Monday, 26 March 2012

Motherhood? It's not all feminism and applepie

Written by one of our members' mothers.

Motherhood is when it happens. When many women become of aware of inequality for the first time. Up to then, many young women wonder what all the feminist bleating is about.

It’s not so very terrible, they think, it’s not like my mother’s day. I was an equal at school and more than an intellectual match with men thereafter. I dress how I please, sleep with who I want, when I want. Contraception is freely available. And the women at work are doing as well as – or even better than – the men. We’re earning as much as “the boys” and are climbing the ladder with no trouble.

Then they get pregnant and something shifts. Pregnancy does not always suit modern working patterns and the world of work struggles to accommodate it. Women are often desperate to hold onto their jobs and to continue being seen as able, wholly-functioning members of the team (despite the occasional sneaky vomit and the dragging weariness).

Women’s relationships with their partners also shift. As they get heavier and closer to birth, they become more dependent. They will be taking time off work and will need their partner to make a commitment to supporting the new enterprise in ways that are different from before, possibly financially.

When a baby is born, many women find their old certainties disappear. To some, going back to work is intolerably painful. The fact of having a child can also put the relationship with their partner under enormous pressure. Many feel that the partnership that they’d thought of as largely equal no longer is. Someone, somehow ends up holding the baby, and that someone, somehow, is usually the woman.

Suddenly they find that their careers are the dispensable, less important ones when someone has to take days off work with a sick child, attend school assemblies, take children to the dentist, see teachers after school, interview childminders.

After one baby, many women are able to maintain their old working patterns and positions, just. After two, however, the juggling often becomes too much. At this stage they begin to make the big compromises. 

And because they need to be available, and may have opted to work part-time so that they can spend more time with and on the children, they don’t apply for the big jobs, for the promotions, for the careers requiring travel and longer hours at short notice. And suddenly the gap between men and women’s positions and salaries starts to yawn.  Except for the rare, lucky few, they aren’t sitting in the boardrooms, editing the newspapers, chairing the committees or heading the teams.

Much has changed for the better since their mothers were young women. Today, western women are not defined by marriage, they are educated and enter the workplace in equal numbers with men and boys. Contraception and abortion are available almost on demand, few careers remain closed to them, in the UK they can apply for family-friendly working patterns, and it shouldn’t technically be possible to sack them because they are pregnant.

But today’s mothers face a fresh struggle: to force the world of work to accommodate motherhood, while still making it possible for women to make a full contribution to their work. Families also need access to good, affordable childcare, and employers need to recognise and accommodate men’s as well as women’s role in parenthood.

Until employers are made to realise that they have to adapt to motherhood and families to get the best from their female employees, women will remain poorly represented at the top table, and will continue to earn less than men over their working lives. The revolution continues.

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