Thursday 21 March 2019

Mum's the word - why there's nothing society likes better than to label a woman

Working mums are incredibly important to society but they often feel that nothing they do is good enough Photo: Depositphotos
Working mums are incredibly important to society but they often feel that nothing they do is good enough Photo: Depositphotos
Fiona Ness

Fiona Ness

As students of the law 20 years ago, our class once whiled away an entire afternoon debating the terminology around "battered women". Or should it be "spousal abuse"? Or "domestic violence"? Or, or, or. If you label me, you negate me… it was all incredibly important stuff.

The debate took place following Edinburgh's original 'Zero Tolerance' campaign against domestic abuse (or what we ended up calling abuses-that-take-place-in-the-home-environment-by-a-perpetrator-close-to-the-abused). Our learned jurisprudence professor believed that by manipulating how society labelled the women involved, we could go some way to eradicating the problem itself. I just wanted to get on and be of practical help.

This week, I was reminded about our love of labelling women - this time, by the labels we place on mothers - when yet another study was rolled out about the effect working mothers have on their children.

I'm saying working mothers, but it may be more correct to say "mothers who work outside the home". Although such women are also "absent mothers" or "career women" (which is interchangeable with "bad mothers"). Less typically, they pop up as "breadwinners" or "inspiring role models" for their children. As a woman whose mother worked outside the home, I find this last one a bit dubious. To me, she's just "my mum".

Anyway, these working mums are routinely pitted against the "stay-at-home", "full-time" or "good" mums. Stay-at-home mums prefer to be described as "mums who work in the home" - possibly so they can put it on their CV in the same way you'd fill in what you did on your gap year. It has also been whispered they are the "real mums".

Real or imagined, all of these mums were fed a pig in a poke last week when research found that children whose mothers went back to work developed faster than those raised by stay-at-home parents.

The study, published by Oxford University and the London School of Economics, reported that the children of working mothers were more advanced in talking, social skills and everyday tasks - due to the time spent in nursery or being cared for by grandparents.

You might have thought we had exhausted this topic already and the world had accepted that women were people too; people with the right to make decisions about their lives and their families based on a whole host of variables, without being continually judged for it.

But no. This time, the long-maligned working mothers were getting a pat on the back. Newspaper reports said the study was proof they should "ditch the guilt" - presumably on the supposition that the ultimate marker of a happy child is their ability to do up their coat at two years old.

I would have liked the reports to dig into the demographic of the women surveyed. Were they from a cross-section of society, and what were their educational achievements? Not surprisingly, the study found that having a mother with more years of education had a positive impact on all four of the skills assessed.

Are working mothers generally better educated and, if so, does this mean that regardless of who cares for them, their children already have an edge?

Assuaging of guilt, possibly, but to the majority of women dropping their children off at daycare last week, the research was irrelevant. Because it presupposes that going back to work after having had a child is a lifestyle choice, rather than a necessity.

What is one of the largest factors in childhood happiness? Security. And a large factor in this security is the family's economic stability. In modern-day Ireland, where anything can happen to anyone's job at any time, for a family to be economically secure it is often the case that the mother has to be working. Another factor is, of course, their parents' happiness.

As a working mother of three, I like to work. I'm happy at work. I've always worked and I always want to work in the future. I didn't always know if I wanted to have children but I always knew I wanted a job. I know the importance of being at the school gate for my children, and yet I am not there. I am unhappy about this. Yet this is the decision I have made.

So I won't be accepting kudos from a study that says my children are more advanced because I'm absent from their lives. And I won't be looking down on stay-at-home mums because those of us labelled "workers" have found fleeting favour.

I suppose we should be flattered, really, by the constant labelling of mothers. Such attention is surely proof that they're incredibly - incredibly - important to society. And yet we still do it: we still make them feel that nothing they do is ever good enough.

Irish Independent

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