Modern Motherhood and the Illusion of Equality
By Rebecca Asher
Random House 2011
I recently read this book whilst staying with my daughter-in-law, who has just had a new baby.
In terms of a book to read prior to embarking on having one’s first child, particularly if you are prospective parents with careers, I cannot recommend this book too highly. It is a realistic book, well referenced and with comparative materials from other countries and it, in my opinion, exposes and discusses movingly many of the surprises and most barriers that young parents face on the birth of that first precious child.
It reflects the emotions of young parents, and in particular mothers, when they encounter the realities of the sacrifices which parents have to make at this time. In the majority of cases in some areas, such as physical health, this is primarily a sacrifice by mothers.
From early in the book I was fairly convinced about the future directions that Ms Asher would recommend and I knew that I would not agree with her conclusions. However I read on with as much of an open mind as I could maintain, and indeed that proved to be not a difficult task as the book was very well written. I had, many years before (in fact 45 years ago) gone through exactly the same experiences and concerns as a professional woman who had left a career that I enjoyed and had worked hard to forge, to become a mother. I was impressed with the author’s ability to express and analyse these problems and emotions, almost identical despite the 45 years difference and considerable legislative and financial and attitudinal changes in society.
It is because of those 45 years and the immovability of the issues, despite those considerable societal changes that may have actually created what Ms Asher refers to as the “illusion”. That also makes me think her proposed changes not only could not, but should not, be expected to accomplish the job she wishes for them. Her expectation, in short, is that society, in various ways, should make additional sacrifices to allow her to care for her children in the way that she decides.
DEFINITION OF EQUALITY
Many women, particularly post-modern feminists, would define a true equality as having to be “self-determined” and I think this is a good aspirational definition. However it cannot be applied at all to having a child.
For a start that child has two parents. Decisions about the future of that child and the roles that are to be played are made by two people. Later the child itself becomes involved as a player. Therefore two to three people at the very least make most decisions co-operatively. Society is also already involved in many ways (including the workforce).
Inequality and dissatisfaction can occur between parents because of a mis-match of expectations and later between the parents and the child for the same reason. These are issues that should be, as much as possible, determined between the parties but need to be adjusted as time goes on as human beings’ attitudes constantly change with changing experience. These attitudinal mismatches cannot be the fault of society and indeed attitudes, rather than just behaviour, cannot ever be legislated by society.
Perhaps what Ms Asher means by “equality” in her “illusion” is that the birth of a child should not make the opportunities for a woman to live her life any different from those opportunities available to anyone who is currently not caring for a child. I do not think so as, unless she decides to employ a full time carer for her child, this is patently unrealistic. However, if it is what she means, the corollary is that she, herself, has opportunities of close interaction with a particular child that are not available to anyone else (other than other carers, possibly the father).
What therefore is her definition of this unrealised “equality”? I think she applies it mostly to issues surrounding lost workplace opportunities and expectations both of the mother and her partner (in her case the father of the child).
Since my time as a young mother there have been a number of positive legislative interventions in relation to maternity leave, parental leave, rights to re-employment after the birth and flexible working conditions. All these are admirable.
There must be some doubt, however, about how much society should continue to encourage the birth of children as always a positive aim and that has been brought home to us by the recent birth of the seventh billion person into the world.
In all my years back in the workforce after my children were past infancy, I have witnessed frequent kindnesses towards parents but also difficulties for the workforce in making the sorts of workplace accommodations that Ms Asher would obviously like to see. I have been the recipient of many kind gestures from colleagues when I have had emergencies or very special occasions with my children and have also given sufficient help, I hope, to colleagues in similar situations. These are the things life is made of. But I have also been witness to special expectations from women simply because they have children. A particular common example is that some women (I have not personally experienced this from men) think that taking annual holidays during the school holiday period is the exclusive right of those with children. Most people without children to care for do not apply to take holidays during school holidays unless they have another very pressing reason to do so. (Yes, there are other important things in life!) Yet I have seen a great deal of negativity, complaint and even resentful astonishment about this.
Even in a large government department (of which I was not an employee but was working there in parallel) I saw the difficulties for fellow workers during the third period of maternity leave one of their fellow workers took within in a few years. On her return they had to revert to their old, inferior jobs, yet every time shouldering a yet greater burden of her work.
I have seen an owner of a small business in real difficulties when a female apprentice became pregnant, could not work because of vomiting, then had to be taken back after maternity leave. She was by that time in the same year of her apprenticeship as the replacement apprentice who had been employed. They battled through but it was almost impossible to manage physically or financially and was less than satisfactory educationally.
But the most absurd proposition in this book (and I have heard it often from others) is the demand that the expectation of long working hours, and the ready availability of workers who will work such hours, makes it difficult for mothers and fathers to compete for equal recognition and promotion if they decide to spend more time with their children. The demand is that society should change its attitude to peoples’ work contributions. What a selfish request this is! If workers do not have children, either by choice or by fate, they are entitled to direct their creative energies onto the workplace as much as they wish and derive as much satisfaction as they can get this way.
Some workplaces can accommodate shorter hours. Some can accommodate flexibility. Some cannot. It is up to the parents of young children (whether both or one – by mutual agreement) to chose a workplace which can allow flexibility if they wish for that option.
I do not want my emergency worker to have a choice of whether or not to turn up to an emergency. If I decide, at great expense, to consult a private obstetrician for the birth of a child I do not want that obstetrician hiving off to a child’s school pantomime rather than my delivery. I do not want my industrial relations lawyer not to turn up at court when my airline is grounded, just because it is a Sunday night.
ARTIFICIAL EXTENTION OF CHILDHOOD
Unfortunately there has been another factor in society that has made life a little more difficult for the new mother. Since I was a young child myself, through the time my children were little and escalating during the period when I have been observing my grandchildren and their contemporaries, there has been an extension of childhood and a very unrealistic idea of what parents can contribute to this childhood. Parents and schools are now involved in “teaching children responsibility” rather than just giving them real responsibility as they grow. The expectations on the small ones to be successful and to reward the extra work their parents are putting in is also growing. It is no longer a question of unconditionally loving whatever child you happen to have, it seems to involve constructing a child to some sort of blue print. No wonder parenting takes up so much more time!
When my children were little and my contemporaries had children the same age, a play date was leaving the children with one of us for a few hours and the others doing their necessities whilst the children played. A few days or a week later a different mother took a turn. Often we would have a quick cup of coffee and a gossip at the pick up or drop off.
Now “Play Groups” are officially organised and the mothers are all there, busily comparing notes about their children. “David is 2 centimetres taller than Daniel. I wonder if I should take Daniel to the doctor for a growth hormone?”
No longer do children walk to piano lessons or dancing because, despite the statistics about decreased crime, mothers are frightened of unnamed dangers and these fears are contagious.
I have known mothers to take time off work because their 18 year old adult children are “doing the HSC and need me.” If these are the contributions to parenting that society needs to assist, it is being asked too much.
The notion that the child is, in part, the responsibility of the tribe is, I think, a good one. The whole community can, if it works together, foster and support a child in his/her growth. But this is by direct contact, by expanding the number of people who might interact with the child and demonstrate to him/her how adults live, laugh and love. The community does not have to increase its responsibility to assist a mother and father financially so they to have more time to hot-house their children in their own particular idiom and less just to demonstrate to them how to work, make a living, cook the dinner, wash the clothes and simply live.
One factor missed by Ms Asher and many others, including the young me 45 years ago, is how time limited all this is. Although one’s chances of early promotion and bursting though the glass ceiling at some record breaking age may have gone with the advent of a child, the chance for a long, continuous, productive and satisfying professional life after the disruptions of coping with infancy, then perhaps for a time some less rewarding part time work and some readjustment of expectations, is still firmly there.
And, unlike your childless, ex-workplace compatriots who have moved a few years ahead in your mutual profession or career, you have the joy of your children and the happy contemplation that you might, if you are lucky, go through it all again with grandchildren.