Staying mum’s a cop-out

Feminists expect fathers to do domestic work, so how can they tacitly exempt mothers from paid work?

THIS is how I remember a conversation last week between me and two other mothers of grade 1 children:

Mother 1: Does your child sleep at night?

Me: Yes, why? Doesn’t yours?

Mother 1: She gets up two or three times a night.

Me: I think it’s because I did some “controlled comfort” with him when he was little; it teaches them how to put themselves back to sleep when they wake up.

Mother 2: I think “controlled comfort” is barbaric.

Mother 1: Well, I’m just exhausted.

Mother 2: Me too. Actually, half the time she sleeps in my bed. That’s why I could never get a job. I’m too exhausted: motherhood is my full-time job.

Is it really barbaric to set limits for your children? To expect them to, say, put themselves to sleep and to sleep in their own bed? Or is it simply weak and self-indulgent to refuse to draw the line, and to characterise this refusal as evidence of maternal love and dedication?

This is not an idle question (although I am sure some of you are wishing I’d left it idling). Rather, it is an explosive issue that the women’s movement has long sought to stifle with the rhetoric of “choice”. So while feminists have long struggled to enshrine all women’s social freedom and legal right to work, regardless of whether they are married and/or mothers, most have argued that the decision to engage in paid work or to make motherhood a full-time job is a woman’s prerogative.

But which mothers exercise this prerogative? Not working-class married ones whose wage is the only thing that keeps the family income above the poverty line. And not, since the most recent federal budget, the single woman of school-age children whose mutual obligation to society now demands she enter the workforce, or be in the process of becoming “job-ready”.

No, the opportunity of making motherhood a long-term job is available only to women who are either independently wealthy or whose husbands’ salaries push them safely into the “middle class”. Only middle-class women are socially lauded as “good” mothers for refusing to engage in paid work, while working-class women doing the same thing are labelled “unemployed” or – if receiving benefits – “dole bludgers”.

So are unemployed middle-class women of older children really “good” mothers or are they women unable to enter the workforce – at least at the level they would be forced to start back on, having spent so many years out of the workforce? For those with minimal education or job experience, the former may be the case; the latter is extremely likely for the remainder, given inadequate maternity leave provisions and a lack of career-track part-time employment and guaranteed re-entry at exit level of seniority.

Here’s some more anecdotal evidence. All the women I know who remained out of the workforce until two or more children reached school age found it extremely difficult to get back in at all, or at a level commensurate with their skills. All felt that employers wanted to know what they were doing all that time and considered the answer – raising children – inadequate, particularly once the children they were talking about were older than two.

Some of these women bit the bullet and took whatever work they could get, often finding that, once in, they progressed quickly through the ranks – although none are back where they would be had they never left. Others got angry, disillusioned, scared (or all of the above) and either got pregnant again, or started talking up – as per mother 2 above – the strenuous demands of mothering school-age children.

Indeed some, once they saw the job-opportunity writing on the wall, worked hard to make those demands more strenuous. It’s amazing how demanding children can become when their every need and desire for a mother’s time and energy is indulged.

Feminists must get off the fence and argue – without the classist waffle of “choice” – that all women have a right to, and should engage in, paid work once their children are out of nappies, or not long after. Without paid employment, women lack social identity, social status and social freedom. From the woman who feels ignored at the cocktail party once she reveals her long-term maternal role, to the victim of domestic violence lacking the means to take her kids and flee, paid work gives women things long-term motherhood never can or will.

And in the same way feminists insist it is men’s moral and social responsibility – not prerogative – to share domestic work, so must we insist women have an obligation to share the work of bringing home the bacon. The best and most equitable way for this to be done is for both partners to work part-time.

Indeed, once all women with older children engage in paid work, few are likely to find it barbaric to set boundaries and limits for their children. This is because they will no longer rely on the endless amount of maternal work, generated by a lack of boundaries and limits, to justify their lack of paid employment.

Motherhood will become as fatherhood is now: just one of the responsibilities that women undertake in the course of busy lives, not the only one.