Undervalued. Unsupported. And under pressure to “do it all”

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

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9 thoughts on “Undervalued. Unsupported. And under pressure to “do it all”

  1. Thank you for this fantastic article. Everything in this article is very good. But I think it expresses particularly well and succinctly how government keeps taking away whatever benefits are there for mothers at home and increasing the benefits for “working mothers” — mothers who outsource their mothering role. This is straight bribery and manipulation.
    But I have a question for this site: who exactly is driving this anti-mother ideology? Catherine Hakim, the recognized expert on women’s lifestyle choices, says mothering is the top value of 83% of all women in all OECD countries, and I have never seen any evidence that she is wrong about that. How then can this anti-mother ideology grow and prosper? — but it does. But who does it benefit? It appears to be coming from government, but I don’t think it is–because political parties and government basically do what will get them votes. The media and publishing have a role, but let’s face it, media will produce what they can sell, what will get people to buy newspapers and magazines and view TV etc. Who and what is driving this anti-mother, anti-child agenda?

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    1. Hi Moira – thank you for your comment, we’re glad you enjoyed the article. Thank you also for such an interesting and insightful question.

      The causes behind the agenda seem to be complex and to have developed over decades. There is definitely a sign that government is incentivising mothers to go back to work, as you say, and making it less attractive and possible for mothers to stay at home, which in turn devalues the traditional (natural?) role of mothers and affects the perceptions of societies around motherhood. This seems to be based on the capitalist nature of many of our societies, in which our financial contribution to society is valued higher than our social impact (working mothers = a greater flow of money to government, including the industry that this demands for paid childcare).

      The emphasis on equality means that many women are now also focused on career and financial motivations, shifting some of the emphasis away from their role as prospective and actual mothers (children now seen as valuable timeout of career/finances).

      Also, from a UK perspective, we can relate to a society that frowns upon individuals not earning, that is those that exist on financial support from the government – therefore, to become someone who isn’t earning by embracing motherhood at home, means resorting to something we have been told is wrong.

      This is rather lengthy way of suggesting that the drivers of this ideology are not clear-cut; it seems to be a combination of societal pressures (ideas and aspirations of and for women that have developed over the last few decades), together with government pressures. I’m not sure if that completely answers your question, but we don’t think there is one driver here!

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      1. Thank you for your thoughts We Are the Mother Side.
        I agree with your comments on how governments are ‘incentivizing’ mothers to “go back to work” and thereby increasing their tax income–but at the same time creating huge outflows to the childcare juggernaut.
        But I feel there is more to it. Why could we afford mothers fifty and one hundred years ago, when we were much poorer, but we cannot afford them now?
        What about the effect of the educational system which at no level, elementary, secondary, or tertiary teaches about the unique value of the mother. Even psychology courses that teach attachment theory–the science of the bond between the mother and baby and its lifelong effects–often leave the mother out and refer to ‘the caregiver’ instead of the mother.
        What about the role of the media? Why do not newspapers etc publish material of interest and value to mothers when the best evidence is that mothering is the top value of 83% of women in all OECD countries?

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  2. More thoughts on who is driving this anti-mother ideology. We know the OECD is a strong driver, see their recent publications, “a series of reports looking into strategies to encourage greater labour market participation of all groups in society with a special focus on the most disadvantaged” Actually, their prime focus is on mothers, especially mothers of very young children. The OECD Report states that,
    Young women at home looking after children represent “the greatest untapped potential” in Australia’s workforce.
    It warns that the Australian economy would continue to suffer unless mothers were encouraged back to work.
    It states, “There are potentially large losses to the economy when women stay at home or work short part-time hours” and “One of the areas of greatest untapped potential in the Australian labour force is inactive and/or part time working women, especially those with children”.
    The OECD Report goes so far as to assume that women’s workforce participation should be the same as men’s–that is, it makes no allowance for women taking time out from paid employment for giving birth to babies, breast-feeding them and rearing them at least to school age. The Report states: “Economic growth in OECD countries would increase by 20 per cent over the next 20 years if female labour participation matched the level of men”.

    Australia is the third country studied in the OECD series and the report is titled, “Connecting People with Jobs: Key Issues for Raising Labour Market Participation in Australia. It was released in March.

    So, the OECD is definitely a player, but it is unlikely that the constant harassment of mothers–“When are you going back to work?” “Why don’t you get a job?” “what do you do all day?” “Aren’t you bored being at home all day?” “I couldn’t stand being at home all day with a baby! How do you stand it?” This can’t be coming from the OECD. Can it? So where does it come from?

    What do Tales from the Mother Side think is the source of the anti-mother ideology?

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  3. The layers to the problem are manifold, agreed. Everything we’re exposed to from a young age gears us towards living in a patriarchal world. We’re not sure where you live, Moira, but do try to get a copy of ‘Liberating Motherhood’ by Vanessa; it’s a brilliant read! She also has a Facebook group: https://www.facebook.com/Politics.of.Mothering/
    xxx

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