Why must the conversation about women, children and work so often get side-tracked by our borderline fetishistic interest in that exceptional breed of superwomen with their stellar careers and bands of nannies, forever pictured perching on desks, all gym-toned arms, flawless foundation and suspiciously compliant hair? Because it's not just the hair that makes those women irrelevant from my perspective and the perspective of most mothers I know. We also struggle to relate to their choices.
While many mothers actively want to take on paid work - for financial, intellectual, civic, social or sanity reasons - and some of us have career ambitions too, that doesn't mean we all want to work almost all the hours in the day. Many of us also value being regularly present for some of our children's daily routine as well as having time just to hang out with them, getting to know them and their weird kid brains. Then there's the small matter of the work required to run a household: the cleaning, the laundry, the shopping, the cooking, the scheduling, the problem-solving, the emotional counselling... the list goes on and on and on. The superwomen can of course pay to outsource a lot of that stuff, but for many of us that's not realistic and, even if it were, we might not want to do it that way.
Here - in no particular order - is my list of the ten things that, from my experience, many mothers want when it comes to paid work in the child-rearing years. (I say mothers, by the way, simply because I don't know any dads who act as the main carer for their children, though there's no reason why this list wouldn't also apply to them).
- Work that's interesting and stimulating, where we can make an impact.
- Work that's sufficiently flexible that the whole world doesn't fall apart if a child gets ill or there's a snow day at school.
- The option to work less than five full days per week.
- A reasonable amount of paid leave.
- To contribute to the family finances, or at least (given the cost of childcare) to maintain a level of earnings capability that will allow us to contribute in future. Of course, if you're a single mum, this is totally down to you.
- Not to be so tired or stressed out that it makes us or our families miserable on an ongoing basis.
- To have time left over after work and children to devote to the household tasks for which, ample evidence shows, women whether working or not almost always take main responsibility.
- Maybe even - heavens forfend - to have a little time left over to spend with a partner, friends or alone.
- To maintain career continuity so that, when our children are older, we'll have the choice to devote a greater proportion of our time and energy to work.
- Not to be disadvantaged in terms of our long-term career or salary prospects because we are women with children.
Facing a struggle to tick these boxes, many mothers are forced into a choice between family-unfriendly work and becoming a stay-at-home mum, or maybe taking an unsatisfying job that's well below their skill level but fits around the children. Opting wholly or partly out of the labour market clearly represents a less than ideal outcome, not only for the mother and her family's income, but for employers and the wider economy as well.
With all these talented, motivated people being lost to the workforce, we surely need to be looking more seriously for ways the interests of employers and mothers might be better aligned. The UK is ahead of some other countries (notably America) on this, but I still have yet to find one mother who can tick all ten on my list.
For all we might admire the superwomen for their success in an inhospitable system, they don't hold the key to how most mothers can find a way to manage children and work. To make real progress on that question, we need to stop telling women they can play the men's game if they really, really try and start putting pressure on employers and government to change the game in recognition of the many mothers who want to work but also want to raise their children in a relatively hands-on way.
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