Something has to be wrong when staying at home to raise your children is regarded as a “luxury”. Women should have the choice to be the mothers they want to be. Free from guilt. Free from financial constraints. Free from criticism. And valued for their work. But that’s just not happening, and it’s getting worse.
In the mid-nineties, when records began, over three million mothers in the UK stayed at home to raise their children; by 2015, that figure had fallen by a third to two million (that’s a drop of one million mothers!), and signs are that that trend is continuing. We asked ourselves why this is happening, and is it a choice women are happy to make or is it down to cultural and financial pressures?
Motherhood, a “lifestyle choice”?
Whether we realise it or not, women have been educated and encouraged to compete in a man’s world – where women’s value to society is based on their financial contribution and motherhood is viewed as a “lifestyle choice”. Cultural change has led to the undervaluing of motherhood and this places women in an impossible position – often torn between the natural instinct and yearning to be at home with their babies, and the financial and cultural pressures to get back into the workplace. “Our right to care for our children without sacrificing full citizenship or financial safety is a right yet to be won,” says Vanessa Olorenshaw, author of Liberating Motherhood and founder of the Purplestockings Movement (who inspired us to write this post following her recent talk on the politics of motherhood).
The women we have spoken to and heard from during our own motherhood journeys have reflected this. On the one hand we have mothers who have happily chosen to go back to work, comfortable in their careers and their parenting, and that’s great! But on the other, we have mothers who have been forced to go back to work and place their children in the care of others, against their own natural motherly instincts, due to financial pressures (or because they feel a need to conform to contribute in a way society “expects”); and then we have those that have been able to stay at home to raise their children who feel their position in society as visible, respected individuals has eroded as they become dependent on someone else for financial support and undertake an unpaid, unrecognised and unsupported role raising the adults of the future (paid in love, rather than money, as Olorenshaw puts it).
Pressure to be in paid work
This lack of support and recognition can be seen in the pressure from government for women to get back into the workplace through the gradual removal of direct financial support to mothers and the increase in government-paid childcare for “working” mothers (Olorenshaw highlighted the suffragette movement which fought vehemently for financial support to be paid directly to all mothers in recognition of their role, and to enable them to maintain some semblance of independence) . Furthermore, we see it in the attitudes to pregnant women and mothers in the workplace who face discrimination and accusations that they “weren’t the career-minded professionals they were first thought to be” (yes, we’ve heard this one!). And again, in the numerous questions from well-meaning friends and family, “So, when are you going back to work?”.
It is not enough that women grow, birth and raise children, but society says they are expected to do a man’s work role too at the same time (this doesn’t sound like equality, really, does it?). How many mothers out there work and their salary only covers their childcare costs? We’ve met quite a few. And there is something so innately wrong about this.
Mothers care for babies, someone has to care for mothers
We love this article by Guardian journalist and author, Tim Lott, in which he says:
“Whatever the force of society’s assumptions, the process of having a child grow inside your body is clearly not cultural…To have the possibility of such intimacy seems unimaginable. For most women, that intimacy continues after childbirth – perhaps with breastfeeding, perhaps with full-time caring. This may cost dearly from a career point of view, and be a screaming bore and a massive chore. But in terms of fostering love and attachment, it is hard to imagine anything more powerful.”
Olorenshaw argues that mothers care for babies, someone has to care for mothers. There needs to be a change in the perception of mothers in society. Each and every woman is different, there is no one size fits all definition of mothering or motherhood, and we should enable women to care for their families for the period they want to – not a period of time defined by governments and societies. Critical to this, is throwing off the financial shackles that force some mothers to work. The Government is taking a stance that removes child benefit from mothers that have no wage, this takes away any financial autonomy she might have and fails to recognise the value of raising children in society.
“The answer is not simply to demand that all women engage in paid employment. We also need to be creative about what we can do as a society not to penalise women for having babies: homecare allowances; a living wage for carers; basic income; reinstatement of universal child benefit. For starters.” says Vanessa Olorenshaw.
Before hearing Vanessa talk, Tales from the Mother Side’s Lauren recounts how she felt guilty about her lack of financial contribution, perplexed by a feeling of invisibility as a mother and the loss of autonomy and independence. And the feeling of being torn between what society expects and wants of her as a mother (to be in the workplace), and her own natural instincts to be with her daughter full-time in her formative years, helping her to develop and navigate the world, and building the foundations for her to grow into a happy adult. This is all covered in Who am I? A mum’s identity crisis. Having spoken to other mothers, we’re not alone in this.
What say you?
So, mothers and others, let’s throw off these shackles and start respecting the amazing things our bodies can do and our minds can build. Let’s stop thinking equality means doing the same things as men and recognise that we have an extra gift and value to society. And thus start feeling confident that the job we do raising our children – in the way we want to as individual women and mothers – is something we can and should be enabled to do, and worth the respect and support of the society around us. What say you?
The Mother Side xx
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You can find out more about Vanessa Olorenshaw, who inspired and informed this post with her talk on the politics of motherhood and the Purplestockings Movement, through Vanessa’s Facebook page.