There are certain topics that spark fierce debate, the underlying fury of which seems to be the question of ‘who is working hardest?’ One such debate is that of working mums. An article in The Times discussing the challenges of work life balance for working mums prompted a flurry of comments from readers with some women arguing that working mums deserve medals, and others arguing all mums deserve recognition whether they work or not. The article continues to be shared and attract comments on social media.
A significant issue perhaps is the title ‘working mum.’ What does that even mean? Is it a loaded statement that merely serves to provoke division amongst mums as to who works the hardest when it comes to child rearing; the mums who arrange childcare so they can do a job away from their children, or the ones who don’t and take care of their children on a full time basis? Are we implying with a label of ‘working mum’ that there are some mums that work and others who don’t? If we are and choose to believe that then perhaps there lies the problem.
Whilst those of us who are parents may each hold the title of parent, the reality is we can’t be in two places at once. We can argue we each hold the same responsibilities in mind when it comes to being a parent and all that encompasses that, but unless we are physically with our children, we could argue we aren’t actually doing the hands on care and all that’s required of oneself in order to do that. That’s why we refer to people such as nursery staff and teachers as being in a position of loco parentis – in place of the parent. Whilst we maintain the title of parent, regardless of whether we are with our children or not, if someone else is physically taking care of them, we can argue that they are doing the hands on parenting at that time. There is a big difference between holding our children in mind and thinking of them and their needs when we are not with them, something I’m sure all parents can relate to, compared to the demands and challenges that can accompany actually being present with our children.
Whether a parent or not, there are things that most people can relate to needing to do alongside paid employment. Doing laundry, cooking, cleaning are just a few examples. Some people, whether they have children or not, will outsource some of these ‘domestic chores’ to others and employ a cleaner, someone to do their ironing etc. Perhaps another issue is that the label most frequently used to describe mums who remain with their children full time is that of ‘stay at home mum.’ Accompanying comments often imply they have it easier than others because of an assumption that they have more time available to them, whether it be to pursue leisure interests or to complete domestic chores, compared to people working outside the home who have to complete such tasks when they return from work. There is an assumption that whilst a ‘stay at home mum’ is taking care of her children, she is also able to complete the domestic tasks that go with managing a home. If that is to be believed, then perhaps again there lies the problem.
There are more classes and activities available for children aged 0-5 years than ever before, many of which are free or that charge a small fee to attend. Parents can fill their day attending such classes if they choose to. I know of many parents who take care of their children on a full or part time basis and who use such classes to help plan an interesting and enriching week to help foster their child’s development. They invest time and energy into getting out and about with their young children. They are certainly not at home doing domestic chores whilst their child takes care of themselves.
My referring to some parents taking care of their children on a part time basis is by no means suggesting they are part time parents. As mentioned before, parenting involves holding our children in mind on a full time basis and ensuring their needs are provided for, whether we are physically with them and meeting their needs ourselves, or whether we facilitate others to care and provide for our children in our absence.
We could argue that anyone who works from home has increased flexibility to go to the gym for example, or to take care of some domestic task such as switching the washing machine on whilst they take a lunch break. Most people know the reality of working from home means we are sitting at a desk working and not spending our time doing household chores. We can save time by not commuting to work which may allow us the opportunity to finish early but the majority of the day is not spent doing housework. In some cases, working from home means doing more, with little or no breaks, and no obvious end to the working day. The same can be said for mums or any parent who spends their day taking care of their children. Let’s not forget that it’s not always Mum who might choose to stay and take care of her children on a full time basis, but Dads too.
As for parents who go out to work having the same amount of cleaning and tidying up to do after their child as a parent who is with their child full time does; unless we are able to be in two places at once, then is this really the case? If a child is being cared for outside of the home in a nursery for example, then they are at nursery. They are not at home playing with toys, engaging in activities, having snacks and meals, filling their nappy; they are doing that at nursery. Whilst there may be some evidence of our child having been at home, it’s not to the same degree compared to if our child was there all day, despite how it may feel to us.
And what are we saying of the people we use to care for our children in our absence, be it a registered childminder, nanny, au pair, nursery nurse or family member. If we’re implying that when we are engaged in employment away from our children, we’re still having to do all of the things that parents who are with their children all day do, then what value are we placing on the people who are actually with our children during the time we are away from them? The person cooking our child’s meals, changing their nappy, engaging them in activities, taking them out, keeping them safe? Are we suggesting they aren’t needed because we’re doing it all ourselves anyway? Does that not devalue their role, particularly if for some, taking care of other peoples children is their paid employment? Also, what does it matter if a parent who takes care of their child full time, does so happen to find time to complete domestic chores as part of their days work, just as someone who works from home might be able to do? Are we implying that such tasks aren’t work and again devaluing anyone that might clean or complete laundry for others as their full time paid job?
Much of this seems to come down to the argument of ‘who is working hardest?’ The reality is we can argue that some people have it harder or easier than others regardless of their circumstances including whether they are parents or not. There have always been people who work and take care of domestic chores themselves and those who work and outsource this to others. We live in a society where for most aspects of our lives, be it our pets, children, laundry, food etc, there is a service that we can employ to relieve us of the responsibility of having to do it all ourselves. If we’re using such services then let’s be honest and not pretend that we’re not. Let’s not pretend we’re doing it all ourselves if we aren’t. For to do so devalues the level of support we receive from the people that are helping us with those aspects of our lives and the people that complete those tasks for themselves regardless of their circumstances.
My sense is that the argument for having it harder than others is fuelled by a bitterness or resentment over individual circumstances and, where one has children, our sense of value and recognition in relation to our contributions towards our children and family and in any work we may engage in outside of that. I’ve heard Mums and Dads refer to feeling guilty about leaving their children whilst they go to work. Perhaps this reflects a battle in oneself over how much we feel a good enough parent if we aren’t seen to be present and actively parenting our children all of the time. Others argue that they don’t have a choice but to employ full time care for their children whilst they go to work, whilst parents who take care of their children full time are frequently referred to as benefit scroungers or described as being lucky and leading a life of luxury as they can obviously afford to do this. Again, in this instance, the reference to ‘being lucky’ and ‘having it good’ implies that such a role is seen as not work, which we can argue is simply not true. Why is it that if someone chooses to take care of their children full time and their home if they wish to, they are seen as not working, whilst people who clean for others full time or childmind other people’s children are given the title of cleaner or nanny? Is it only seen as work or as having a job if you do it for someone else for a fee or are we devaluing roles such as cleaner and nanny, suggesting they’re not real jobs and that those who do them are not really working?
In regards to the feeling of choice one has as to whether to parent full time or not, whilst there are families that would genuinely struggle to fulfil their child’s basic needs if they didn’t have two salaries to support them, or single parents that would struggle without an income, there are many parents who choose to work as they do to maintain a lifestyle that they enjoyed pre children and who don’t want to give that up, nor risk jeopardising their careers if they took time out. Others will openly admit that they would miss their work too much if they didn’t return to their job after having children. Whatever one decides and how they make it work is down to them. Problems appear to arise when others start to cast judgement on the motivation behind other people’s decisions.
On the subject of benefits, under the new government criteria, if one person in a couple earns an annual salary of 100k or more, then their child of 3 or 4 would not receive 30 hours free childcare provided by the government. Many would argue that this is fair. I’ve heard comments such as ‘rightly so, if someone earns 100k then they shouldn’t receive benefits.’ However if two parents with a child, each earn 99k they would receive 30 hours free childcare from the government because the criteria takes account of one person’s salary if part of a couple. We could say this criteria reflects what the government values most in society. That it’s better if everyone utilised childcare so they could seek employment because there’s little value in parents taking care of their children themselves. Is it because the money the government makes in taxes, outweighs the cost of funding childcare? If this is the case, then we could argue that the government agenda fuels part of the argument of who is working hardest. That if you’re seen to be working to a government agenda then you’re being seen to be better than others regardless of what you might consider to be better for you or your family.
The reality is that the more we add to our lives, be it a career, mortgage, car, pet, children, the more we have that we’re responsible for and each of those things requires giving of ourselves. We could argue that the more we add, the more we spread ourselves thinly, or feel we have less and less time to give to each aspect. Perhaps part of the problem is what we’ve been led to believe as ‘having it all’ and what is currently in place to enable us to ‘have it all.’ As mentioned before, there is a service available to help us with every aspect of our lives. This includes childcare for our children. We even have dog day care facilities so our pets can be cared for in our absence! How has this impacted the choices that we make for ourselves? Because such support is in place, has this led us to believe that we can devote ourselves full time to a demanding career for example, and tie ourselves into a mortgage that reflects our earnings, then also have a child which won’t compromise the time we give to our job because there’s a nursery which can care for our child full time to enable us to return to work. Is that an example of what is now seen as having it all?
We can carry many titles if we choose to. Nurse, partner, homeowner, parent, for example, but what about our level of engagement with each of those titles. If the more we add impacts our engagement with each, then does that equate to having it all? Or does having it all mean a sense of fulfilment at being able to engage ourselves fully with fewer things? Has freedom of choice led us to choose wisely or choose everything, with little thought as to how everything will impact on one another?
When it comes to having children, has the governments agenda to promote the expansion of nurseries and free childcare fuelled a sense that in order to be successful and seen as a worthy contributor to society, one should choose both a career and children and try to fulfil both, full time at the same time? That to choose one or the other or postpone career development to care for our children in their younger years is seen as not working hard enough? What’s sad is that because certain options have been made available, it’s resulted in some choices being taken away from others. There are many families who would love for a parent to be with their children full time but simply can’t afford to now that the cost of living reflects a level of income that often requires more than one salary can cover. And why should they not be able to parent full time when, if it wasn’t a full time job in itself, there wouldn’t be provisions such as nurseries to fulfil that role when parents are absent from being able to do it themselves. If we could do it all then we wouldn’t need nurseries or childminders!
In regards to the criticism that can come from choosing to parent full time, perhaps this reflects a change in attitude towards parenting itself. Years ago it was the norm for a parent, usually a mother, to take time out from her career in order to raise her children, whilst men were expected to go out to work and earn the money to financially provide for the family. There was little support in place to enable men and women to do things any differently. Perhaps the fact we now have the option of arranging for our children to be taken care of by others, there is a sense that we should embrace this and that to choose otherwise is seen as not being as valuable anymore, particularly as childcare provision is on the increase. Perhaps there is a suggestion that it doesn’t matter if it is the actual parent taking care of a child, as the child will get the same level of input and value from care elsewhere. For some children this may well be the case. A child who experiences little or no engagement from the adults at home is surely better off spending time with an emotionally available, attuned adult elsewhere.
Perhaps the debate of who has it harder is fuelled by anger from those that have believed that having it all means to be seen as doing it all and will equate to being seen as working harder than others. Perhaps once reality hits that we can’t and aren’t doing it all ourselves and aren’t necessarily working harder than others, this fuels anger and resentment towards those that have chosen differently, such as children versus career or vice versa. For we could argue that different choices frees oneself up from the mis-sold dream that to choose it all will mean we feel we have it all. For how we choose will surely impact our sense of fulfilment and satisfaction in life in the long run.
References and further thoughts:
Jay Shetty – Everyone Needs to Hear This