"She's controversial", one reporter said about Anne Marie-Slaughter recently. I don't agree. You know when you read something that really resonates with you? Marie-Slaughter's essay in The Atlantic, Why Women Still Can't Have It All, speaks for the many stretched mothers in the western world who are struggling to balance their careers with motherhood - including me.
Marie-Slaughter hit the nail on the head with her example of Orthadox Jewish men whose work is designed to fit around their faith. Replace religion with mother's rights and suddenly the woman is awkward or deficient in some way: "unprofessional, [putting] an imposition of unnecessary costs on co-workers', despite the fact that 'one of the great values of the Sabbath - whether Jewish or Christian - is precisely that it carves out a family oasis, with rituals and a mandatory setting-aside of work."
Putting family first when you have a career to maintain in order to be a good mother is a taboo topic in the workplace, and in many cases the mother has to compromise too much, prioritising work-life over home-life and having to grin and bear it.
"By a year of age your daughter will be ready for you to leave for hours at a time", parent friends have told me confidently. But the few times I have been away from my daughter I have been confronted with an angry, upset, and less-trusting child on my return, which makes me feel terrible. My mothering instinct, which tells me not to disappear for hours at a time again, is right. Because of this, I'm also attachment parenting, which doesn't help with work-life balance either. People - including parents - who initially implied that I was bringing up a demanding, spoilt baby because I chose to breastfeed, co-sleep, and attend to my daughter's needs promptly, have changed their tunes since experiencing my daughter's plentiful smiles and playful, confident disposition. I am constantly told how rare it is to see such a happy baby, and what a pleasing sight this is. I never mention how much I have had to give up for this to be the case. I just smile back and nod.
It's not for forever, you might say. You'll go back to work soon, won't you? It's a question I still don't know how to answer. Before motherhood I never thought of myself as a 'stay-at-home mum'; I have an education, passions, a strong desire to do good in the world, and to progress in a mentally challenging occupation, and for months after giving birth I wondered why I couldn't push myself to do it. When asked the dreaded question I started making excuses, about how I was looking into options, or (with an apologetic expression) how I knew it was silly but I just didn't feel that my child was ready to be left with strangers yet. The responses I'd get were rarely supportive, because 'other mothers do it' - so why couldn't I? What was wrong with me? I asked myself- is this what women fought for the right to work for? To be pressured into giving up their lives as good mothers? But only in my mind, because no one wanted to talk about it out loud. Understanding ears, even from parent friends, were non-existent, probably because they are all so tired out from dealing with stress from going back to working and guilt from leaving their children with strangers.
After all, motherhood means more than conceiving, carrying, and giving birth, just as fatherhood means more than getting that single sperm to its desired destination. Both require hard work and a bottomless pit of love and patience. Why shouldn't mothers demand more from our employers? It's natural for us to maintain healthy relationships with our children, and it's better for society to have well-attached children than anxious, insecure ones. Breastfeeding support groups tell us that we have a right to a space to express milk at work, but breastfeeding is more than about just the liquid itself; it's a deeply bonding experience based on a trust that may only appear once in life between mum and baby. Surely there are ways of accommodating it in the workplace if we look for them?
Not at the moment. Mothers have it hard in the western world; we are expected to carry on as normal at work, as if we're still getting eight hours of undisturbed sleep every night. Sometimes we simply have to return to full-time work, hit glass ceilings, have pissed off children at home and make the best of it all. And as Marie-Slaughter says, we feel guilty. Stretched. Burned out. In choosing to pursue careers that society assures us are within grasp, we have to forgo time spent with our children, stay in sleep-deprived states, and get angry with ourselves. Maybe we sleep train our babies to 'cry it out', a practice that is slowly becoming recognised as bad for babies. Or we miss first steps, school plays and other small or milestone events in the lives of our children. And no one can assure us that we will still have securely attached children after it all. I often wish that someone could.
Instead, I watch and sigh as parent peers who went swiftly back to work climb career ladders that leave me at the bottom; they've been told that mothers can progress in the workplace by hiring nannies and bottle-feeding while they race to stay ahead in the game, and they have the will to believe it. A friend of mine who is a high-fly accountant admitted to crying every day because she missed her children so much, but she believed that this was something she had to overcome; a flaw in her character that needing stamping out. Marie-Slaughter's essay points out that the flaw is in society and not in the mother; that changes can and should be made to accommodate working mothers so that they can be fulfilled in both worlds, and that it is natural for us to feel as if we aren't committed enough to either life. If you're a mother struggling with guilt and pressure at work and at home, her article may bring you to tears.
And I envy her, even though she had to give up her high-fly position in order to spend more time with her teenage boys. I'm a hard-wired feminist and I want more from life than only being a mother; I want a career too. And this is why men will always be ahead of the game in the working world; my husband is a fantastic dad who shares housework and babycare, but he can also leave behind the world of adult isolation and social awkwardness and - let's be honest here - talk of baby poo any time he wants to, and continue to excel in the other world, of work. He is seen as committed in his career, and feels fulfilled as a parent. Lucky him.
Marie-Slaughter's article makes a powerful argument that women with children are not failures for failing to be what she calls 'superhuman' mothers and career women, and she also provides a sense of relief for us stay-at-home mums, as she confirms that spending as much quality time as we can with our children has to come first. The essay has sparked a debate about the fact that women can't - and shouldn't have to - go without quality family time and sleep in order to have successful careers, at the same time as being equal with men in the workplace, and being fulfilled as both mothers and as workers. In writing her article, Marie-Slaughter has single-handedly lifted the isolating loneliness of the mother who struggles to put children before career, and the mother who feels insufficient for giving either part of her life up in order to achieve the other. And if we're lucky the discussion will progress towards focusing on what needs to be done practically to make 'having it all' a real possibility for women who want to be mothers and have careers, because until this happens, nothing will actually change for us in either world.
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