Wednesday, March 29, 2006

Tapu Misa: Adaptive mums juggle both work and family demands

I had an acquaintance once who used to visit me when I was at home with my children, and go on, ad nauseam, about how hard it was being a working mum - a paid one, that is.

It didn't help that she was doing it solo, on account of having become pregnant to a wastrel who was physically pleasing but emotionally stunted. She was smart enough to have figured this out before she reached that biological point of no-return, but somehow didn't. That left her a little bitter, despite her rather beautiful child.

I sympathised, even as I envied her salary and her flash car and expensive wardrobe. But I stopped feeling sorry for her when she turned her ire on stay-at-home mums, a sub-set that I happened to belong to at the time.

We had it too easy, she said. She, who dropped her baby off at daycare every morning and picked her up when it was dark, couldn't see why some women chose to stay home with their children. How lazy and lacking in ambition was that?

I was resentful, given that staying at home was no picnic - financial dependence and being mired in domestic drudgery and poverty not being all it was cracked up to be.

It never occurred to this woman that some of us were motivated more by what we believed was good for our children than our addiction to daytime soaps and talk shows (although I admit to a brief dalliance with Oprah and Dr Phil).

We didn't want our babies' critical first years to be shaped by paid strangers with whom they were bound to spend more of their waking hours.

Privately, and righteously, I felt she was a Bad Mother who hadn't thought twice about sacrificing her child on the altar of her career. I felt sure her child would turn out Bad, unlike my own little angels.

Some years later, I met her again. Her little girl seemed like a nice child, a little self-centred and over-confident, but what only child wasn't?

That was in back in the last century. I'm now a working mother, albeit an "adaptive" one, a phrase coined by British sociologist Catherine Hakim, to explain the mothers whom policy analysts have yet to acknowledge. Those who adapt their working lives to their children's needs.

But little seems to have changed. There's still tension between the stay-at-homes and the working mums. And most women still seem unprepared for the realities of motherhood in the 21st century. As a reader confirmed when she emailed to say how shocked her 30-year-old pregnant friend was to discover that "the freedom of choice and the status that she's enjoyed up to now has suddenly evaporated as she comes to be seen as a mother who wants to stay at home to raise her child.

"As a person who now has to give primacy to her female body/function, she has become worthless according to the values of our society and culture."

As Catherine Hakim has said, men have always recognised that you have to make choices. Women have just deluded themselves into thinking that they didn't have to.

This is despite our biological reality check. Do we breed or stay childless, as an increasing number of women are doing? Delay too long and the decision is taken out of our hands, according to Fertility NZ, which warned women last week that infertility rates almost double after 26.

And if we choose children, should we stay at home, at least for those first three critical years that psychologists say is crucial to healthy child development, or do we put them in daycare and hope for the best?

Most women will be driven by necessity. But some may well be driven by public policy.

According to Hakim, women have three distinct work labour force choices. About a third, are work-centred; another third are home-centred; and the majority are in the middle - the adaptives, who want the best of both worlds. They want to combine family and work, which means, says Hakim, that they're never going to give priority to paid employment.

Unfortunately, public policy hasn't got round to recognising women who aren't work-centred - as our own PM proved when she called on more women to work for the good of the economy.

Neil Gilbert, Professor of Social Welfare at the University of California, writing last year in The Public Interest, argued that so-called family-friendly policies, designed to harmonise work and family life, are "implicitly oriented towards helping mothers work while raising children. It is informed by male work patterns which basically involves a seamless transition from school to the paid labour force along with a drive to rise as high as possible in a given line of work".

The full thrust of these policies, Gilbert wrote, was to actually reinforce "the abdication of motherhood". We should rethink "family-friendly" policies, he maintained, "to give equal consideration to the diverse values that influence how women respond to the conflicting demands of work and family life".

There is, say Gilbert and Hakim, a more sequential approach to balancing work and family, one which includes not only my erstwhile acquaintance, who wanted to combine work and family life at the same time, but women like me, who took a decade out to concentrate on child-rearing.


Anonymous Hobbo said...

If "About a third, are work-centred; another third are home-centred" then how can there be a "majority in the middle"

Stupid left wing self centered crap

1:20 PM  

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