicking forward in human history and much later in the biblical account, only 2,000 years ago, we have an account of Jesus on the night before his death. The writer, a physician named Luke (who desired to “write an orderly account” of the life of Jesus), records this remarkable event:

Jesus “… knew that the Father had put all things under his power, and that he had come from God and was returning to God; so he got up from the meal, took off his outer clothing, and wrapped a towel around his waist. After that, he poured water into a basin and began to wash his disciples feet, drying them with the towel that was wrapped around him” John 13:3-4 (NIV) (emphasis mine)

Incomprehensible humility in action.

The man Jesus, divinely sent by God, given all power by God to heal and free the oppressed and befriend and forgive, is recorded here as washing dirty feet.

This is not a nice job (feet were disgustingly dirty back then). It was a job for servants, probably the lowest, servant. Jesus with all power given to him by God is washing stinky feet. Do you see the connection here?

So, if, as according to this ancient worldview we are in the first instance created equal for an equal share in an equal task and the man Jesus, sent by God to represent Himself as God incarnate, God in the flesh, will set aside his own power and status and wash feet, can we approach partnerships in families with equality and humility and mutual respect?

The sweet spot: and they all lived happily ever after.

Next week, in the final post in this series, I’m going to settle on the sweet spot, the place where I think, in my family, we will all be in tune with what works best for us and how we might get there.

2 thoughts on “But that’s taboo: The modern mother (or complaints of a stay-at-home-mum or fear of missing out or navigating modern motherhood) Part III”

  1. The child-centred parent can only do so when in choosing to have children the raising of these children well is made a priority over self-centred priorities. How this ‘looks’ will vary depending on many factors but always governed by respect of self, the children and others. Hence to follow Jesus.

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