Every Monday, Aunt Battleaxe will be here to cast a strident eye over your feminist woes.
My woe is not a new one but a woe nevertheless. I have two young children. I love them, they’re adorably cute. I also work part time for a charity. I love it, and I’m pretty good at it too. My problem is this: I’ve been offered an amazing promotion, a good thing in itself you’d say. But it’s full time. And not just even full time, it’s full time plus. Having trialled it recently I managed not to see my youngest from Tuesday morning till Friday night as I was up before she woke and home after she went to bed.
Do I take the promotion up and glittering career opportunities it offers but become a bit part in my children’s lives? (And lose touch with all school mum friends who, whilst never going to be my bestest buds, are great for coffee morns and emergency school pick-ups.) Or do I spend more time with my lovely children but lose out on my promotion? And take a step out of my career, maybe never to get back on?
I know there are many, many, women in much worse situations than me so if you never get to answer my question I will completely understand
– Mum In Fear Of Missing Out
Welcome to parental guilt city, population: you. Or at least, you make it sound like there’s only one parent involved here. It is my understanding from extended study of science that most children are brought into being through the contribution of two adult humans, one male and one female, and I believe that in the majority of cases the male party sticks around post fertilisation to help with the child rearing one way or another. But you don’t mention a partner or co-parent in your letter.
So, two options. Firstly, the paternal component has dropped off the face of the earth and is not involved at all. This happens, and if it’s happened to you it would mean extra financial pressure to take on the work, as well as extra time pressure with no additional adult hands to pitch in. But I think the total absence of the other parental unit would be enough of a complicating factor to warrant inclusion in your letter, so I’m going to assume that this isn’t the case.
Second option, then: you have a partner, but he isn’t the one doing the dogwork of parenting. And this also happens, a lot. You mention the network of mum friends who help with emergency pick-ups and so on: the web of social ties that makes bringing a child up possible is something that, for the most part, is woven by women. This is partly because of opportunity (mums are more likely to be the ones standing at the schoolgate talking to each other), and partly because of expectation (a dad at the schoolgate is thought of as a bit of an exception, not something in the usual run of things. At one point, I hadn’t set foot on my children’s school for a good six months because of work hours while my husband did the drop-off, and teachers were still sending home notes “for mum” rather than grabbing dad for a quick chat).
The end result is that women like you feel like it’s all on you. There really aren’t many more invidious positions to be in. The truth is, most of our cultural expectations about work and home are designed to work against you. The good, devoted mother is supposed to be one who’s there when her child blinks its eyes open in the morning, and tucks it in at night as well. The good, devoted employee is supposed to turn up first and not leave the office till he’s wrung every last trickle of productivity from himself (and yes, working patterns have been devised on the expectation that he is a he).
You don’t hear nearly so much praise for the mother who vanishes from the home in order to make money, even though there’s no practical way to keep a child safe and fed (the minimums of caring) without money. You don’t often hear of bosses doling out bonuses for the employees who can get the work done double-quick and leave early, even though that would be an obvious sign of exemplary efficiency. Instead, we have a macho culture of presenteeism coupled, in the charitable sector, with the expectation that women work for other people because that’s what lovely kind women do. Result: full time plus and no overtime for you, with the agony of feeling like you’re failing at being a mother dolloped on top.
So what do I think you should do? Principally, I think we should all rise up and smash the prison of patriarchal labour conventions, but that’s not going to be any immediate help to you. I think you should accept the full-time job, but not the full-time plus. If the job can’t be done within reasonable working hours most of the time, then it’s not really one job and your employer is taking the piss a bit. If your employer considers it impossible to offer you the job without you committing to permanent extended hours, then don’t take it: there will be other jobs in the years to come, and every year you’ll find that your children spend less time sleeping and so are more likely to be awake when you come home.
I think you should give yourself a goddamn break: your kids need your affection and attention but they also need the fruits of your hunter-gather skills, and you might find that doing a job you love makes you an all-round happier, more relaxed parent in the time you spend at home, as well as allowing you to provide for your children and be an excellent role model of healthily selfish job satisfaction. That is the complete opposite of being a bit-part. (As an aside: you don’t need to lose your mum friends. Just make time for weekend coffee and playdates, and look out for the mums who you haven’t met yet because they already work full time.)
And you don’t mention this, but it’s probably the most important thing: make sure the work at home is distributed fairly too. Most women in straight couples do most of the housework, even when both partners work. If you’re doing more hours in the office and more hours in the kitchen too, you’ll never have a chance to enjoy time with your family. Make a rota, nail it down, and have your partner sign it in blood. That, at least, would only be fair.
If you have something to ask Aunt Battleaxe, email firstname.lastname@example.org
Photo by Dave King via Flickr, used under CC