independent

Monday 21 April 2014

Diary of a working mum: Don’t throw out the baby with the bathwater

A book recently released in the US is throws up a lot of interesting facts and nuggets about working women in the US.

Emily Matchar, who writes for ‘The Atlantic’ and ‘The Washington Post’ noticed that a lot of middle class college-educated career women were leaving the workplace and pursuing homemaking and childrearing as a feminist statement.

In 'Homeward Bound: Why women are embracing the new domesticity' she talks to hundreds of such women, all children of the baby-boomers, who have found the American workplace incompatible with rearing a family and it makes for a very interesting, if alarming, read.

Homemaking, according to the women that Matchar spoke to, is a political act. It is a rejection of the rabid capitalism that lies beneath the American dream, their own latchkey childhoods and a celebration of women's biological imperative to mother and to nurture.

This new domesticity - or urban homesteading, is painfully hip and involves a lot of knitting, crocheting, quilting and sewing. Food also features heavily - all made from scratch and preferably home grown. Motherhood, of course, is a big part of this 'new domesticity' and attachment parenting is the way to go.

We're talking home births, years of breastfeeding, baby-led weaning, cloth nappies, co-sleeping, slings instead of buggies, no vaccinations and absolutely no day care.

So what's wrong with this? Well, on the surface, the vaccination issue aside, nothing, because every woman should be able to choose how to rear her children and live her life as she pleases. 

But what if it isn't a choice? What if this is because the workplace is so family unfriendly that these middle-earning, middle-ranking women with children are being squeezed out. They are stretched so tight trying to do everything in an inflexible world that they just give up.

You can’t blame them for opting out. Being a working mother is damn hard, and can get the best of even the most accomplished and optimistic of women.

In 2012, there was an explosive article in ‘The Atlantic’ penned by Anne Marie Slaughter, the first female director of Policy Planning in Obama's administration. Slaughter, a former Princeton academic, spent two years at her dream job in Washington working for Hillary Clinton

Just as she was up for a promotion, she gave up the government job because she couldn't continue to juggle working the hours with the demands of raising two teenage sons. It was then she wrote the infamous article entitled ‘Why Women Still Can't Have It All’. It attracted 725,000 online readers and 119,000 likes on Facebook in just four days and remains the most read article in the magazine's history.

It caused a controversy because she had been, as she put it herself, one of the women who sold young women the lie that they could have it all if they just worked hard enough and had enough ambition. She had genuinely believed this was the case.

“At 43 I could have written ‘Lean In’ (Sheryl Sandberg’s recent book urging mothers to pursue their careers)” Slaughter said recently in an interview, explaining that by that age she had met no challenge her ambition and hard work could not conquer.

By 53, however, it was a different story. "I see much less of an ambition gap and much more of a workplace and society that isn't allowing us to use [our] talent…”.

There are still institutional barriers to mothers in the workplace, she argues, and because of this Sandberg’s ‘leaning in’ is not enough and places the burden on the individual, who is largely doomed to failure by the system.

Of course what happened to Slaughter was that, in government, she could no longer choose what hours she worked, and became like most of us, a slave to the corporate clock. She was more than able for the workload, it was the inflexibility of the working hours that broke her.

Things aren’t that different for us Josephine Soaps in Ireland. Many women I know, most of whom have more than one child, have recently given up jobs that they loved and worked hard at for many years because their lives – financially and logistically, had become unmanageable. They are full-time, stay-at-home mothers and it isn’t by choice.

A lot of Matchar’s women seem to me to be women in this position who feel the need to explain their exit from the workplace with an –ism. And their elevation of one type of motherhood over another and their endorsement of the old 1950s crap of a woman’s biological imperative to nurture is about as far from feminist as you can get.

I don’t know what the solution to this whole work-life balance is (although tax breaks for childcare would definitely have helped a couple of my friends stay on the career path) but I know we don’t want to go back to that!

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