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Mary Kenny: Can we please stop using the term 'working mother' to mean mothers with jobs – all mums work

Working mothers versus stay-at-home mothers: that's a line of debate frequently aired in the public realm.

There will always be different opinions and some arguments about which is better, and which might be better facilitated by the state, or society, and whether the state should be supportive, hostile or neutral towards 'working mothers' – supportive by providing more childcare, hostile by a more punitive tax regime for stay-at-home mothers, or neutral by navigating some course in between.

In an ideal world, there should simply be choice, and whatever choice is made, it should be respected. Possibly, there should be choice for both parents, though there is a whole heap of research which indicates that fathers are better dads if they do have a job.

A man who works hard to support his family is fulfilling what used to be called a manly role, and what yet might be called a manly role.

But whatever choices are made by a woman with children – or whatever choices are available to her, since it is not an ideal world and there aren't always jobs to be had, or childcare – can we make one positive change in this discourse?

Can we stop using the term 'working mother' to mean mothers with jobs?

Trust me, all mothers work – with the exception of a tiny elite who are so rich that they can hire out the chores to staff, equivalent to the same number of men who have such plentiful private means that they don't need a job.

I see young mothers caring for their families at home – either because they have chosen to be with their babies when little or because there isn't a job available that suits them – and by heaven, they work their socks off in organising a household, and raising children with the greatest care and attention to their development.

So could we please acknowledge that all mothers work?

Some mothers also have paid jobs, and that is the difference: these are mothers with jobs, not working mothers.

This recognition of the stay-at-home mothers' contribution to the general economy was acknowledged in the 1937 Constitution, though Article 41 (Clause 2). It will almost certainly be deleted as it is now considered archaic. It is also considered patronising in an era that aspires to equality.

Yet it made perfect sense in an agricultural society such as Ireland in the 1930s, where farm life was highly labour-intensive, and it would have been difficult to run a farm effectively without full family co-operation.

In their classic study of Ireland in 1938, the Harvard anthropologists Arensberg and Kimball noted just how valuable a woman's work was within Irish agricultural life; and in recognition of her material contribution certain aspects of the farm revenue were hers as of right – the egg money, for example, was regarded as the woman's income, and some funds from dairying, too.

Paradoxically, Arensberg and Kimball found that Irish agricultural life already contained a certain recognition of equality between husband and wife, because both spouses could appreciate and recognise the labour of the other, and how that labour contributed to the value of the enterprise.

Some later researchers thought the Harvard men were a little too upbeat about life on an Irish farm: it surely wasn't all cakes and ale. But some of their observations about working patterns were well-founded, and chimed with common experience – the way in which children, from an early age, were given little tasks that would teach them to contribute to the family holding.

It is often reckoned that the most visible divide between married partners at work came with industrialisation, and then suburbanisation.

It's no coincidence that the book that really launched the second wave of feminism was Betty Friedan's 'The Feminine Mystique', just 50 years ago, in 1963.

Betty described suburban man trotting off to some glamorous office – something like the set of 'Mad Men' – while their wives were stuck in the home, in boring suburbia, where machines did most of the real work and they had little to engage their brains but banalities about cake recipes issued by women's magazines.

This suburban model displayed a major cleavage between the working lives of husbands and wives. It had to be challenged – and it was.

Interestingly, the people who most vehemently objected to such changes, as between 'men's work' and 'women's work', were the trade unions, which stoutly, and universally, defended the primary entitlement of the (male) breadwinner.

Well, it's all changed once again: we are not in the agricultural Ireland of the 1930s, nor the suburban societies of the 1960s and 1970s with jobs defined as nine to five.

A working life has become altogether more blurry, with the era of the computer and the internet, and now, most especially, the slump, which has so affected the prospects for young workers, male or female.

The situation today is that anyone who has a job is lucky, but many people who do not have actual jobs still work. They may do freelance work, or voluntary work, or community work.

A retired carpenter recently did a few odd jobs for me around the house and refused to take any payment, because, he said, his pension was sufficient and he liked to help out.

It wasn't a paid task, then, but it still entailed a level of skilled work that I appreciated.

So, please? May we stop talking about working mothers as though individuals with jobs were the only ones working? It ain't like that any more.

Catch up!

Email: mary@mary-kenny.com

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