Sniping at working mothers is no solution at all
Since recently becoming a mother, I seem to have developed an obsession with cake. And it has nothing to do with knowing I should really shun chocolate éclairs if I’m going to fit into a pre-baby size 10 again.
No, what I’ve been grappling with is my determination to have it all when it comes to balancing family and work. The desire to return to my stressful, you’d-have-to-be-mad-to-work-here job without relinquishing the joys and challenges of my newfound role as a parent.
So there it is in all its unfashionable, unrealistic glory: the desire to want the proverbial cake and eat it too.
For now, I’m cocooned in the temporary haven of maternity leave. My days are spent in a blur of round-the-clock feeding, nappy changes, nursery rhymes, silly voices, pram rides and soft toys. Not every moment resembles a Huggies commercial, of course, but even when covered in regurgitated milk while trying to decipher the motivation behind a bout of inconsolable crying, I feel privileged to be able to spend this time with my son.
But like all bubbles, it will eventually have to burst. Come the new year my husband and I will brace ourselves for the juggling act already confronted by millions of parents as we face difficult decisions about careers and childcare.
As unpalatable as it will sound to some, motherhood has not dented my ambition. Work has always been an important part of my life and I want our son to grow up in a family where both parents support one another’s professional aspirations. There are many factors that contribute to a happy home, and I’m firmly of the opinion that unfulfilled ambitions and a bored, resentful parent do not belong in the mix.
Which isn’t to say my priorities haven’t shifted since being admitted to the maternity ward five months ago. Over the past year, during my pregnancy and the subsequent birth of our son, I have chosen to turn down opportunities that I would previously have found impossible to resist. I alone take full responsibility for these decisions, and believe any short-term regrets pale in comparison to our baby’s best interests.
And being conscious of a reduced willingness to stay in the office until 9pm on a regular basis, I intend to only commit to an arrangement I know I can happily honour once I return to work.
If the working life of the average person spans several decades, then the prospect of some flexibility during the formative years of a young child’s life hardly seems unreasonable.
In the age of the BlackBerry, surely a four-day week or the option to work from home for part of the week are among the options employer and employee can explore as the primary caregiver prepares to return from parental leave.
But it’s this very kind of thinking that some argue makes women virtually unemployable. With the threat of maternity leave and flexitime hovering ominously over the head of employers, why would anyone be foolish enough to hire a woman of childbearing age? At least that’s the view of British Vogue editor Alexandra Shulman, who argues that if businesses are increasingly forced to offer flexible arrangements to working mothers, future generations of women could find themselves consigned to the home once again.
Writing for The Daily Mail this week, Shulman claims it’s simply becoming too hard for workplaces to accommodate female employees who go on to have children.
It’s a brave piece and Shulman should be applauded for being so candid, especially when by her own admission she is in a more fortunate position than most in that she can afford a live-in nanny.
Yet in effectively attacking her fellow working mothers, Shulman offers no solution to what is a complicated issue, and one that isn’t about to go away.
If in one corner there’s people who snipe that women should only have children if they’re willing to stay home indefinitely, how does it help to return fire by arguing mothers can return to work full-time but must act as though absolutely nothing has changed when they do so?
I’m not unsympathetic to the difficulties that a working mother or father can pose to an employer. As I manager I have had to work around staff being unable to come into the office when childcare provisions fall through or a sick child requires their attention. It’s not always easy, but inconvenience tends to be unavoidable when dealing with human beings - people get sick, family members die, marriages fall apart, previously loyal staff get a better offer elsewhere.
As a general rule, an employee is either conscientious or they’re not. Some have a tireless work ethic; others have little regard for how their behaviour affects their colleagues. That some of these same people will spend a few years trying to juggle family commitments with work is only one part of a much bigger picture.
Shulman is right about one thing - this isn’t a debate we should be afraid to have. But nothing will be resolved until we learn to respect the many different choices that can be made.
There will always be parents who wish to cease working until their children start school, others who will be back on the corporate treadmill within weeks of their baby’s birth.
What is needed is far less judgment, and more support, in all scenarios. Even for those of us who insist on trying to have our cake and eating the damn thing too.
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